I've had several questions about homework that, for the purpose of conciseness, I have combined into one representative letter:

Dear Homeroom:

Aaaauuuuuuggggghhhhh!

Parent

That cry of anguish that I'm hearing from parents covers a lot of ground, ranging from "My child has too much homework" to "My child has too little homework"; from "My child's homework is busywork" to "My child's homework is so hard she doesn't understand it and sometimes neither do I."

Let's see if we can sort some of this out. First off, what's the point of homework? The same as the point of school: to help children learn at high levels. Painfully obvious, you might think, but it's all too easy to get distracted from that goal.

Homework provides an opportunity for students to concentrate on material without the distractions of 20 or 30 of their schoolmates and allows children time to practice a needed skill, fully absorb something taught in school, extend what was learned in class or learn something new. Working at home without a teacher is a wonderful opportunity for students to research and write about topics at a depth often difficult to achieve in the bustle of school.

That's what homework should be. And we know that when students--at least those in the later grades--do homework, they achieve more academically.

One of the people who has researched this question is Harris Cooper, of the University of Missouri at Columbia.

"In elementary school, homework does not bear a strong association with how well [students] will do on achievement scores," he says.

But, he adds, "as kids get older, the associations are much stronger."

Based on his research, Cooper says, "All children should be doing homework. But the amount and quality should change." His basic prescription--and this is something that also is advocated by the National PTA and other educational organizations--is that children should be doing about 10 minutes of homework a day per grade. So, for example, third-graders should be doing about 30 minutes of homework a day, eighth-graders 80 minutes, etc.

Independent reading should be in addition to that. That's not a bad rule of thumb, but Sandra Rawlings, the director of curriculum and instruction for Prince George's, disagrees with such a blanket recommendation.

"It would depend on the child," she says. "Some children need more homework."

The question here, she says, is: "Do you want time to drive or rigor to drive?"

Rawlings is getting at one of the key questions facing educators today. Up until recently, society has set a time limit on schooling--six hours a day, 180 days a year--and we have allowed what children learn during that time to vary widely. Some children learn a great deal; others learn relatively little. In the past few years, however, a wide variety of educational reformers have argued that we must make sure all children learn a great deal, and they have urged that we make sure that children for whom learning takes longer have more time to learn--late afternoons, weekends, summers, whatever it takes. In scientific terms, they are saying that we should hold learning constant and allow the time to vary rather than holding the time constant and allowing the learning to vary.

Certainly, homework has to be part of that equation. The Education Trust is a nonprofit organization that falls roughly into this category of time-learning reformers (you can find its Web page at www.edtrust.org). In a new booklet about homework, it advises parents to study the standards their children are supposed to be meeting and then look at their homework to see whether it helps them meet those standards.

Education Trust then advocates that parents ask teachers such questions as, "What did you want my child to learn from this assignment? Is there a standard that relates to the learning goal of the assignment?"

Sometimes the standard will be obvious. For example, a second-grade math assignment might require students to practice basic computation or--even better--to do word problems so they can practice computation as part of using math in everyday situations. Both computation and problem solving are standards all second-graders are supposed to meet. Other times, the match between standards and homework is not so obvious and requires an explanation.

Prince George's County students are supposed to be meeting county and state standards, and the county recently published what children are supposed to be learning each year in what it calls its "scope and sequence" for the elementary grades and, for middle and high schools, by subject. Parents can look at it at three libraries: Hyattsville, New Carrollton or Oxon Hill (but the Prince George's schools information office advises parents to ask precisely for "scope and sequence" or you are likely to get blank stares from the librarians). Otherwise, parents can go to the Prince George's public school system's Web site at www.pgcps.org to find the scope and sequence. Once at the Web site, click on Instruction, then Division of Instruction, then Documents, then the letter S. Go down below Science, where you'll find "Scope and Sequence" and look for subjects and grades.

The process made me dizzy, but it can be done. A bit more accessible are the state's new standards, which can be found on the state's Web site www.mdk12.org under "Maryland State Performance Standards: Content Standards."

According to those standards, by the end of 8th grade, students are supposed to be able to analyze and explain topics in social studies ranging from immigration to the American Revolution and the Civil War.

If students are being given coloring assignments in middle school social studies classes (all too common in middle schools across the country, unfortunately), parents can take the state and county standards to the teacher and tactfully ask which standard the coloring assignment helps students meet.

A parent contemplating having such a standards discussion with a teacher told me she felt a little like a patient telling a doctor how to do an appendectomy. "I don't know anything about it," she said.

But if a medical association were to put out a standards checklist for appendectomies, patients would be able to check to see whether they were being met.

Such things as, "Appendectomies should be performed in a hospital surgery room with the following equipment in good working order," would allow patients of all educational levels to at least begin to evaluate their own care.

In the same way, all parents can use educational standards to ensure that their children's homework--and schoolwork in general--is appropriate and at a high level. Parents should be forewarned that teachers are not always adept at handling this kind of discussion. Teachers are not often trained to discuss and defend their teaching decisions. But teachers need to be able to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it. They won't always convince parents that they are right, but they should be able to convince parents that their instructional choices are thoughtful, informed and subject to change if the results aren't what the teacher intended.

But if parents are not happy with the discussion they have with the teacher, they should keep moving up the line to the principal and, if that yields nothing, to Rawlings and even Superintendent Iris T. Metts.

One problem I have heard parents across the country complain about is that in some high schools with block scheduling, the students do their homework in class rather than outside school. Block scheduling is used by some high schools in Prince George's and elsewhere to increase class length. A 1 1/2-hour class should mean students and teachers work at greater depth, but teachers sometimes continue their old 45-minute-lesson pattern and allow students to do their homework for the rest of the class.

Allowing students to do homework during class, Rawlings said, means that students lose precious hours of instruction, and she would consider it a serious problem. Rawlings said that if she heard of such a practice she would assign the teacher to receive additional training "because the teacher doesn't know how to use the time." So you can see how serious this homework thing is.

Finally, nothing is more likely to get students angry and make them cynical about homework in particular--and schoolwork in general--than if the teacher never returns homework, or returns it weeks later, too late for students to use as a guide to improvement. Quick, thorough feedback is one of the ways homework leads to higher achievement, and when it doesn't occur, the usefulness of homework drops considerably.

Parents who notice that homework is never checked and returned should discuss this with the teacher and, again, with the principal and on up the line. One last thing--I just found a Web site for parents about homework that was set up by the U.S. Department of Education: www.ed.gov/pubs/parents/Homework/

It has lots of practical, sensible advice for how parents should approach homework.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.