Summer Often Spells No Vacation From Homework

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Issie Griffith conquered two novels and a 100-page math packet on a recent summer break. So this year, the 12-year-old was ready for her latest load of vacation homework: four books to read, each with written summaries, preparation for the rigors of sixth grade.

Now it is just a matter of finishing it up as the days of summer dwindle.

"I have a lot to go," said Issie, who spent many hours this summer at the pool, with friends, and at tennis and acting camps. Still, she said, "I know I'm going to get it done."

For Issie and many other students across the Washington region, summer homework is as familiar as fireworks in July and back-to-school shopping in August. Often, it goes far beyond the summer reading list that some of their parents remember from childhood. First-graders solve math problems. Middle schoolers create plot summaries. High school students pore over Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain.

Lately this modern rite of the season is under increased scrutiny as many educators rethink how much summer homework students should get, whether it should be required, and how it is related to classroom lessons.

Supporters say summer homework staves off the learning loss that comes with so much time outside the classroom.

Some educators point out the limitations: Students work on assignments largely without teacher support; summer work can pose grading problems in the fall; and the requirements may overwhelm already-stressed kids who need the break.

"Summer should be summer," said Jayne Fonash, guidance director at the Academy of Science, a magnet high school in Loudoun County, which assigns one book, a "fun science read," with no reports or tests. "We really do believe summer is the time to rest and rejuvenate and then come back to school in September excited and ready to go."

Although not universal, the notion appears to be more common than it was a few years ago. For a time, summer homework was on the rise, many educators said, a sign of serious-mindedness about academic achievement. It often counts as a grade.

"I think the pendulum has shifted," said Gail Hubbard, supervisor of gifted education and special programs in Prince William County, where summer homework policies are under review. "I think we went for several years requiring more and more and more." Now, she said, the goal is "to make sure it benefits the learner instead of burdens the learner."

At Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County, summer math packets that were once routinely required became optional last year, said Principal Chris Garran. This year, they have disappeared.

"We really didn't see a difference between students who did the packet and those who didn't," he said. The school's English department still requires students to complete a reading assignment, but Garran said he believes in limiting the overall workload.

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