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NCLB Outrages

In Homework Wars, Student Wins a Battle: More Time to Unwind on Vacation

Ohanian Comment: Kudos to Sean Gordon-Loebl. Instead of whining about homework, he did something about it. Note how teachers attribute the increase in homework to NCLB. I admit that I got a mean chuckle out of the notion of assigning Moby Dick to fulfill an "overarching goal. . . to have students become lifelong independent readers.â I had to read Moby Dick as a senior in college, and I hated it. I tried it again when I was 42 and discovered it is indeed a wonderful book. Some books require a few life experiences to be appreciated.

Prof. Celia Oyler makes a critical point here: âWhere the kids are already behind, not very motivated and stressed out by their community, how do you make school a place where kids can be successful?â

Take a look at Sara Bennett's Stop Homework site. Stop Homework is the blog of Sara Bennett, co-author of The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It. The site provides up-to-the-minute homework news and opinion articles, guest editorials, suggestions for advocating change in homework policy, and discussion forums for parents, educators, psychologists, and students.

By Joseph Berger

Slight and bookish, looking more like Harry Potter than Voldemort, Sean Gordon-Loebl has accomplished what more menacing students can only fantasize about: He persuaded his school to put limits on homework.

It wasnât just any school. Sean, 15, convinced Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, one of the nationâs most competitive (cynics might say cutthroat), that it needed to restrict homework during vacations. Like the earnest boy in âThe Emperorâs New Clothes,â Sean pointed out what seemed obvious â that long vacation projects ruin the chance to recharge, catch up on sleep and spend time with family and friends.

The principal, agreeing that vacations are âdown timeâ and should not be used to âheap on homework,â responded by suggesting to teachers that brushing up on Shakespeare would be a fine spring-break assignment; writing an entire play would not.

âI had some pretty bad vacations where I would get projects in Spanish that took me forever,â Sean said in an interview, savoring his feat. âThe teacher made us formulate a fictitious life in Spanish. I made up important documents from that personâs life like an invitation to his bar mitzvah and his death certificate.â

The Stuyvesant affair is yet another battle in the nationâs homework wars, perhaps not as fierce as the culture wars, but about as pervasive. Like curriculum in the culture wars, homework is a stand-in for other issues â the demands we make of children in an ever more competitive global village.

Administrators facing the gun-to-the-head approach of the federal No Child Left Behind law â with its yearly testing mandates and sanctions for schools whose students do not make so-called adequate progress â are insisting on more nightly drill work. Meanwhile, schools buttressing their record of college admissions keep loading on homework-heavy Advanced Placement courses.

One faction of parents approves. But another complains that homework erodes childhood, leads to nightly squabbles and is responsible for ills like obesity and depression. The annual fall harvest of education books bring titles like âThe Case Against Homework,â âThe End of Homeworkâ and âThe Homework Myth,â which corroborate the argument of homeworkâs detractors. Advocates of severely limiting homework like to cite a letter to parents last September from the principal of Oak Knoll Elementary School in Menlo Park, Calif., declaring that one hour a night is more than enough for 9- and 10-year-olds.

âLarge amounts of homework stifle motivation, diminish a childâs love of learning, turn reading into a chore, negatively affect the quality of family time, diminish creativity, and turn learning into drudgery,â the principal, David Ackerman, wrote.

What often gets lost in the debate is some common sense and some distinctions that need to be made for the children, courses and schools involved. One hour a night may be too much for a third grader, but not enough for a high-school junior taking three college-level classes. The demand for homework in a class of lagging readers from a neighborhood where parents may not be schooled enough to help or where the children may be frying burgers part time could be different than at a prep school where students shoot for the Ivies and parents are well educated.

Those who would virtually banish homework lose track of a reality pointed out by Eric Grossman, Stuyvesantâs assistant principal for English who has seniors read long novels like âMoby Dick.â

âThatâs not something we can do in school in 40-minute chunks each day â and discuss,â he said. âOne of the overarching goals in our department is to have students become lifelong independent readers.â

Similarly, Stanley Teitel, Stuyvesantâs principal and a former physics teacher, said he can teach the overall concepts of conservation of momentum in class, but needs students to work out applications in their homework. âIâve got 41 minutes to teach, and thatâs not enough time,â he said, âIâve got to try to find a way to have homework lengthen my time.â

On the other hand, Mr. Grossman does not believe âin heaping on homework to communicate rigorâ and disparages assignments that require students to read a chapter and answer 20 factual questions. âSimply restating facts doesnât require processing, synthesis and evaluation,â he said.

Like most education fashions, the homework load has fluctuated, rising with Sputnik and 1983âs âA Nation at Riskâ report and dropping during an era of relative indulgence like the â60s. At the moment, most parents seem satisfied, according to an Associated Press-AOL poll conducted by Knowledge Networks from Jan. 13 to 23, 2006. It showed that 57 percent of parents felt children were assigned the right amount of homework; only 19 percent said they had too much and 23 percent said too little.

Harris Cooper, chairman of the education program at Duke University, who has studied the research on homeworkâs effectiveness, said nightly practice makes sense for foreign languages or mathematics because it solidifies confidence. The research, he said, also suggests that homework improves scores on end-of-year tests.

Dr. Cooper likes the 10-minute rule: increase the amount by 10 minutes per grade so that a third grader is doing 30 minutes, a fourth grader 40 minutes. He likes assignments âstudents are curious to do rather than doing them because of external rewards or punishmentâ and affectionately cited one his wife, a teacher, gives. She hands first graders disposable cameras to photograph household objects that look like letters â a folded pair of glasses that resembles the letter B, for example.

One reason many assignments may be pointless is that in their training, teachers are rarely taught what kinds of homework to give, according to Sara Bennett in âThe Case Against Homework,â a book she wrote with Nancy Kalish. Different standards may be needed for different students.

âI have a friend who is a parent of a child in an elementary school in Brookline and works hours on homework with her daughter,â said Katherine Boles, a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. âItâs unfair for children who are poor who donât have a middle-class person who can help them.â

Similarly, Celia Oyler, associate professor of curriculum and teaching at Columbiaâs Teachers College in New York, sees homework as âa great social divider,â pointing out that students living in crowded tenements may not have a quiet corner with an uncluttered table. She suggests that it may not be wise for teachers to pile on homework at high schools filled with students on the verge of dropping out. âWhere the kids are already behind, not very motivated and stressed out by their community, how do you make school a place where kids can be successful?â she asked.

At Stuyvesant â which uses a rough guideline of a half-hour of homework per night for each course â many children come from immigrant homes where their parents do not speak English and work two jobs. But Stuyvesant, a selective public school, is a rarefied world where students are being groomed for top colleges, so homework rules may be tailored differently.

Sean, an A-minus sophomore who has a feet-on-the-ground sense of when homework is necessary, did not get exactly what he wanted; he wanted no homework on vacations whatsoever. But he was pleased that his teacher recently assigned a paper on âOthelloâ a week before spring vacation so that those who did not want to spoil an indolent interlude could hand it in before classes ended Friday.

E-mail: joeberg@nytimes.com

— Joseph Berger
New York Times


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