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The war over homework is about even larger issues. Schools in the 1990s are expected to fill so many roles--and do so with often paltry resources and ill-qualified teachers--that it's no surprise more work gets sent home. For baby-boomer parents homework has become both a status gauge--the nightly load indicates the toughness of their child's school--and an outlet for nervy overbearance, so that each homework assignment is practically theirs to complete too. Yet the growth in dual-income families means less energy and shorter fuses for assisting the kids. And all the swirling arguments over homework underscore the bigger questions that confound American teachers, parents and policymakers: What should we expect from our children? What do we want them to learn? How much is enough?
Erica Astrove is pretty sure she knows. She's just seven--a loquacious, blue-eyed second-grader at the public Hunnewell School in Wellesley, Mass. She plays the piano, takes skating lessons and plans to add pottery and chorus. For fun Erica reads almanacs; her parents gave her a book of world maps and flags for Christmas. "My little researcher," her mother Christina says. There's not much Erica shies away from--except homework. Recently, she told her mother she doesn't want to go to middle school, high school or college because of homework. Asked if she might have a bit more tolerance for homework once she enters third grade, Erica shakes her head. "I'm going to keep on crying," she says.
Erica's mom has experience drying tears. Her homework agonies began when her eldest daughter Kate was in second grade. In addition to nightly spelling and reading assignments, Kate sometimes came home with math problems so vexing that Christina wondered whether algebra was required to solve them. Mother and daughter pored over some problems for two hours. They once scattered 200 pennies on the kitchen table in a vain attempt to get a solution. "The [problems] would be so hard," Christina says, "that I would leave them for my husband to solve when he got home from work late." Those were not happy times. "It made all our time together negative," Christina says. "It was painful for all of us."
The pain caused by homework isn't just emotional. Carl Glassman, father of two girls who attend public school in New York City, reports that last year his eldest daughter missed much of her first semester in sixth grade because of pneumonia, "due to the fact that she was doing homework until 11 every night." Laura Mandel, the New Jersey mother of three, found her son Jeffrey, 6, suffering homework-related nightmares this month when she tried gently to rouse him for school. "Oh, Mom," he pleaded, half asleep, "don't tell me there's another homework sheet."