Homework--one of the dullest topics in the land is also one of the hottest. That's because education is high on the nation's agenda, and the pressure for achievement is on.
Schools have growing lists of education standards and goals, plus expanding numbers of tests that children must pass to move forward. At the same time, parents worry about their children's education and want the very best experience so that the kids will be smart, accomplished and able to earn a good living.
This pressure has led to more homework being assigned than in previous years. But parents are not always comfortable with this situation. They fret about how much to help their children. They worry that the kids are getting too much homework--and then sometimes worry that their children are getting too little homework to be prepared for the competitive world.
It's time for parents to update their thinking about homework.
Today, as in past years, homework is important. There is no way that a school (even a good school) by itself can make sure that children learn all they have to learn. This means that, like it or not, work has to be taken home.
All homework, no matter how routine and uninspired, teaches certain basics: "You have a job to do. Do it. It takes effort and perseverance to complete the work."
But these fundamental principles are not enough. Not for today. Piles of homework in themselves offer no guarantee that children are learning the lessons necessary for success as adults. These skills for later life include problem solving and critical thinking, organization, self-discipline, personal motivation. These are the higher-order skills--I call them "Mega-Skills"--that only a small percentage of students used to learn. Now, all our children need them.
The best homework assignments are those that can be done only at home--for example, reading stories aloud with family members and reporting back at school on which stories everyone liked best and why. Or a writing assignment that calls for interviewing relatives and neighbors to come up with brief biographies on these important people in children's lives. Or a science assignment that calls for simple experiments in the kitchen or the bathtub. Homes have resources that classrooms don't, and these have unique potential for the best homework assignments.
Teachers across the nation are reporting another really disturbing homework problem. Children, even so-called good students, just are not doing their homework, no matter whether it's exciting or dull.
The school can only do so much. Teachers cannot follow children home to ensure that they do their work. That's the role of family members, and it cannot be ignored or replaced by buying kids all kinds of learning toys and equipment. There is no substitute: Children have to do homework and it must be monitored.
Even when the assignments are just routine homework--ditto after ditto, day after day--parents can help children make something meaningful out of the task.
Involve children in analyzing--not just complaining about--homework assignments. Help children think about how they would teach this subject. Talk about setting goals. Help them evaluate their own work.
In short, even when the homework is routine, parents can help children become problem solvers and self-directed learners who are able to take increasing responsibility for their own learning.
How? Parents need to take some time, about once a week, to move through the following four questions with their child, particularly when they hear complaints that something was a really "dumb" assignment. Some children can respond even in the early grades. Some have to wait for their middle school years.
* What do you think the teacher is trying to teach with this assignment? What is the goal of the assignment? Is it to help teach certain basic facts? Is it to provide more practice?
Homework isn't designed to torture students. There is a teaching/learning goal and it's helpful to figure it out.
* What do you think the teacher can do differently?
Children often have very good ideas about how to put the lesson across. Don't blame or wait for the teacher. Parents can take an idea and follow it through. For example, if the assignment is about fractions, there's cooking with fractions, shopping with them, finding them in the newspaper. These are easy ways to show children how fractions affect their life outside the classroom. Teachers teach large groups. This is how to individualize the assignment at home.
* What would you like to learn about this subject?
Ask the child. The answer might be "I don't know" or "Nothing." But keep checking. Perhaps your child is studying the lives of great men and women. How about their childhoods? What were these famous folk like as kids?
In science, the text may be focusing on plants or small insects. Take a walk around the block together to find some. Bring along a magnifying glass to take an even closer look. This primes the pump for children to pursue their own interests well beyond what can be covered in class.
* What can we do together here at home to learn more?
Brainstorm ideas together. Perhaps your child has read the story assigned and really enjoyed it. Parents can read the story also and talk about it. How about checking for another story by the same author? If the Internet is accessible, encourage your child to check search engines for more material on the same writer. With your child, identify realistic learning goals to focus on and keep moving even in small steps to fulfill them.
Use these questions as takeoff points. Make up your own. They get kids thinking. The big goal that I emphasize is that our real work as educators and as parents today is to help children develop as learners for results well beyond Friday's test.
One of the major concerns among parents is how to judge a child's homework.
A child's work has to be as perfect as a child can make it. Not as perfect, or imperfect, as a parent can make it. That means children have to be able to assess the quality of their own work. Johnetta Smith, principal of Charles Young School in the District, uses the analogy of a fast-food hamburger to help children understand academic standards. When the burger is below par, she explains, with a cold roll and minimal meat, it's not meeting basic standards. When it's fresh on a hot sesame bun, with all the fixings, it's advanced. This puts across the message very understandably to students.
While there will always be useful and less useful assignments, homework's greatest potential is to encourage good study habits. The first task is for children to do their assignments. The next step is to turn these assignments into real learning experiences.
Finally, a word about the parent's role. To be involved in their children's education, parents need to know what is going on. They ask the teachers. They ask their children. They get information, but they shouldn't do the homework for the children.
The best advice I give to parents struggling with their often ambiguous role is to think about homework in the same way they think about sports activities in which their children participate. Parents can cheer but they don't go out on the field to catch the baseball. They don't tackle the opposing players.
They're coaches, not players. It's the child who has to be able to say, "I did it!"
Dorothy Rich is the president of the nonprofit Home and School Institute in the District. She is the author of "Megaskills: Building Children's Achievement for the Information Age."
How Parents Can Make The Most of Homework
* Make the point and keep making it: Education is important. All homework is to be done! Let children know that this is what you value.
* Prepare a work space at home in a quiet area. It can be almost any modest place with a table, chair and lamp.
* Develop with children a schedule for homework and for chores around the house. List these on a calendar, day by day, week by week.
* Convey the impression that children can do the job. If they are hesitant, remind them of previous accomplishments. Be encouraging and be specific. A child who feels capable will be more willing to try new things.
* Help children, as needed, divide a job into manageable steps that can be done one step at a time. This is useful for a range of jobs, from daily household tasks to big homework assignments.
* Pick the time for homework with care. In some homes, early morning is the best time; in others it's after supper. TV should be off-limits while doing homework.
* Don't worry about what you may not have done in the past. Start where you are now.
CAPTION: Takia Neeley gets some help with her math homework at the Children of Mine Community Center in Southeast Washington.