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What About Homework?

It's not at all surprising that homework is now a front-burner issue in many school districts ("Is Homework Out of Control?" Parade, Aug. 21). Although teachers who assign heavy loads have never been popular, it's only in the last few years that they have moved into the spotlight. After all, when elementary school teachers ask children in second and third grade to complete worksheets every night, I have to wonder if things have not gotten out of hand.

The rationale for homework is that it enhances learning by reinforcing and enriching classroom instruction. But there are several caveats. First, it must be appropriate for the age of the student. Requiring seven- and eight-year olds to spend an hour or more each night will do little except to develop a dislike for the subject. Second, it has to be stimulating. Creating busywork will be counterproductive. Finally, it has to be able to be completed by students without the help of their parents. Increasing numbers of students come from families where parents do not speak English or can't afford the materials needed for creative assignments.

Along this line, researchers have identified several techniques that teachers need to bear in mind when they assign homework ("The Trouble With Homework," The New York Times, Sept. 11). What they all boil down to is that it is the quality - not the quantity -of homework that matters.

But meeting this criterion is only part of the issue. What should teachers do to follow up? More specifically, what weight should be given to the successful completion of homework? With the emphasis now given to standardized testing, what grade should students get on their report cards if they don't turn in homework but still score high on these tests?

Complicating matters is the growth in the number of students from low-income families. Many of these students live in apartments where overcrowding is common. Is it fair to ask them to do homework when they have no quiet space? Why don't they just go to the public library to complete their assignments? They can, of course, if there is a public library in their neighborhood. But that's not always true, particularly today when budget cuts have closed libraries or sharply cut back on their hours of operation.

I know that many critics will point to the number of hours students from other countries put in to their studies outside of school as evidence of our excessive concern about homework. They argue that parents in this country are spoiling their children. But so many students abroad suffer from burnout. That's a stiff price to pay at such an early age.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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