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Educators agree that parents should be vigilant about making sure such a healthy blend is maintained. Everyone frowns on parents' doing homework for their kids, but most agree that parents should monitor homework; offer guidance, not answers, when asked for help; and give teachers regular reports on how their kids are handling it all. Gail Block, a fifth-grade language-arts instructor in San Francisco who feels that homework helps overcome the limits of time in the classroom, was nonetheless surprised to hear that her student Molly Benedict takes close to three hours a night to finish. Pepperdine president Davenport notes the amount of time his daughter spends on each assignment at the bottom of her work sheet. "Sometimes," he says, "teachers are not aware of how much time is being spent."
Parents could benefit from a little perspective too. American students on the whole still work less, play more and perform worse than many of their counterparts around the world. As Harold Stevenson and James Stigler point out in their book The Learning Gap, Japanese and Chinese elementary school students spend significantly more time on homework than do children in the U.S. A first-grader in Taipei does seven times as much homework as a first-grader in Minneapolis--and scores higher on tests of knowledge and skills.
But American parents should worry less about the precise number of minutes their students devote to homework and more about the uneven and poorly conceived way in which it is assigned. "What defines the homework problem in the U.S. today is variation," Cooper says. Less than one-third of U.S. school districts provide any guidelines to parents and teachers on how much homework children should receive and what purpose it's supposed to serve. In places that have instituted formal homework policies, a semblance of sanity has arrived. In Hinsdale, Ill., parents often complained that their children got too much homework from some teachers and too little from others. So a committee of teachers, parents and administrators spent several months devising a formal policy that requires "meaningful and purposeful" homework at all grade levels but limits the load according to age and mandates that some of it be optional. Besides helping students build their homework appetite over time, the policy aims to persuade the academically more eager parents that it's safe to back off.
The need for a more rational approach to homework may be one argument for establishing national standards for what all U.S. students should know. If such standards existed, teachers might assign homework with a more precise goal in mind, and parents might spend fewer nights agonizing about whether their children were overburdened or understimulated by homework. Of course, the debate over national standards is a complex one, and cramming for a national test could mean more mindless at-home drudgery for kids. But not necessarily. When Taylor Hoss, 10, of Vancouver, Wash., came home last year with packets of extra homework assigned in preparation for the state's new mandatory assessment exams, his parents shuddered. But as they worked through the test-prep material, the Hosses were pleased with the degree of critical thinking the questions required. "I was very impressed," says Taylor's dad Schuyler. "It makes you connect the dots."