Schools Piling on Too Much
Homework, Psychologists Say
By Jeanie Davis

(Note - If the homework load is too 'heavy' either the students aren't learning or they aren't being taught a good curriculum with good techniques. American students, on average, have never been less able on graduation from high school; up to 70%, according to one study, are essentially, functionally illiterate.)
NEW YORK - It's late afternoon, the kids have just had their after-school snack - and they're already working on homework. Math problems, science reviews, reading assignments: This could go on for hours. Are they getting too much homework?
"Borderline," one parent says. "It's a lot more than I used to get."
In October, a survey by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research group, found that 10 percent of parents think their kids are getting too much homework. Two-thirds of parents felt their children were getting the right amount - and 25 percent thought they were getting too little.
"It's a small but vocal minority - mostly in affluent neighborhoods," says Harris Cooper, PhD, chair of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is author of The Battle Over Homework, a book for administrators, teachers, and parents. In his research, Cooper reviewed more than 120 studies on homework.
Evidently, this "vocal minority" is having an impact on local school boards: Earlier this year, a New Jersey school superintendent imposed a homework policy limiting nightly assignments. Reportedly, congratulatory calls came in from parents across the country.
In fact, about every 15 years a new public attitude emerges toward homework, Cooper says. "I'm not sure if it's a generational thing or reactions to reforms moving too far in one direction or another," he tells WebMD. In the 1950s, when the U.S. grew nervous over Russia's launching of Sputnik, the nation's kids saw an upsurge in homework to prepare them for complex technologies.
As we eased into the 1970s, the tenor of the times begged that less pressure and stress be placed on children.
Then the mid-1980s report, Nation at Risk, alerted educators that kids were not reading at expected levels, and the catch-phrase "rising tide of mediocrity" was created. "One of the suggested solutions was to increase homework," Cooper says. "The concern was about staying economically competitive with the Japanese.
"Today's educators are getting pressure from state school boards to cover more material and in greater depth - all without a corresponding expansion of the school day," Cooper tells WebMD. "Students are spending homework time learning extra material rather than reviewing the day's lessons."
Also, competition-driven parents are placing "homework pressure" on teachers - "to ensure that children will get into the best colleges and universities when they graduate," Cooper says. "But not all parents agree that more homework is the correct approach."
Indeed, homework was invented for a good reason - as Cooper's research shows. At least 70 percent of studies indicated that students who do homework had higher achievement scores than those who didn't. But that effect is strongest for kids in high school, he tells WebMD. "For elementary school students, homework has little impact on how well they will do in school."
Another caveat: Homework's benefits vary according to subject area. Homework in science and social studies has the largest impact on achievement, followed by reading and English. Math homework, according to Cooper's research, had the smallest impact. Also, doing more short assignments per week is more effective than having one assignment that lasts several weeks.
"We believe that children on average should receive 10 minutes of homework per night per grade, so that first-graders would get 10 minutes, second-graders would get 20 minutes, on up through 12th grade," Patty Yoxall, a spokeswoman for the National Parent-Teacher's Organization, tells WebMD.
"That's going to vary," Yoxall says. "There are going to be times when students get 20 minutes of math homework one night and maybe only five minutes of reading another night. But on average, during the course of a week, during the course of a month, it would average about 20 minutes a night for a second-grader."
Young children simply have a limit to the amount they can learn through self-study, Cooper says. "At some point, the benefits diminish and the costs rise. Young children lack the attention span necessary for long periods of study, especially in environments where there are lots of distractions."
For youngsters, homework exists "to teach them proper study skills, how to apportion their time between hard and easy tasks, and how to test themselves. They need [to] ... learn those kinds of skills ... educators should not expect that they know them already. What's nice about the 10-minute rule, it gradually shapes the child's behavior," Cooper tells WebMD.
"It's legitimate to push high school students more," Cooper says. "They can benefit from the extra study time whereas the younger kids can't."
The point of homework - especially for young children - is review, says Sylvia Seidel, a spokeswoman for the National Educators Association. "Children are bombarded with information during their school day, and it's a lot to process. That is one of the benefits of a homework assignment - to review what was not understood and prepare for the next day. It's not so much so the child will get into the best college later, but just so he will be successful in school."
Setting up a good study place also is the parent's responsibility, Seidel says. "Of course the child wants to play after school and get rid of the cares of the school day. But the parent needs to provide a place the child can go every single day, at some point in the early evening or late afternoon ... someplace where they can think about the day and go over assignments."
Minimizing the distractions is key, Seidel says. "There can't be frequent visits to the refrigerator or off to the TV. It truly is concentrated quiet time ... that's very important."
Parents can help the child understand and absorb the material - but should not do the homework for them, Seidel tells WebMD. "It's absolutely important for parents to get involved ... to go over spelling words or mathematical concepts ... whatever they feel comfortable with. But that does not mean that parents should do the homework in any way. It's important for a child to understand that just as his parents have work as their responsibility, school is the child's responsibility."
When parents get involved in homework, it sends children a lesson: that the parent values the learning experience, Seidel says. "That's why it's important for the parent and teacher to be in communication. If the parent feels the homework is too lengthy, too demanding, they need to let the teacher know that. I think it's extremely important that communication be made with the school. Teachers welcome the parent responses and support in being able to do what's best for that child."
"We also urge parents to talk with teachers, to find out what the goals of homework assignments are, why the amounts of homework are what they are," Yoxall tells WebMD. "There may be times when a teacher is focusing on a particularly difficult subject like chemistry, so there is more emphasis being given there rather than to French lessons. The better the communication is, the more satisfied both parties will be with the results - and the more opportunities the child has to succeed."
Students also need to talk with teachers when homework takes too long, Seidel says. "I always gave my students permission to stop working on homework after 30 minutes or whatever time was appropriate for that class at that grade level. I told them ... 'You have my permission to stop where you are and tell me the next day ... because I am making a judgment as well. If there's a problem, we need to pursue that. And they felt they were part of the decision making.'
"The NEA generally says that 20 to 30 minutes of homework is enough for an elementary child under normal conditions ... not a child with special requirements, who is a very slow reader and may need help working at home if the assignment is a totally written text," Seidel tells WebMD.
Cooper's advice to parents: "Make sure the child is studying efficiently and effectively before approaching the school. If it appears that it's still taking too long ... that it's indeed the amount of homework that's of concern, then it is important for parents to raise the issue with their child's teacher and also to discover if other parents have similar concerns."
But are homework policies - like that imposed in Piscataway, N.J. - necessary? Actually, about one-third of school districts had homework policies, according to a 1994 survey published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, Cooper says.
"We're big into local control on these kinds of questions," Cooper tells WebMD. "The best policies are formed at the district, school, and classroom levels. School districts should not get into the business of setting strict homework practices. They can set guidelines for amount of homework, but most importantly they should state the philosophy and goals - all children should be expected to do homework as a cost-effective way of improving education."
Parents must be part of the decision-making process, Yoxall says. "If school boards are imposing these decisions from above with no input from parents, that could be a problem. You're setting up a we-they situation."
Bottom line: The ballet classes, the soccer practice, general playtime, homework - "It's all important," Cooper says. "What's important is that kids lead a balanced life."

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