Homework check

October 03, 2003

OF ALL THE NITTY-GRITTY of schooling, few matters are as provocative as homework. It brings the pervasive fretting about school quality right back into homes, and parents are prone to react strongly one way or another. So they want more homework. Or their kids - and families - are being crushed by too much of it. Or they wish it were more challenging. Or they're sick of helping so much with it.

Given that range of emotion, an extensive new study - released this week by the Brookings Institution - appears to provide a firm and very much needed reality check. The study found that, contrary to a wave of popular reports in recent years, American students aren't doing all that much homework, and many aren't doing any at all.

That's right, if kids have no time, it's more likely because of hours spent on socializing, organized sports, part-time work and, of course, TV watching - and not because of slaving away over homework.

Now of course for many students across Maryland and the nation, this simply isn't so. It's not unusual for the more competitive public and private schools to expect two or three hours a night, or more. Their students may have cause to whine, though their families typically have chosen that path.

At the same time, the new study indicates that students' homework load has not changed much since the 1980s (though more primary-graders have begun to take home assignments). That means students, even in high school, typically spend no more than an hour a day on homework.

Depressingly, that places college-bound high school seniors - only a third of whom spend more than an hour per weekday on homework - almost dead last internationally. So much for being worked to death, even among the best and the brightest.

Homework is important, particularly for middle- and high-schoolers. It provides independent practice, a means of mastering subjects. It also may inculcate some useful work habits for a highly competitive society. If this new study shows anything, it's that homework ought not to be capped arbitrarily, as some school systems have tried.

There are useful guidelines; the PTA suggests roughly 10 minutes a night per grade (or two hours for seniors). But like schooling itself, the right amount of homework should be highly variable depending on the students - and a matter for their teachers and parents to work out in the context of larger goals for learning.

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