August 16, 2007
Can we can the homework, please?
Local schools translate theory into practice . . . with mixed success
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Robert Marzano's and Debra Pickering's "The Case For and Against Homework" (Educational Leadership, March 2007) cites a number of studies that they believe provide clear evidence of homework's benefits, especially in grades six and up. Ironically, they come to this conclusion after studying some of the same data Kohn used to make the opposite argument.
They also warn that the hot-button issue of time spent on homework has been both oversimplified and overemphasized, and they recommend instead focusing on finding balance and limits in making assignments. (While admitting that there can be no absolute time prescription for all students, they cite research supporting the "10-minute rule," whereby total daily homework should not exceed 10 minutes multiplied by the given grade level.)
Marzano and Pickering conclude with a prescription for suitable homework. It should contain "appropriate content," such as practicing a process or skill, elaborating on material from class or exploring a related area of interest. Students should be challenged by the work, but still able to complete it independently. Parent involvement should be limited to review or reflection, not teaching. Further, they say, it is equally important to monitor "the amount of homework assigned, so that it is appropriate to students' age levels and does not take too much time away from other home activities."
But how much have Jewish schools here in Los Angeles been affected by this research?
The impact of the new thinking is most marked in the elementary grades, where the research is most convincing, the issues more clear-cut and -- according to some educators -- the stakes not as high as in middle and high school. As a result, a number of local Jewish elementary schools have been reviewing their homework policies, often involving parents and teachers in the process, and they have also been making concrete changes.
Pressman Academy established a policy a few years ago limiting general studies homework to two days a week and Judaica homework to two other weekdays, with no homework on weekends.
Bella Kapp, a second-grade teacher at Pressman, said she is "a firm believer in homework, not to teach new concepts but to review what has been taught that day" and to instill responsibility and good study habits. Kapp believes the school's policy keeps the potentially overwhelming dual curriculum manageable for students.
For their part, school administrators say they're acutely aware that homework issues are embedded in a complex web of individual, family and societal choices.
At Stephen S. Wise Temple's elementary school, which already had guidelines on time limits for homework, principal Rochelle Ginsburg and a homework committee focused on the quality of assignments. They required that the work be meaningful rather than rote, extend what has been taught in class and that students be able to complete it independently.
But Ginsburg admits that even these successes have been limited.
"Sometimes the stress factor is not necessarily because of 'too much homework' but because the children are overprogrammed in general, with practices, athletic games, piano lessons ... the day can be too big a stretch for them," she said.
Taking a gradual approach to revising homework policy, Eileen Horowitz, head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, said she encourages her teachers to prepare engaging, creative projects, such as sixth-graders learning ancient history by creating a Trojan War movie. The day school also tries to alleviate pressure on families by providing a staffed homework room as part of its optional after-school program.
Tracy Miller, a self-described "middle-of-the-road parent, not a big believer in homework," said the homework load as experienced by her two sons at Temple Israel Day School has "always been very reasonable."
"The teachers are also very adamant about it. They tell you, if it takes your child more than X amount of time to complete, tell them to stop. And it would never be made into an issue for the child in the classroom," Miller added.
As students move from elementary to middle to high school, their academic workload appropriately increases in depth and breadth; it also increases, often dramatically, in sheer quantity. But even the research showing some correlation between homework and achievement in upper grades also says that more is not always better.
In these 'tween and teen years, homework competes with ever more distractions -- competitive sports, after-school "enrichment," iPods -- in the sped-up, stressed-out world in which we're raising our kids. Questions about the value of homework thus become both increasingly complex and, many educators say, seemingly intractable.
Some educators see the intensification of academic and extracurricular activities in middle and high school as driven by a perceived need to fill resumes, which, in turn, is driven by a perceived scarcity of openings at what are considered prestigious high schools and colleges.
"The world out there is so competitive. If a student doesn't have a list of advanced and honors courses, he's not going to make it," said Rabbi Dovid Landesman, who until last year was the boys school principal of the Orthodox high school, YULA. "Everybody is raising the ante and throwing it on somebody else ... we just respond to what is placed on us from the colleges."
Landesman said he and his staff talk about their students' workload at almost every faculty in-service meeting, asking themselves, "How can we lighten the load without dumbing down the curriculum?"
YULA boys are in school from 7:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. on most days. And although the school has strict rules about the number of tests and the frequency of assignments, and it encourages teachers to "give only a minimal amount of homework," Landesman believes it's still "untenable" to expect students to shoulder the load they are under. "Yet we do; and they do it," he added.
Is there no hope, then, for these overworked teens?