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The Homework Blues Hit Home

Parents worry about kids' workloads; experts differ on need for homework

SATURDAY, May 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Homework blues are in the news as increasing numbers of worried parents are calling for a time out for their overworked elementary school kids.

Young children are getting assigned as much as 1½ hours of homework for one subject, according to recent news reports, and some school districts have now limited the amount of homework teachers can assign.

"The phone calls I get from disturbed parents suggest that ... the amount of homework is a source of concern," says Harris Cooper, chairman of the University of Missouri's psychological sciences department and author of the forthcoming book, The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents."

The concern, particularly about elementary school workloads, is well-founded, says Cooper, whose book, to be published in May, summarizes more than 100 studies on homework and recommends how best to use homework to further academic achievement.

Research shows a strong connection between homework and improved academic achievement in high school, he says. But in elementary school, "There is no connection between how much homework parents say their children do and how well [the children] do on standardized tests," he adds.

The parental complaints that Cooper hears range from the amount of work their elementary school children are expected to do, to the time it takes from an already-crowded schedule, to the affect on their kids' health.

Potential health problems include stress, interference with sleep, and tension -- from parent-child conflicts over the homework assignments, he adds.

Also, Cooper notes, "by spending too much time on homework, a child could get bored or question his ability, which could lead to a low academic self-concept."

A cycle of reaction

The concern about homework, Cooper adds, is actually an ongoing story.

"There seems to be a cycle, about every 15 years, when homework becomes a point of public dialogue," he says.

In the 1950s, when the Soviets beat the United States into space with the launch of the first satellite, the reaction was to increase homework loads as a way to improve America's competitive edge. By the 1970s, however, the emphasis was on decreasing stress for kids, and that meant fewer homework assignments, he says.

Right now, rising school standards have again tipped the scales the other way.

"By teaching more and in greater depth, teachers are being forced to use homework as a way to cover curriculum," Cooper explains.

That's not to say all parents are concerned about homework levels, Cooper says. In fact, a national study last October by Public Agenda, a non-profit research group in New York City, found that two-thirds of parents think the amount of assigned homework is fine.

Adds Cooper: "And affluent parents, concerned about competing for elite colleges, are requiring school districts to increase homework for testing."

John Buell, a former teacher and now an educational consultant from Southwest Harbor, Maine, co-authored the recent book The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning. It claims that too much homework for elementary school kids places unnecessary strains on busy families without achieving academic rewards.

"Anyone who questions homework is thought to be in favor of lower academic standards, which isn't true," Buell says. "Loading up on homework isn't the most effective way to achieve those standards."

Small classes, more teacher training and widened access to pre-kindergarten classes are much preferable to daily homework, Buell and co-author and educator Etta Kralovec say in their book.

10 minutes per grade per night

A number of educational organizations recommend a basic standard for homework: 10 minutes per grade per night, starting in first grade.

That's because homework can help the learning process, Cooper notes.

"With young children, [homework] can begin the process of shaping [their] study habits and time-management skills," he says. "Also, parents can express to children how important homework and school are."

And parents can play a crucial role in making homework successful for a child, but not necessarily in ways that they might think, educators say.

"I never expect parents to teach at home unless they're comfortable," says Sylvia Seidel, a program director at the National Educators Association in Washington, D.C. "Many parents don't have the time, or they feel unqualified."

Instead, she says, parents can help by providing a quiet place for their children to work and monitoring them to make sure their study time is productive and they don't spend too much time on their assignments.

"Spending 20 or 30 minutes in concentrated study, without jumping up to get a glass of milk or running to the TV, gives the child time to reflect and review what he has learned in school," she says.

"If the time becomes excessive ... the parents should go to the teacher and talk," she adds.

"There should be a partnership between the school and parents," she says, "so that learning can be done in a climate that is positive and exciting."

What To Do

The Chicago Public Schools has an informative Web site on how parents can help their kids with homework.

Teachers can get tips on helping their students be successful with their homework by visiting the U.S. Department of Education.

HealthScout also has some interesting stories on the topic, which you can read by going to homework.

SOURCES: Interviews with Harris Cooper, Ph.D., chairman, psychological sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia; Sylvia Seidel, Ph.D., director, professional development school research project, National Educators Association, Washington, D.C.; John Buell, educational consultant, Southwest Harbor, Maine
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