Homework tests students' ability, parents' patience

January 22, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

When my children heard that a school district in California was considering a ban on homework, they asked if we could move.

Truth be told, I might be the one who is packed first. That homework is a greater pain for adults than it is for their whining children is one of the best-kept secrets of parenthood.

"This is too hard." "This is too stupid." "We didn't have any." "I did mine at school." "But I'm supposed to do it this way." "That's not how my teacher does it." "It is not sloppy." "Is the school closed yet? I left my book in my locker."

We look for homework to extend or reinforce what our children have learned at school. We look for homework to develop in our children personal responsibility and good work habits.

And we think to ourselves that homework might just kill us first.

Garrett Redmond of the Cabrillo Unified School District south of San Francisco was hooted down this fall when he suggested that homework should be abolished because it favored upper-income children in computer-equipped homes and was an intrusion on diminishing family time. But his suggestion sparked a review of the nature of homework there, as it should everywhere.

Some kids have too much homework, and some kids have too little. But it is a safe bet most kids have the wrong kind.

"Nationally, we have a big problem with homework," said Joyce Epstein, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. "We are thinking we need more of it before we [figure] out how to do it better."

There is a lack of agreement on homework's benefits, but as Garrett Redmond found out, parents, students and teachers believe it has a place. It is a chance for parents to interact with children, a chance to model how to do a job right, a glimpse into what the kids do all day at school.

In the 1940s, homework was viewed as an intrusion into family life and an impossible task for the children of farmers. When Sputnik was launched in 1957, educators panicked and responded with more homework. In 1983, with the publication of the critical education study "A Nation at Risk," there was a call for American children to have even more homework -- as much as Japanese children.

But the kind of homework most parents see -- endless pages of the same kind of math problems, questions at the end of a chapter that require no thought to answer, and all of it universally applied to students regardless of their strengths or weaknesses -- does little good.

Dr. Epstein, co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools and Children's Learning, has studied the nature of homework in a variety of school and family settings, and she sees it as an inexpensive and easy vehicle for school reform.

First, she suggests, there should be more communication from teachers. What are the homework rules? How is it graded?

Second, homework should be as carefully tailored to a student's abilities as is a classroom lesson. "Too often," she says, "homework is just tacked on as an afterthought."

Or worse, a no-cost extension of the shrinking instruction time in a school day. "It is no good if it is designed to accomplish what you didn't get time to do in the classroom," says Dr. Epstein.

Most important, she favors a kind of interactive homework that requires students to read to parents, friends or neighbors, to interview them on a topic or to demonstrate their mastery of a math or science concept.

"It is a chance for the student to share what he has learned, to celebrate it," she says.

And teachers need to show students that they value homework, or the students will not. ("She never checks it anyway" is a common refrain.) It needs to be reviewed or graded, and good homework papers should make it onto the bulletin board.

What is the role of the parent in all this? Is homework the child's responsibility until he proves he can't handle it? Do parents correct homework or let the teacher see what the child has not mastered?

That, too, should be spelled out by the teacher, so parents aren't left to play out their own childhood memories or notions of personal responsibility at the child's expense.

"There is some disagreement here," says Dr. Epstein. "But my own feeling is that any help youngsters get on homework helps them the next day at school."

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