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Jewish World Review August 27, 2002 / 19 Elul, 5762

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

Homework can be work for parents, too | My soon-to-be third and first-graders are looking forward to starting school in a couple of weeks. (Well, sort of.) I myself am not as excited about it.

It's not just that I love the carefree, unscheduled time of summer, though I do. It's not just that I enjoy having all my kids around (and the way they keep each other occupied), though that's true too.

It's the homework.

The amount of time spent on homework in America is at an all time high and it's growing fastest for the littlest ones. Children 6 to 8 years old in public school have seen the homework load increase three-fold since 1987, to 30 minutes a night. But, that's only an average. From coast to coast overloaded kids - and parents - report homework in the very earliest grades of an hour or more each evening.

It can eat up family time, kid play and outside activity time, mommy time - and it can really stress out the children.

What a change from earlier generations. Though today we might nostalgically assume that yesteryear's little ones sweated even longer hours over homework loads, it's not true. So showed Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman in a 1996 article in the American Journal of Education. They chronicle how for much of the 20th century, America's top educators opposed assigning homework at young ages. In 1900 William Harris, who was then the commissioner of Education in the United States, testified to Congress that there should be no homework before age 12.

In the years leading up to World War I, the eminently respected Ladies Home Journal led a national crusade against homework. In the 1920s and 1930s New York City banned homework through the fourth grade, and some cities prohibited it until later. And that's when America led the world in primary education.

One of the reasons we moved our son out of the private school he was attending in the middle of second grade is that the homework load was just overwhelming. It's better at the local public school but it still doesn't fit the "ten minute" rule, a very rough but helpful gauge for homework, according to Harris Cooper of the University of Missouri, a scholar of the issue.

Harris explained the rule as meaning about ten minutes of homework a night for first grade, twenty minutes for second, thirty for third grade and so on. In the early grades, he said, homework should be viewed primarily as helping develop time management and organizational skills. Harris is the author of "The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents" (Corwin Press, 2001).

When Harris and his colleagues did a survey of more than 100 homework studies they found, to the surprise of many, that there are no benefits to academic performance from heavy-duty homework assigned before junior high school.

Sometimes, it seems, the parents demand the homework for their little overachievers-in-waiting. Sometimes the schools want to do something, anything, to look good. Sometimes, with the increasing requirements that schools do more in terms of "family life" curricula, providing social services, and other non-academic pursuits, they have to send something home with even the littlest students in order to get it all in.

So, what to do? Concerned parents need to talk to the child's teacher or principal about why, what, and how much homework is being assigned. They may find that they are satisfied with the answers, or if not that constructive dialogue leads to constructive changes. Sometimes, the options of a new school or home schooling are the most viable ones. But once that is sorted out, no matter how much or little homework is coming home with junior, there are five things parents should do, Harris told me:

"Stage Manage" your kids, making sure they have a good place to work, have paper, pencils and other supplies as needed.

Mentor your kids, giving assistance, not answers when asked for.

Model good behavior (don't tell your children to do their homework then turn on the TV yourself).

Motivate your kids to get excited about their assignments.

Most of all monitor your children to make sure they are not overstressed by the work. Well, I'm still not sure I'm ready for the school year. . . but at least here's one homework assignment that really makes sense.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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