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Published in Print: January 14, 2004, as Little Ones' Homework Burden Rises

Little Ones' Homework Burden Rises

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Every Monday, Micaela Avila receives a packet of worksheets that she has to complete at home and turn back in on Friday. The assignments are meant to help her meet this school year's expectations, such as writing a story that follows a logical theme and recognizing and spelling at least 35 words.

But such disciplined activities are new to Micaela, a kindergartner who is still learning to count and associate sounds with letters.

"I remember kindergarten being games, snacks, and recess," said Audrey F. Avila, the mother of 5-year-old Micaela, who attends Shelyn Elementary School in the 18,900-student Rowland Unified School District near Los Angeles. "Oh boy, what a shock it was when I went to orientation."

Ms. Avila is not alone in being surprised at the increasing rigor of kindergarten. With academic expectations for young pupils rising across the country, homework is becoming a more routine part of the kindergarten experience.

A study released last fall by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, showed that, contrary to what many observers suspected, the amount of time spent on homework has not increased for children in the upper-elementary and middle grades.

But it has jumped significantly for 6- to 8-year-olds, which would include many kindergartners, according to the report. The researchers attributed the jump—from about 52 minutes a week in 1981 to more than two hours a week in 1997—to the stronger emphasis in the early grades on learning to read. ("Homework Not on Rise, Studies Find," Oct. 8, 2003.)

'Horrible Conflict'

Fortunately for Ms. Avila, Micaela has adapted well to the idea of homework and approaches her tasks with enthusiasm.

Other parents, though, are not having such a pleasant time getting their children to do the work.

"The enthusiasm has waned. It's a chore," said Andi Jordan, whose son Matt is a kindergartner at the 315-pupil Bryant Elementary School in Lake Oswego, Ore. "Kindergarten certainly doesn't seem to be as magical as it was for my oldest. Pretend play? What's that?"

Plus, some parents say, nightly assignments are too much of a strain on children who—not long ago—were still taking afternoon naps to make it through the dinner hour.

Shari Sturmer, whose son Benjamin is now in 2nd grade, said he wasn't ready for the homework load when he was in kindergarten.

"When the school day was over, he needed total, unstructured time," said Ms. Sturmer. "You could not expect academic performance from a kid who was already exhausted. It set up a horrible conflict between me and my kid."

In kindergarten and 1st grade, Benjamin attended Will Rogers Elementary School, part of California's 12,550-student Santa Monica-Malibu district.

But this school year, his parents enrolled him in a private school. While their decision to transfer him wasn't solely based on the homework issue, Ms. Sturmer said that certainly was one of the reasons Benjamin wasn't doing well at Will Rogers.

Parents also said that homework—especially if it's not done until after dinner—eats into the time they have to spend with their children.

"My family is like many others. Both parents work and commute at least one hour each way to work," Ms. Avila said. "This makes time in the evenings a precious commodity."

Self-Reliance

Despite the concerns, Ms. Sturmer said she appreciated knowing what her son was expected to be learning in school by seeing the worksheets that were sent home. And kindergarten teachers here in Los Angeles and elsewhere said that forming a connection between home and school is why homework is a valuable part of kindergarten.

"It's a way to involve the parents in what's going on in the classroom," said Wendy Kennar, a teacher at Rosewood Elementary School in the 740,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

Ms. Kennar, who has been teaching kindergarten for three years, argues that aside from the academic skills children might be learning, homework teaches them the responsibility of taking something out of their folders when they get home and then making sure the work gets back to school on time.

"It has all those self-reliance skills built into it," Ms. Kennar said. "Some of them have never been responsible for their own things."

Elyse Aochi, who also teaches kindergarten at Rosewood, said she thinks that if children have trouble completing the homework, it's "because the parents never established a routine" for them.

A third kindergarten teacher at Rosewood, Schyler Anaya, points out that the worksheets assigned are simply meant to reinforce lessons that were taught in the class—such as practicing writing a certain letter or drawing straight lines—and that they don't introduce new concepts. And, she said, realistically, the work is never expected to take more than 15 or 20 minutes to complete.

Near the end of the school year, kindergarten teachers in the Los Angeles district gradually increase homework to three pages instead of two. And instead of being asked to practice writing letters or words, the youngsters might be assigned to write a simple sentence.

For Toby Bresson, the father of a kindergartner and a 3rd grader at Rosewood, the fact that homework is assigned doesn't necessarily take away from the "warm and fuzzy" nature of kindergarten.

The struggle, he said, came when his oldest child moved into 1st grade and the work became much more demanding.

"It was a huge leap," he said. "My biggest concern is that they are going to be burned out by the time they hit high school."

Making Homework Relevant

Many experts in early-childhood education say that homework in kindergarten is not a yes-or-no issue. After all, reading to a child each night could be considered homework, and has been shown to contribute to reading success later on, said Marilou Hyson, the associate executive director for professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

What's important, she said, is that the tasks are relevant to what's happening in class, and that children still have time to interact with the other members of their families after school.

"Homework that is isolating the child is not giving them opportunities to help prepare dinner or maybe take a walk in the neighborhood after school," Ms. Hyson said.

Homework activities, she added, can be fun and engaging and still reinforce academic concepts. For example, children can be asked to find things at home that are shaped like triangles, or to draw pictures of items that begin with the letter S.

Kim Hughes, who teaches both prekindergarten and kindergarten in the 104,000-student Wake County, N.C., schools and serves on the board of directors of the Washington-based NAEYC, said homework doesn't have to be paper-and-pencil-based to be meaningful. Sometimes, she said, she just asks pupils to help their parents make scrambled eggs, deciding how many eggs would be needed for how many family members.

Jim Morris, an assistant superintendent of instructional services for the Los Angeles district, said that traditional worksheets can be a part of homework assignments. In fact, he said, some parents expect to see those coming home in their children's backpacks—even in kindergarten.

"But it shouldn't be limited to that," he said.

Like Los Angeles and many other districts, the 438,500-student Chicago school system has a policy requiring homework to be assigned in every grade. But some kindergarten teachers there said they try to be creative when implementing the rule.

Lenora Akhibi, who just retired after teaching for 34 years in Chicago, said she used to send her pupils home for "mystery nights." The children would pretend to be detectives, looking for clues around their houses in order to solve whatever problem Ms. Akhibi had devised.

And Marie Kielty, a kindergarten teacher and mathematics coordinator in Chicago, said she integrates a lot of drawing into math activities. That approach allows the children to be creative, she said, but helps them learn to recognize the number of objects on a page or in a group at first glance without having to count them.

With expectations rising for students at all grade levels, Ms. Hyson of the NAEYC said she understands the pressure teachers are under to help children meet state and district standards. But in kindergarten, she said, it's important that children move forward in school with enthusiasm, and that they are "engaged and curious."

"The way to get ready to do hours of homework in 9th grade," Ms. Hyson said, "is not to do hours of homework in kindergarten."

Vol. 23, Issue 18, Pages 1,12

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