Homework -- the mere mention sets stomachs churning, fists clenching and parents nagging all over Baltimore, Maryland and the nation.
Lee Hoffman's household in Timonium was no different.
"It got to the point where it was so bad I was dreading my son coming home from school," Mrs. Hoffman says. "He was crying, I was yelling. It was a battle every day."
"Why do I have to do homework?" Matthew Hoffman, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Pinewood Elementary School, would protest.
"Because you have to," an exasperated Mrs. Hoffman would retort.
Louise Teubner-Rhodes, a Rodgers Forge parent, would be telling her 9-year-old son, Colin, the same thing.
And instead of spending evenings playing family board games, she and her husband would be nagging Colin to do his homework.
These parents may find some comfort in commiseration: Homework has reached the status of certified national crisis.
The struggle many parents and teachers have endured in th privacy of their homes and classrooms has now been documented in cold, hard statistics. A new study of the nation's eighth-graders, which was completed earlier this year, found that 22 percent of the youngsters routinely fail to do homework. It also discovered that the typical eighth-grader spends 21 hours a week watching television, less than six hours a week on homework and less than two hours on outside reading.
The homework problem goes beyond the simple fact that countless children may be missing follow-up work that their teachers consider crucial to good performance. Failure to complete homework indicates poor motivation and an alarming lack of interest in school among many American children.
The research that produced the homework figures, the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study of Eighth Graders, was done through the U.S. Education Department. A representative national sample of 25,000 eighth-graders in 1,000 schools was ,, questioned -- along with their teachers, principals and parents.
The study found that the students were so poorly motivated that 23percent of them didn't even bother to bring paper and pencil with them to class. Their teachers said that 21 percent of their students were inattentive in class and 25 percent consistently performed below their ability level.
Christopher T. Cross, the assistant secretary for education whose department oversaw the study, says even if the nation had an unlimited checkbook ready to pour money into the schools, that alone would not fix American education.
"In the classroom," Mr. Cross says, "these eighth graders are often bored. They are assigned little homework and they do even less. They spend four times as much time watching television as doing homework. Their parents seldom ask them about school and check their homework even less frequently."
Doing homework becomes important both because education research has shown it can improve school performance and because it's a way for children to learn there is a connection between their own effort and what they can attain in life.
In a 1984 study, Herbert Walberg, a University of Illinois education professor, found that parental interest in homework, along with conversations about school and everyday events, encouragement of leisure reading, reduction in television viewing and expressions of affection and interest could mean a 50 percent difference in grades and test scores among students.
All this puts a heavy burden on parents and homework. And many parents, of course, are intimidated by it. Some feel they don't have the skills to help their children with homework, and some suffer battle fatigue from children who refuse to do it -- and there are periods in a child's development when the last thing he wants is help from a parent.
A few years ago, the National Committee for Citizens in Education, a parent advocacy group based in Columbia, commissioned a psychologist to study the issue, then published an article for parents.
"It's a perennial problem," says Chrissie Bamber, an NCCE editor. The article points out that parents accustomed to making sure their children fill out a ditto for elementary school homework may not be prepared for middle school homework.
In middle school, according to the NCCE, homework may require a review of class notes or work on a research paper or other long-term assignment. These higher expectations come just at an age when children are struggling with their own identities -- making it all the more difficult for parents to establish rules.
At the same time, the NCCE says, homework is becoming more crucial to a child's school success. Children who don't do their homework at this age risk falling far behind in school.
William R. Stixrud, a psychologist, says that homework too often turns into a nightly battleground at the dining room table: The more pressure parents apply, the more resistance the child supplies.