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

Dear Homeroom:

Aaaauuuuuuggggghhhhh!

Parent

Montgomery County

That cry of anguish that I'm hearing from parents covers a lot of ground, 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 either 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 school.

That's what homework should be. And when students--at least, students in the later grades--do homework, they achieve more academically than if they don't.

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 is also advocated by the National PTA and other educational organizations--is that children should do about 10 minutes of homework per 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. Most schools in the county have homework policies that give guidelines for homework, and the ones I've seen fall roughly into these time frames.

But it is not enough to talk about quantity of homework--we also need to talk about the quality.

A new booklet produced by The Education Trust, a nonprofit education organization (you can find their Web page at www.edtrust.org) advises parents to study the standards their children are supposed to be meeting and then look at homework to see whether it helps students 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 your child to practice basic computation or--even better--to do word problems so he or she can practice computation as part of using math in everyday situations. Both computation and problem-solving are standards second-graders are supposed to meet.

Montgomery County students are supposed to be meeting both county and state standards, but the state standards are a little easier to get a grip on because they are published in an easily accessible (I didn't say readable) form on the state's Web site, http://www.mdk12.org under "Maryland State Performance Standards: Content Standards." According to those standards, for example, by the end of eighth grade, students are supposed to be able to analyze and explain a wide variety of topics in social studies, 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, unfortunately), parents can take the standards to the teacher and ask what standard the coloring assignment helps students to meet.

Parents should be forewarned that teachers are not always adept at handling this kind of discussion. They 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 let's assume for the moment that all homework is meaningful and helps students achieve at high levels. What role should parents play? Parents have heard, endlessly, that they need to provide a quiet place free of distractions for their children to do their homework, but what else? When their children are frustrated and tired and unable to concentrate anymore, should parents help their children? And what does "help" mean?

I talked with Patricia B. Flynn, Montgomery County's director of academic programs, about this. She brought the discussion back to what the purpose of the assignment is. "If the purpose is to practice something learned to become automatic, then parents shouldn't help," she says. But, she added, "if the child doesn't understand what to do, that's a wonderful opportunity to start talking. Parents can talk about strategies about how to tackle the assignment, things to think about, and ask the student what was learned that day" to stimulate thought about what the homework assignment is about. If the student still can't approach the assignment, "the parent should then let the teacher know that this was very difficult for his child and that this is something that needs to be retaught," Flynn said.

If there is a relatively simple homework hurdle to be overcome, one nice resource in the county that too few people know about is the Homework Hotline. It's a cable television call-in show on Channel 52 on the cable box or Channel 7 on cable-ready televisions. Students call 301-279-3234 and get help from teachers who staff the show, and they are ready to tackle a broad variety of problems. The show is on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Meaningful or not, students spend serious time doing homework, and teachers spend serious time checking it. Teachers say--and they are right--that they don't have time to do everything that is expected of them. But nothing is more likely to get students angry and make them cynical about homework than if the teacher never returns it, 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.

Flynn says that when teachers don't return homework, that poses a serious problem. "Part of what teachers have to communicate is that the work students are doing is important. But what is being communicated if the teacher doesn't look at it?" she asks.

This is again something parents need to discuss first with the teacher and then with the principal. The Montgomery County school board has said that homework is "important and beneficial." Flynn advised parents in this situation to ask principals, "How can homework be important and beneficial . . . if the teacher is not reviewing the homework? What are you as principal doing to make sure that homework is meaningful and beneficial? If the principal says nothing, go up the line." That means go to Deputy Superintendent Steven Seleznow, and if that doesn't work, to Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. So, you see, she thinks this is a serious issue.

Finally, I thought I would mention Harris Cooper's pet peeve (he's the researcher at the University of Missouri): the practice of teachers handing out homework passes as rewards for good work.

"What a homework pass suggests is that doing homework is aversive, so a pass makes a good reward. Why would you communicate that?" he says.

One child I know heartily agrees with Cooper. "Either it's important to do homework or it is just busywork," she says. "If it's important, you shouldn't give out homework passes, and if it's busywork, you shouldn't waste my time."

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