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The Dog Ate It

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A right, pretty, and talkative, Janelle Haynes is what Americans like to think of as a well-rounded 8th grader. She's a cheerleader and a member of the honor society at Saunders Middle School in Manassas, Va. She also takes piano lessons, sings in her church choir, and goes to Bible study every week. In her spare time, she's even earned her black belt in tae kwon do.

All of that keeps Janelle active and involved in the life of her school and her community.

But it leaves little time for homework. By the time Janelle sits down at her Woodbridge, Va., home to hit the books, it's usually 8 P.M.

"I'll be sleepy, then I'll eat dinner and do a little bit," she says. She gets to bed between 10 and 10:30. What homework she doesn't get done at night, Janelle finishes the next day during advisory period--a part of the school day set aside for students to study or seek extra help from their teachers.

Educators say it's not unusual for students to lead lives as active as Janelle's. Students of all ages, particularly those from middle-class, suburban communities like this one just south of Washington, appear to be busier than ever before. After school lets out at 2 or 3 P.M., there are soccer balls to kick, basketball hoops to stuff, money to be earned, and chores to be done.

Although all these activities are admirable, they can push homework down on students' priority lists. And that, educators say, can create tensions between students' academic lives and their lives outside of school.

"It's become an imposition on them," says Sallyann Keehan, a guidance counselor at Janelle's school. "They will do anything to get it done during the day."

Couple this attitude with the fact that more mothers are working and more children are coming from single-parent families. That, educators warn, may mean that Mom or Dad aren't available to supervise homework or that children have to pitch in to get dinner on the table and care for younger siblings.

"It's not that parents are any less concerned about their child," Keehan says, "but they may be putting more effort into providing for them, and they just run out of steam."

While these demographic and cultural changes may cast homework in a different light, the battle over homework is a decades-old one. At least since the turn of the century, there have been parents who say teachers give too much homework, parents who say children don't get enough of it, and students who balk at doing it.

Harris Cooper, a psychologist at the University of Missouri's Center for Research in Social Behavior, says the battle over homework is currently in its "third renaissance."

"When the 20th century began, the mind was viewed as a muscle that could benefit from mental exercise or memorization," he writes in an article published in the journal Educational Leadership. "Since memorization could be done at home, homework was viewed as good."

That changed during the 1940's as the emphasis in education shifted from drill and practice to problem-solving.

By the 1950's, however, the launch of Sputnik caused Americans to worry that the nation's education system lacked rigor. Homework was back in style.

But, Cooper writes, "the 1960's witnessed yet another reversal, with homework viewed as a symptom of needless pressure on students."

The wake-up call sounded by the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, he adds, once again put an end to that kind of thinking. Cooper maintains homework has been on education's front burner ever since.

For all its prominence, however, homework could well rank as one of the least-studied topics in education. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Cooper set out in the early 1980's to find and analyze all the studies on homework. He counted 120. And that included investigations dating back to 1958.

And, for the past two years, when the largest group of education researchers in the nation got together for the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting, only one researcher gave a paper on the subject of homework.

What's more, say many teachers, the topic is not something that gets much attention in teacher education programs.

"Not once in four years did anyone say anything about homework," says Cindy Dussia, a 6th-grade science and language-arts teacher at Saunders Middle School, recalling her own teacher training. She wishes someone had.

Janelle's school, Saunders Middle School, lies in a wooded stretch of Virginia's Prince William County. One of the outermost suburbs ringing Washington, Prince William is close enough for many of Saunders' parents to catch a commuter train to work in the nation's capital. Yet, it's far enough away to maintain a somewhat rural, Norman Rockwell-like character.

Not many poor families send their children to Saunders, but a healthy mix of working-class, middle-class, and upper-middle-class families do. There are also children from immigrant families, children from minority families, and large numbers of children whose mothers or fathers work at nearby military bases.

In the battle over homework, Saunders has fought the good fight. A little over five years ago, the school became one of the first in the area to set up a homework hot line so parents and students could call in for nightly assignments.

Saunders' parent-teacher organization also bought "agendas" for the school's 1,222 students. The thick spiral-bound books offer students organizational tips and leave space for them to pencil in assignment due dates. Some teachers require parents to initial the entries so they, as well as their children, are aware of upcoming deadlines.

Other teachers send home notices midsemester showing parents how many homework assignments their children are missing.

"We even give them refrigerator magnets," says one teacher, holding up a magnet imprinted with the number of the school's homework hot line.

And students, particularly 6th graders unused to the new academic demands they face in middle school, say they use the hot line. Some call in as many as two or three times a week.

"Parents will say, 'But my son comes home every night, and he says he finishes his homework in school, and he says he doesn't have any,'" explains Pamela K. Gauch, Saunders' assistant principal. "We say, 'Well, did you check the homework hot line?'"

Even so, not all Saunders students do their homework. "I think," Janelle says of her classmates, "that about 35 percent do all their homework. The next 20 percent do half of it, and a lot of people don't do anything."

A majority of the 17 teachers interviewed at Saunders, however, put the percentages a little higher. They estimate that 80 percent or more of their students turn in their homework the next day.

"You will always have some who won't do it even if you tattoo it on their arms," Sheehan says. Nevertheless, Saunders' school officials launched their homework hot line because they saw a need.

"We have large numbers of students here who score high on standardized tests, but their grades don't follow," Assistant Principal Gauch says. The homework hot line is, in part, for them.

Janelle is one of the students who completes her assignments promptly. She even boasts of never having missed one. And Janelle's mother, LaBrenda, asks her daughter to study half an hour a night whether she has assigned homework or not.

"But in 7th grade, I got too much homework," Janelle recalls, "and I was getting to bed so late."

Her mother says Janelle also tends to feel pressured for time in February when the family takes part in community activities associated with Black History Month. Janelle, for example, has been a two-time finalist in a local oratorical contest held to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

At those times, LaBrenda Haynes says, Janelle sometimes gets frustrated and weepy. That's when LaBrenda, a registered nurse and a trained schoolteacher, may allow her daughter to miss an occasional cheerleading practice.

She says there is rarely--if ever--an excuse for missing homework. "I think there's no reason for any child to have a bad grade on homework," LaBrenda says. "If you don't understand it, you can always call the teacher or write a note."

These days, Janelle says she does an hour and a half to two hours of homework each night. That's more than some of her classmates do, partly because Janelle is taking two high school courses.

But it is almost as much as students get at some of the pricier private schools in the area. For example, at Sidwell Friends, the school President Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, attends in Washington, 7th and 8th graders are expected to get 20 to 40 minutes of homework nightly in every subject--about two hours or more altogether.

Nationwide, students appear to be doing somewhat less. Only 14 percent of 13-year-olds say they read more than 20 pages a night for homework, according to the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress. More than half, on the other hand, read 10 or fewer pages a night. In mathematics, 76 percent of the students surveyed said they do homework frequently.

These numbers represent an increase since NAEP began keeping track of such things. In 1978, for example, only 59 percent of students reported doing math homework frequently. And the percentage of students who read 20 or more pages a night was only 10 percent.

Some experts say the numbers may explain in part the tension that some educators see between students' home and school lives. Students may be doing more homework just as their involvement in extracurricular activities picks up.

But, as Cooper points out, it's hard to draw sweeping conclusions from national statistics. "In some areas, you may see a re-emphasis on homework," he says. "In others, there's less of it."

Saunders Middle School offers a case in point. National figures not withstanding, 15 of 17 teachers interviewed there said they are giving less homework now than they did when they started teaching.

"I still give homework, but it's a little less than previous years," Shelia Coleman, a 7th-grade social-studies teacher at Saunders, says over lunch in the teachers' lounge. "The quality is better if it's less. They may be more willing to put more time into doing five questions well rather than 20."

Melinda Spencer, a 7th-grade math teacher at Saunders, agrees with her colleague. Plus, like a lot of teachers at Saunders, Spencer also gives students some class time to get a start on their homework and to ask questions about it.

"I find they are more likely to complete it then," she says. "Before, parents were in the home, but we live in a county now where both parents have to work outside the home. A lot of students don't have anyone at home to work with them."

Adds Coleman, a 19-year teaching veteran: "Students are more actively involved in extracurricular activities than when I first started. Priorities are just different now."

Such sentiments are not unique to Saunders. Even at schools where teachers say they have not eased up on giving homework and where larger percentages of students complete their assignments on time, educators say students seem busier than they did in years past.

"Three-quarters of our kids play on sports teams, and there's only so much time in the day," says Allen Rosenau, the principal of Welsh Valley Middle School in Montgomery County, Pa., an affluent, achievement-oriented suburb of Philadelphia.

Teachers there say that, while they have not decreased the quantity of homework they give, they have noticed that students are more efficient at getting it done. They do it over the breakfast table, at their lockers in the morning, during their advisory periods, and in the last few minutes of their classes.

In such communities, however, homework is an issue that has never really reared its head much beyond the private conversations that take place between parents and teachers.

In other communities, the topic has been elevated to the level of public debate. In California, for example, the Cabrillo school district made national headlines last fall when a school board member proposed banning homework altogether. And echoes of the same discussion reverberated in nearby Menlo Park, where another school board member suggested reviewing the homework policy in that district.

"With the cutbacks we've had, the schools can't offer the variety of programs they used to offer in dance, drama, and other areas," says Kip Rolle, the school board member who proposed the review. "Kids have to fit that in after school."

"If you do a lot of homework, one of the things you do is you end up losing family time," adds Rolle, who is also the local police chief and a father of five. "I think that's critical to children's development, too."

In the end, neither district lessened the amount of homework that it recommends teachers give. Rather, they both conducted surveys, which have not yet been analyzed, and took steps to closely monitor the homework assignments given out at their schools.

In other districts, however, parents are voicing the opposite complaint. They say their children are doing too little homework. In recent years, that refrain has popped up in communities from Columbia, Mo., to Glendale, Ariz.

"If you're not teaching kids things, and they're not doing homework, that's kind of a double whammy," says Cuyler Reid, who helped spearhead a parent-led effort to start a charter school in Glendale. The school, named Valley Academy, is scheduled to open this fall and will stress academic rigor, required homework, and back-to-basics teaching, among other things.

"With some of the modern methods of teaching, they are doing away with textbooks," Reid charges, "and students are keeping portfolios so all the work stays in school and parents have no way of knowing what's going on."

"A lot of parents say homework is how they understand what their children are learning and whether they understand it," she adds.

For a subject that causes this much debate, you would think we would know more about homework. But the 120 studies Cooper uncovered is a paltry sum, considering the perennial nature of the topic.

And experts disagree on the essential question surrounding the whole debate. That is: Does homework work, anyway?

The answer, according to Herbert Walberg, a research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an unequivocal "yes." He thinks of homework as an extension of the time that students spend studying and learning. "One of the most consistent findings in all of education research," he says, "is that the amount of time spent studying has at least a moderate influence on how much you learn."

Moreover, he adds, besides having one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world, U.S. students spend far less time studying outside school. He also points to international studies showing that students in the highest-scoring countries--Hungary, Japan, and the Netherlands--do more homework than those in lower-achieving countries such as Sweden, England, and Italy.

"There is a strong strain that is anti-intellectualism and anti-school in the American culture," he adds. "In Japan, they say that if you fail, you didn't study enough. In the U.S., if you fail, you lack ability or you didn't have good luck."

But ask the University of Missouri's Cooper the same question, and the reply is, "It depends." Cooper's meta-analysis dealt more specifically with studies that directly addressed the question of homework. He concluded that, yes, some homework is better than no homework. But the effectiveness of homework is directly related to students' grade levels.

In high school, for example, Cooper found that the more homework, the better. "Let's assume a hypothetical teacher teaches two classes of 25 students and, through some remarkable accident of nature, each student in one class has an exact counterpart in the other," he writes in the Educational Leadership article.

"Assume further that the teacher uses the exact same instructional methods in both classes to teach a 10-week unit, except that one class takes home about a half-hour of homework three times a week," he continues. "These studies revealed that, if the teacher is teaching high school students, the average student in the homework class would outperform 69 percent of the students in the no-homework class."

In junior high school, however, the effect decreases. The students with homework would outperform 60 percent of their no-homework counterparts. But that edge disappears altogether when students do more than an hour of homework a night.

And giving elementary school students homework, Cooper found, produces only trivial improvements in their grades or standardized test scores.

Jean Pammer, a Montgomery County, Md., mother, might agree with Cooper's analysis. Her 1st-grade son, Jacob, is doing two hours of homework a night--partly because he must complete classwork left unfinished during the day. And she's beginning to wonder if the whole effort might be counterproductive for him.

"He reaches a point where he just gets burned out," she says. Sometimes, the crush of homework even delays his 8 P.M. bedtime.

Pammer's community lies on the doorstep of the nation's capital. The entire region, according to local newspaper reports, contains one of the highest percentages of workaholics in the nation. And, among this wide geographical area of hard workers and high achievers, Montgomery County's students consistently outscore those of other neighboring counties on college-entrance examinations.

Mark Nemiroff is a child psychologist in the Washington area. He sees what happens when students like Jacob are pushed too long and too hard to excel academically. "Sometimes, a kid becomes dysfunctional, and there's a kind of a shutdown," he says. "No 4-year-old needs to see flash cards in Russian, and two hours of homework a night for a 6-year-old doesn't make sense."

Nevertheless, Nemiroff says, it's not just that teachers are giving more homework or that children are busier. He also sees his share of 10th graders who do no homework at all, for example.

Nemiroff says part of the problem may be that students are not learning how to do homework, organize their time, or internalize a work ethic. "There's an assumption that kids automatically know how to organize themselves as they get older," he says. "They don't--especially boys."

"If you're not taught how to do homework and how to break down something into smaller steps, and then, all of a sudden you're 14 and in the 9th grade and someone gives you a term paper, you won't have the foggiest idea how to do it," he says.

What's more, plenty of empirical evidence suggests that stressed-out students is an issue that resonates beyond the Washington beltway as well--and may even be a peculiarly American phenomenon.

Harold W. Stevenson and his colleagues at the University of Michigan's Center for Human Growth and Development studied 4,666 11th graders in three cities--Minneapolis, the Japanese city of Sendai, and Taipei in Taiwan. They found that, although the Asian students spent more time studying and scored higher on international math and science tests, they reported feeling less stress over schoolwork than their American counterparts did.

More than three-fourths of the American students and half or fewer of the Taiwanese and Japanese students said they felt stress once a week or almost every day. For American students, schoolwork was the most frequent source of that stress--much more so than it was for the Japanese and Taiwanese students.

"The more I see, the more I think American kids are confused about what they're supposed to do," Stevenson says. "Asian parents stress that schoolwork comes first, but American students are told they're supposed to have a job, earn money, have chores at home, be popular, have dates, participate in sports, and do well in their schoolwork."

At Saunders Middle School, some teachers are frustrated about the subject of homework because they claim parents see their classrooms through the narrow prism of their own child's experiences.

"They say either we give too much homework or we don't give enough, but that is something that has a lot to do with a child's abilities," says Dussia, the 6th-grade science and language-arts teacher. "Sometimes, a child works quickly and efficiently and gets it all done in school. And some children, without someone there to monitor them, don't stay on task, so they may sit for two hours."

For as little training as they have had on the subject of homework, teachers at Saunders--and at other schools as well--seem to have evolved a remarkably similar philosophy.

"I think homework ought to be a review-type activity," says Julia Parker, who teaches 8th-grade civics at Saunders. "It shouldn't ever be to present new material or be confusing to the child."

Students, on the other hand, sometimes fail to see the usefulness in practicing what they feel they already know. "It's not worth doing it if it really doesn't help you," says Lindsay Raichlen, a 7th grader at Pennsylvania's Welsh Valley Middle School. "A lot of it is busy work," concurs Kate Stern, an 8th grader at the school.

So what is good homework? One key to making homework effective, says Walberg of the University of Illinois, is for teachers to give students feedback on their efforts. Homework that is marked, graded, or commented upon, Walberg says, is three times more effective at improving students' academic achievement.

Cooper at the University of Missouri recommends spreading the curricular content of an assignment over several nights, rather than giving homework simply to review the content covered that day. On some of those nights, the assignments will prepare students for material to come. On others, students may practice and review what they learned in lessons past.

Cooper reviewed seven studies that directly addressed the question of what type of homework works best. Over all, he writes, "the average student who did preparation, practice, or both types of homework outperformed 54 percent of the students who did same-day-content homework."

There is homework, and then there is homework. Joyce L. Epstein, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University's Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning, has been perfecting the latter--homework that is meaningful, interesting, and draws parents into their children's school lives.

"Most parents love their children and want the best for them," she says. "But many do not know how to translate their care and concern into positive involvement in education." It's up to the schools, she charges, to show them how.

Epstein's program is based on studies that show that involving parents in school increases children's chances of academic success. Called Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork, the program has been tested in schools in inner-city Baltimore and suburban Baltimore County. Through TIPS, teachers get together over the summer to develop weekly homework assignments, based on the school's curriculum, that directly involve parents.

"Dear Parent/Guardian," a typical assignment begins. "We are learning about ways we use nouns and adjectives in our writing. I hope you enjoy doing this assignment with me."

This particular worksheet goes on to ask parent and child together to list nouns they see in their kitchen in one column. In a second column, the child is asked to list adjectives describing each of the nouns listed. The third column is reserved for the family member who is working with the student to list his or her own adjectives as well.

Other assignments direct students and parents to conduct science experiments together and record their observations or to draw graphs and charts from data they generate themselves. Thus far, TIPS assignments have been developed for six subjects and for students in grades 1 through 8.

The worksheets also leave space for parents to comment on the assignments.

Epstein has found that parents and students say they prefer the TIPS assignments over their regular homework. And teachers say they get better return rates for TIPS homework. More important, preliminary statistics show students who do the assignments frequently have better academic achievement than peers who don't.

Even so, the two Baltimore city schools that took part in the experiment are no longer doing it, Epstein says. The reason: They cannot afford the paper for printing the worksheets.

LaBrenda Haynes says she would enjoy helping Janelle with those kinds of homework assignments. Then again, LaBrenda is that kind of parent. Where most parents dither over how involved they should remain in children's school lives once they reach middle school, LaBrenda boldly perseveres. She even volunteers to chaperone dances at Saunders--despite Janelle's protests.

"I enjoy knowing what she's doing in school," LaBrenda says. "Homework is one way I can do that."

Still, she knows other parents privately complain that teachers are asking too much. "At first, parents would talk to me and say that their kids have so much homework they have to do, and there are only so many hours in a day," she says. "When they get my feelings about homework, they don't talk about the negative part of it any more."

"But I think the homework issue is still out there," she adds. Chances are that it always will be.

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