Families tested by kids' homework

March 21, 2000|By Susan Reimer

THIS COUNTRY has always had a love-hate relationship with homework. Teachers love it. Kids hate it. Parents hate it, too, but they are careful to act like they love it.

The amount of homework American schoolchildren get seems to be related to the level of national anxiety over the state of education, and right now that level is pretty high.

The economy is so hot it has burned off layers of low-tech jobs. It is a presidential election year, and the candidates talk education when they want middle-class parents to listen to them. Meanwhile, standardized test scores are moribund or falling.

Predictably, more homework is prescribed, and our kids are tipping over from the weight of their backpacks.

With all this homework comes the homework debate. It is pretty much the same one we have been having for decades -- homework should be brief and reinforcing, not a mop-up operation for what isn't getting done in the classroom. But this debate has a new twist.

Homework is pushing families in which both parents work to new heights of stress and new depths of misery. Homework is leaving them no time for anything else.

And in poor families or in chaotic households, homework is just another way for that child to fall behind his classmates.

In addition, homework may do more harm than good. While one study suggests that the amount of homework has no bearing on a child's performance on standardized tests, another suggests that homework figures in the decision to drop out.

Half the parents surveyed by Public Agenda, a New York polling organization, reported serious arguments with a child where there was yelling or crying over homework.

And the "exit polling" of high school dropouts shows that the conflict and frustration of homework is a contributing factor in their decision.

It is hard to tell whether anybody is getting anything out of homework.

Personally, I don't have a problem with the assigning of homework. I have a problem with the remembering of homework. Rather, I have a problem with the remembering of homework by my own personal child.

Remembering to write down the assignment. Remembering to do the assignment. Remembering to turn in the assignment.

For us control-freak parents, memory lapses surrounding homework are an excruciating frustration. More so, even, than any wooden-headed failure to understand long division.

We can control the homework environment. (Quiet, well-lighted, comfortable. No stereo, no TV, no phone calls.)

We can control the quality. ("This looks like a fish wrote it. Do it over.")

We can control the quantity ("A few more times through the flash cards isn't going to kill you") and the content ("The term `bibliography' implies more than one source").

But we have yet to find a way to access our child's brain to trigger the remembering of homework. Even the vaunted "homework hot line," on which teachers record the assignments every day, doesn't do a bit of good if your child doesn't remember to turn that assignment in.

"She didn't ask for it," is the most common explanation for this lapse, although "I lost it" or "She must have lost it" are also frequently used.

In most classrooms, homework can mean a difference in letter grades. A perfect homework record is the fallback position for kids who don't test well. An unbroken line of check marks (homework is often not graded) can counter a flame-out on a unit test.

Certainly working parents are stressed by the prospect of an hour of contentious math homework every night after dinner. Sometimes I think we look forward to weekends and summer vacation more than the kids do.

But nothing compares to the hair-tearing frustration of a parent whose kid keeps forgetting his homework.

Homework is like free money, matching funds. It is a gimme, we tell our forgetful children. Just do it, or attempt it, turn it in and you are halfway to a decent grade.

And still they forget.

You can pay kids for remembering. You can punish them for forgetting. Or you can do what I do.

Tell them you are going to forget to schedule Christmas.

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