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Is Homework Making the Grade?

Some question the value of assignments that demand more and more of students' time, but may not help them think creatively.

March 08, 2000|VALERIE STRAUSS | WASHINGTON POST

If kids today knew who Gen. Francis A. Walker was, they just might build an altar to exalt his name.

A Civil War hero turned Boston school board president, Walker thought math homework harmed children's health. So he pushed the panel to ban it in 1900.

His move was part of a nationwide anti-homework frenzy. Ladies' Home Journal called homework "barbarous"; school districts such as Los Angeles abolished it in kindergarten through eighth grade; and many educators said it caused tuberculosis, nervous conditions and heart disease in the young. Playing in the sunshine, they said, was healthier than sweating over the pluperfect.

How mightily things change.

Today, Leila Afshar, 17, a senior at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School here, tackles four hours of homework every weeknight. Last year, it was six hours. "It's taught me a lot of time-management skills and discipline," Leila said in an understatement.

Although Leila's load is unusually heavy, she is testament to the increased homework for children of all ages. A University of Michigan study, for example, found that 9- to 11-year-olds averaged 3 1/2 hours a week on homework in 1997, almost an hour more than in 1981.

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In reaction to this trend, another anti-homework movement is building. This time, critics aren't just complaining that there's too much of it, they're also questioning why the assignments are so dull.

The conflict over what, or how much, to assign stems partly from the fact that educators can't seem to agree on the purpose of homework. Consider a hypothetical example: three fifth-grade teachers who present the same history lesson on the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

The first teacher thinks that homework is necessary to reinforce what is learned in school, and that it's too bad if children find the repetition boring. She assigns her students to memorize key events and write a report about what was discussed in the classroom.

The second teacher thinks the point of homework is to cover material that the class didn't have time to get to, so his assignment is to read a biography of Samuel Adams.

The third teacher uses homework to encourage exploration and creativity. She asks her students to pretend they were participants on the night of Dec. 16, 227 years ago, and to write about what they did and who gave them their orders.

There are also teachers who like homework simply for the work habits it supposedly fosters, and some who believe it is essential because it is the best way for parents to learn what their children do in school.

No Rationale Behind Assignments, Say Parents

But many parents say there often appears to be no rationale for what's written in their children's assignment books.

Elissa Cohen, who has twins at Lafayette Elementary School, doesn't like the fact that third-grade students in Washington, D.C., elementary schools are asked to write about 25 book summaries a year. Regurgitating a plot can be accomplished by reading a book's flap or asking a friend.

"They do the same thing over and over without really getting into alternate ways of thinking about books and thinking about reading and writing," she said, though Lafayette's third-grade teachers also assign an in-depth book project once a month that requires more creativity.

Some education reformers, such as Howard Gardner, a Harvard University professor renowned for his theory on multiple intelligence, think that Cohen is on the right track.

"Teachers can ask children to do things that require the use of different kinds of intelligence," Gardner said, "for example, preparing for a debate, creating a work of art, designing a program, enacting historical or literary roles, carrying out different scientific experiments."

But it often is hard to persuade overworked teachers to give much thought to homework assignments. Some principals, such as Ken Gallegos at Grattan Elementary School in San Francisco, say the chores being doled out are so rarely beneficial that they are counseling their teachers to get out of the homework business.

"It's starting as young as kindergarten," Gallegos said. "This is all just kind of ridiculous, particularly when you consider the actual homework experience in most homes, which is very negative." Many parents, especially single mothers, have little time to help children with their homework or to force them to do it, he said.

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Some researchers question what children as young as 6 are getting out of it. A study last year by Sandra Hofferth, a senior scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, found no evidence that students' performance in elementary school is affected by the amount of homework they receive. Other homework historians say there is some link in high school.

What does help elementary students, Hofferth said, "is just sitting and reading a book, but children spend very little time just reading."

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