The Homework Ate My Family

KIDS ARE DAZED PARENTS ARE STRESSED Why piling it on is hurting students

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Is all this homework really doing any good? Julian Betts, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, examined surveys on the homework habits of 6,000 students over five years and found that students who did an extra 30 min. of nightly math homework beginning in seventh grade would, by 11th grade, see their achievement level soar by the equivalent of two grades. Betts argues that the amount of homework is a better indicator of how students perform than the size of class or the quality of teachers. But his study was limited to students in junior high and high school. What about younger children? In 1989 University of Missouri psychology professor Harris Cooper reviewed more than 100 studies on homework and concluded that while benefits from homework can be measured starting in junior high, the effect of home assignments on standardized test scores in the lower grades is negligible or nonexistent. "Piling on massive amounts of homework will not lead to gains," Cooper says, "and may be detrimental by leading children to question their abilities."

Still, some researchers make a case for elementary school homework. Carol Huntsinger, an education professor at the College of Lake County, near Chicago, compared the academic performance of local Chinese-American children with that of European-American kids. In the early grades, the Chinese-American students outperformed their white counterparts in math and mastery of vocabulary words. After examining a host of other factors, Huntsinger concluded that homework made the critical difference. In first grade the Chinese-American children were doing more than 20 min. of math homework a night, some of it formally assigned by their parents, while their white classmates averaged just 5 min.

It may be unwise to make too much of Huntsinger's study, which focused on a small group of families. All experts agree that weighing second-graders down with hours of homework is pointless and probably damaging to their self-esteem and desire to learn. But in reasonable amounts, homework has value for students at all grade levels. "Homework has benefits that go well beyond its immediate direct impact on what's going on in school," says Cooper. Doing homework is important for honing organizational skills, learning how to manage time and developing the ability to learn autonomously.

The question of the day, of course, is what is the right amount? Cooper recommends 10 to 20 min. nightly in first grade and an increase of 10 min. a night for each grade after that. But the point is not simply to fill up a set amount of time. For preoccupied teachers, admits Michelann Ortloff, a Portland school official and former elementary school teacher, "it's always easy to pull a few things out of the workbook, give them to students and say, 'This is your homework.'" Too many teachers send kids home with mind-numbing math worksheets that are not even reviewed the next day. Too many are enamored of those unwieldy "projects" that seem to exasperate kids more than they instruct them and that lead to excessive parent involvement. For young students, the optimal arrangement would mix skill-building drills with creative tasks closely tied to what's being taught in the classroom--such as interviewing grandparents as a social-studies lesson or using soccer standings to teach rudimentary statistics.

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