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Can we can the homework, please?

Local schools translate theory into practice . . . with mixed success

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

August 16, 2007 | 8:00 pm


Homework can be frustrating, even for 4-year olds A second grader was bent over her worksheets at the kitchen table, long past her bedtime on a school night, and she still hadn't finished her six-page weekly spelling book.

The girl was enrolled at Maimonides day school, where her classes lasted until 4:10 p.m. most days. She was tired; her mom was frustrated. Daily homework in Hebrew and secular subjects left the student "no time for play dates or any relaxation -- and this was second grade!" her mother said.

Students at Maimonides weren't allowed to work on their spelling books during school hours, and they also got weekend assignments -- including a Judaic studies vocabulary test every Monday.

The girl's parents found her homework both "unnecessarily rote" and "burdensome."

But when the family transferred from Maimonides to Pressman Academy last year -- for unrelated reasons -- the mother was "surprised and thrilled with the lighter homework load." Her daughter now has "more time to just be a kid," said the mom, adding that "for the first time, kids started calling her to play after school."

With no homework on weekends and no tests on Mondays, the mother feels the school "really respects children's right to be children.... It has totally changed our weekends -- Sunday is a pure family-and-friends day now -- and she goes back to school on Monday refreshed."

As the new school year approaches, the homework wars will once again begin to replay in homes everywhere, often without the happy resolution this family stumbled upon. Parents are gearing up once again to stress over their stressed-out children, whose homework loads seem to have grown exponentially over what kids brought home two decades ago. These days, beginning in kindergarten -- and sometimes earlier -- children are expected to complete independent academic work at home, often for many hours each day. Inevitably, this eats away at other parts of kids' lives, leaving little time for daily chores, conversation at meals, sports or just time to play.

So ... nu? Isn't this all just part of modern family life? After all, don't we want to prepare our children to compete in the global economy? And doesn't that mean they have to work harder in every endeavor to constantly sharpen their competitive edge?

Maybe not.

Educators these days are taking a new look at homework, attempting to measure its value and to re-examine the underlying assumptions about how kids learn, the pace of their development, family life and the role of work in our lives. Despite the complexity of the issue and a lack of consensus about the research, the battle lines in the debate have been redrawn.

Some schools have begun curtailing what teachers can assign, some are banning homework altogether (especially in lower grades), but others remain committed to homework, believing that their hands are tied by parents/colleges/economic realities (take your pick). While the debate and its effects vary not only by school but by individual student, one thing is certain: Homework is undergoing a transition.

Back at Maimonides, a group of parents rallied, creating parent surveys and flow charts of children's time spent on assignments. After years of lobbying, they convinced administrators to limit homework for middle schoolers. Judith Garshofsky, for one, said she saw "dramatic changes" over the last third of her daughter Raquel's seventh-grade year.

In sixth and much of seventh grade, Raquel often worked on homework until at least 10 p.m. and could have up to two tests and three quizzes in one day. Now the school limits the number of assessments a student can have per day, and head of general studies Donna Held "meets with teachers more regularly" to monitor assignments, Garshofsky said.

"The school has been very receptive, and while administrators might have a different viewpoint [from the parents], they all want to do right by the kids," Garshofsky said. She now characterizes her daughter's homework load as "manageable and very fair" and says the kids can now "have a life after school."

This recalibration of homework is obviously the result of many factors, not the least of which are parents', students' and educators' own school experiences. But it's the research itself that offers the most compelling ammunition in this round of the battle -- although each side finds in it evidence to back up its own argument.

Among the first of the recent spate of books based on recent research and addressed to parents is "The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning," by Etta Kralovec and John Buell (Beacon Press, 2000). They argue that heavy homework loads place too much responsibility for formal education on families, rather than on teachers in the classroom, where they say the responsibility belongs.

The problem with this lies in the inherent inequities in parents' education and availability. Viewing homework loads as both reflecting and reinforcing America's competitive, corporate-style work model, Kralovec and Buell also cite numerous theorists who agree that, as the headline of one New York Times op-ed neatly summarized, "Children Need Childhood, Not Vocational Training."

Another book, "The Case Against Homework" (Crown), which came out last year, presents further analysis and prescriptions for reducing the homework workload. Authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish argue that too much homework can harm students emotionally and physically. They also believe that many teachers aren't capable of creating age-appropriate, meaningful assignments.

In what is perhaps the most controversial of recent books, "The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Are Getting Too Much of a Bad Thing" (De Capo Books, 2006), educator Alfie Kohn concludes that there is no significant correlation between homework and improved academic performance in early grades, and in middle and high school, the correlation is minimal at best. Kohn argues that homework robs children of their childhoods and precludes broader creative and social development.

While these and other books have enjoyed widespread media attention -- authors have appeared on radio and TV and been extensively covered in newspapers and magazines -- the homework supporters, whose work often appears in professional journals, are having a harder time getting their message out. 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?At Milken Community High School, upper school principal Roger Fuller grapples with many of the same issues for his students. Fuller and his staff see homework as "part of the overall picture of expectations and academic goals." As a result, Fuller has worked to manage, and thus alleviate, the stress of homework.

Echoing a sentiment expressed by educators from kindergarten up, Fuller said he consistently reminds teachers at Milken that "all homework should be relevant; it should be a stepping stone in the process of learning and a rehearsal for presentation and demonstration" of knowledge.

In 10th-grade science class at Milken this past year, David Kolodny and his classmates learned about "a mock town called 'Riverwood,' analyzed how things occurred in the environment there and had to propose different laws for the [mock] city council," he said. In earlier years (including some at Milken), David said more of his homework was "busywork that didn't require much thinking but was still very time-consuming.... But now more of the assignments are unique and meaningful -- for every ounce of energy you put into it, you get a lot back."

A task force of Milken students and teachers reworked how tests are scheduled, limiting the days tests can be given in any particular subject, thereby limiting the total number of assessments possible in a single week. Tests are also forbidden on Mondays, in deference to Shabbat.

Fuller said the school also instituted a 45-minute period at the end of the day, during which all faculty are available to students. Fuller said this "lishmah" period (learning for learning's sake) "takes the lid off the pressure [on students] for either trying to figure work out on their own or trying to see their teachers during the day."

Gaby Davis, who will be a senior at Milken in the fall, said she "tends to do a little homework" during lisihmah, but mainly "it's definitely good for talking to a teacher." She also takes advantage of the school's honor society tutoring system, whereby students can receive help from more advanced students in a subject during free periods.

Yet given the "academic realities" of his students' lives, Fuller said that any solution is imperfect. "But what we've discovered is that there are mechanistic and systemic responses that work for the majority of the situations that used to arise," and that these solutions mean that Milken is "not in the crisis we were in before."

Like Fuller, Bruce Powell, founding head of school at New Community Jewish High School (New Jew) in West Hills, eschews the discussion of time allotments for homework -- a focus he believes dominates media coverage of the issue. For Powell, there is no question that certain types of homework, in certain subjects, have value both academically and as a way of instilling responsibility and independent work habits.

An educator with more than 37 years of experience guiding Jewish education in Los Angeles, Powell believes "there is no such thing as one size fits all" when it comes to homework or to education as a whole. "Everyone needs an individual education plan, and everyone needs something creative, a way to connect information."

Marcia Goldstein-Rappoport, whose son, Harrison Rappoport, is entering 10th grade at New Jew in the fall, said that although "there is a lot of homework given and the course load is intense, it is not busywork.... I'd say that 90 percent of it is relevant to the world around Harrison."

One example, she said, is the way students in his English class this past year were required to write a "persuasive letter" to senators and representatives about Darfur.

"They were learning about genocide in history, but [Harrison] had to research the rest on his own. They read and annotated essays in English class, for facts to use. And the teacher passed out tools for writing -- only allowed them to use a certain number of 'to be' verbs, a certain number of quotes, etc.," Goldstein-Rappoport said. Not only did she see "his writing technique improve immensely ... it was meaningful to him as a Jewish boy, seeing how you help in the world."

Ben Shear, who will be a senior at New Jew in the fall, said that while some teachers occasionally give assignments that "aren't the most exciting," most homework assignments are "worth the time, even if [it's] hard ... afterwards, you realize you got a lot out of them."

Ben's dad, Mark, agrees, noting that Ben still has time to play sports -- basketball, baseball and flag football -- and to relax. In contrast, Ben's twin sister attends an honors program at Calabasas High School, where she "just does homework all the time," Mark said.

Not surprisingly, Powell of New Jew finds support for his educational approach not only in current research but also in ancient Jewish sources.

"It says in the Talmud: If a child doesn't understand something the first time, you keep repeating it to them. Five hundred times. And if the child still doesn't understand, you try another five hundred times," Powell said.

An endorsement of the drill-and-kill method of education? Not quite, Powell said.

"It means we customize, try as many different ways as needed, until [children] understand. What this means is, we're not going to let a child fail."

And when all is said and done, this ideal is likely to be the one thing educators -- and parents -- will always agree on.




Two naughty British schoolgirls made this "Doggy Ate My Homework" video
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