Carly survived first grade, is now a third grader and has grown used to the homework life. One recent day, she came home from school at 3:05, hoisted her backpack onto the kitchen table and by 3:10 was doing her homework. ''You want a snack?'' her Mom asked. ''You want to watch a little TV first?''
''Mom,'' Carly said. ''I have to do my homework!''
''Carly has a notebook for all her homework assignments,'' Ms. Lehman said. ''I don't remember being so organized like this at this age -- they have to be organized!''
Ms. Lehman is right when it comes to measuring the gross tonnage of today's homework: American schools are giving more and more to younger and younger children. A national survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan showed that in 1981 6- to 8-year-olds spent an average of 44 minutes a week on homework (about 9 minutes a school night). By 1997, homework for first to third graders had nearly tripled, to 123 minutes a week (or 25 minutes a night).
While Millburn has long been a high-powered suburban district, ranking at the top of national academic surveys, it has not always been a heavy homework district. Pat Romano is one of the first-grade teachers at Deerfield Elementary School in Millburn assigning the alleged 20 minutes of homework each night. But in the 1970's, when Ms. Romano's two children attended elementary school in Millburn, they had no homework until fifth or sixth grade, she said. And they did just fine: her son graduated from Brown University in engineering; her daughter got a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. So it seemed natural to ask her, ''Do you really think it's necessary for first graders to have so much homework?''
''I could say a lot,'' Ms. Romano said, ''but I don't want to comment.'' She felt that mandatory homework was too controversial to discuss on the record.
Martin Burne, the principal of Deerfield, said the school really has no choice -- it must assign homework. ''This is what's demanded to stay competitive in a global market,'' he said. ''There's a feeling that somehow all of this extra work and early discipline builds up to give us an edge in standardized testing.'' But there is a trade-off, he acknowledged. ''To do this, we are taking away some of the years of adolescence and childhood.''
For her part, Ms. Lehman keeps wondering if this generation of little children will burn out by high school. She remembers a second-grade homework assignment that required Carly to pick a country and write a report on it. Then parents were invited to school to hear the reports and sample foods from the various countries. ''This kid did his report on France,'' Ms. Lehman said. ''Then he put it down and said, 'I did a second report on another country.' My reaction was, 'Would you just shut up!' ''
There is an assumption that the trend today to give more homework sooner is a return to traditional values, but that is not the case. As Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman pointed out in their 1996 article in the American Journal of Education, for much of this century leading educators have deplored assigning homework at a young age. As early as the 1890's, a muckraking doctor, Joseph Mayer Rice, attacked the homework ''spelling grind.''
''Is it not our duty to save the child from this grind?'' he wrote in 1897.
In 1900, the Commissioner of Education, William Torrey Harris, testified before Congress that there should be no homework before age 12. In the 20 years before World War I, The Ladies' Home Journal led a national crusade against homework. Teachers wrote the magazine to thank the editor, Edward Bok, for speaking out, saying they were afraid if they criticized mandatory homework practices they would lose their jobs. Newspapers like The New York Times editorialized against homework, and in 1930, the American Child Health Association classified homework as a form of child labor. During the 1920's and 30's, New York City public schools banned homework until fourth grade; San Diego banned it through eighth grade; and Sacramento had a prohibition on elementary-school homework for 45 years, until 1961. In extreme cases, homework was seen as causing crooked spines, night terrors and nervous breakdowns in children. ''Drill and kill,'' they called it.
But whenever the nation has felt an external threat, said Mr. Gill, a researcher at the Rand Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., educators have manned the barricades by piling on homework. Homework grew in popularity in the 50's, after the Russians launched Sputnik, and continued in favor until the late 60's, but lost ground in the anti-Vietnam counterculture years. Then, in the early 80's, with the American economy in recession, the Japanese in ascent and the publication of the study ''A Nation at Risk,'' maintaining that our educational system was lagging behind other industrialized nations', homework returned to fashion and has kept its popularity right through the global economy years.
In these last 15 years, the biggest increase in homework has fallen mainly on the youngest citizens; at the high-school level, homework has stayed fairly constant. University of Michigan researchers have found that the amount of homework the typical high-school senior does has remained virtually unchanged since 1976 -- between six and seven hours a week.
Once the pendulum swings one way, it takes a long time to reverse direction, but there are signs that heaping on homework for young children is taking its toll, at least in the supercharged suburban districts. Dee Shepherd-Look, a psychologist with a family practice in suburban Los Angeles, said that in her 28 years as a therapist she has never treated so many young children for homework-related anxieties. It started 10 years ago, she said, but has become pronounced in the last five.
''I see a lot of school phobias,'' she said. ''I just got off the phone with the mother of a 9-year-old who's a wreck because he can't remember his Shakespeare lines.''
Dr. Shepherd-Look does not blame the schools. ''I think it's the parents who push the schools,'' she said, adding that more parents are working longer hours, they are on call in the evenings and weekends for their jobs and they are doing the same thing to their children.
I had a 5-year-old, she didn't want to go to school,'' Dr. Shepherd-Look added. ''But it wasn't just school -- every day she had some different activity after school. They are what I call resume kids.''
This generation's parents are caught in a trap of their own making: they are pushing their children and their schools to be more competitive, even as they have less time to help with homework and activities.
Picking up on the homework angst, Newsweek did a cover story last spring headlined ''Why Homework Doesn't Help.'' The article was based in part on the research of Harris Cooper of the University of Missouri, considered a leading homework scholar. In 1989, Dr. Cooper did a landmark survey of more than 100 homework studies and concluded that, while children who do substantial amounts of homework perform better on standardized tests at the junior-high and high-school level, it does not seem to make a difference for elementary-age students.
''For elementary-school students, the effect of homework on achievement is trivial, if it exists at all,'' Dr. Cooper concluded.
This would be of great comfort, of course, to all those overwrought parents of young children tormented by superchallenge words, but others question his theory. If scores on standardized tests are going to be used to measure performance -- and such testing has never been more important in American society than it is today -- the proper headline, sadly, may be ''Why Homework Does Matter.''
Joyce Epstein, a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University and also a leading expert on homework, has done studies showing that elementary-school homework improves school performance. She also suspects it improves performance on standardized tests. And it may be that Carol Huntsinger, an education professor at the College of Lake County in suburban Chicago, has produced a new study that demonstrates just that.
In the mid-1980's, Dr. Huntsinger was running a nursery school in an upper-middle-class North Shore suburb. She noticed how parents of her Chinese-American students began formal home study earlier than Euro-American parents did. This was not just creative play; this was sitting at the kitchen table each night doing exercises in phonics and math. And so she devised a research project contrasting the home-study habits of 40 well-educated Chinese-American North Shore families with the habits of 40 similarly prosperous Euro-American families. The typical Chinese-American parents came to this country from Taiwan in their early 20's to attend graduate school, became citizens and had children here. All Euro-American parents, except one, were American-born.
Dr. Huntsinger did her first assessment of the children in the early 90's, when they were in pre-kindergarten or in kindergarten, and has revisited the families every two years since. The Chinese-Americans, she found, brought the cultural practice of doing more homework earlier from their native land.
Olivia Hsiao, a chemist born in Taiwan, would sit with her 4-year-old son, Ronald, each night doing exercises she had devised. She taught numbers and then moved on to addition and subtraction by using objects like playing cards and dice. Before Ronald was in first grade, Ms. Hsiao spent 10 to 15 minutes a day with him on math and the same on phonics. ''He'd count with his fingers and toes,'' she recalled. ''One time I gave him a problem, the answer was more than 10 -- he had to take off his shoes, his fingers weren't enough.''
Before first grade, the Chinese-American children were spending an average of 54 minutes a day in this formal home study, while Euro-Americans spent 6 minutes. The difference continued as the children got older and the homework was provided by schools. At first and second grade, the Chinese-American families averaged 31 minutes on homework versus 11 for the Euro-Americans.
The result was a substantial difference in standardized test results, Dr. Huntsinger found. Typically in math, the Chinese-Americans scored a grade level ahead of the Euro-Americans. But the effect of the home-study habits was even more substantial regarding tests measuring English vocabulary skills. Typically, the Chinese-American children started behind -- their parents spoke Chinese at home. But Dr. Huntsinger found that parents did things like assign an extra 15 English vocabulary words to master each week. Over time it got results. While the children were a year behind the Euro-Americans on the English test in kindergarten, they were a year ahead by fourth grade.
Nor does Dr. Huntsinger think the results can be explained by ethnic differences. There were a few Euro-American families who had a similar approach to homework, and their children had test results similar to the Chinese-Americans'.
Dr. Cooper has not seen this new study, but says that the Chinese-American kindergartners were not technically doing homework because the parents were initiating it. But Dr. Huntsinger countered that American schools could give such exercises for homework at this earlier age, if that were society's priority.
And while this may sound like cruel and unusual punishment for little people, consider that 20 years ago it would have seemed equally harsh to assign first graders homework. Today it is standard practice.
The more homework is assigned at an earlier age, the more the parent is forced to get involved. ''The kids are supposed to do it on their own,'' Ms. Lehman of Millburn said. ''Then they come home with pages of homework sheets with instructions that are full of huge words.''
As Karen Sokoloff, a Millburn parent of two elementary-school children, said: ''They don't just disappear into their rooms to emerge an hour later with everything done, their backpacks zipped up. My husband, Andy, and I split up -- I say, 'You take Eric, I'll take David.' '' Ms. Sokoloff's least favorite homework was second-grade spelling; the children were supposed to write the words three times, using a different-colored marker every time. ''They'd have 20, 25 words, picking up the marker, putting it down, picking up the marker,'' she said. ''It was torture to watch.''
So-called creative homework may be even worse. Foods from around the world -- you think second graders are cooking up those Hungarian goulashes? All over America at this moment, mothers are frantically digging through old shoe boxes to find nine photos of their child, one from each year, so they can begin their third grader's time-line project.
But what of the boy or girl who doesn't have that support at home? The more important that homework becomes in school, the more a child can fall behind. Etta Kralovec, the director of teacher education at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, worked on a state-financed study there in the early 90's, interviewing dropouts about why they quit school. She was amazed that every single person in her survey mentioned the inability to keep up with homework as a major factor. ''These were children from poor families who got no help at home,'' Ms. Kralovec said. ''They fell farther and farther behind until they gave up and dropped out.''
Shawn Courchene, 23, was one of those students interviewed in the survey. He now lives in Oklahoma, where he works in a coffee factory. Growing up, he said, his father didn't live with the family, and his mother didn't have time to help. ''She was too busy or she was working,'' he said. ''There's no one you can ask questions. You can't get the answers you need.'' By sixth grade, he said, he was lost. ''To hide it, I turned myself into a class clown. Teachers felt I was a lost cause.''
To make up for such inequities, Ms. Kralovec proposes getting rid of homework altogether, and she is writing a book, ''Clearing the Kitchen Table: Homework and the American Dream,'' with that message. Sounding very much like the reformers from the first half of this century, she complains that homework creates a long workday for children, robs them of playtime and cuts into important creative time with the family.
Given the highly competitive spirit of the nation at this moment, however, Americans may not be ready for such a radical change.
But there are efforts under way to counter some of these inequities. Dr. Epstein of Johns Hopkins has developed a series of interactive homework assignments with clearly written instructions for parents and children. The worksheets are meant to insure the tasks can actually be done by a child, and they are being used in schools nationwide. Other school systems have returned to a popular 1930's reform -- supervised study within school. Children who may not get support at home are given help with their homework at school.
In Quincy, Mass., a blue-collar suburb of Boston, middle schools have before- and after-school programs where children get homework assistance from local college students volunteering their time. Teachers like Eileen Sadof in Quincy are aware that many of her students won't get help at home, so she often starts homework projects in class. Ms. Sadof, who teaches English at Broad Meadows Middle School, said: ''I tell them, 'You can have free reading time now.' They think they're taking advantage of me, but a lot don't have a quiet place at home to read. I'm just trying to hook them on the book in class so they'll be more likely to find a way to do it at home on their own.''
The Baltimore schools are applying this approach even earlier. Eight elementary schools have a three-hour after-school program geared to helping children with their homework and preparing them for the state standardized tests. At Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary, a school where 90 percent of the children receive free lunches, nearly half the students attend the after-school program. It is costly to run, $135,000 a year, which mainly pays the salaries of the 14 teachers who spend the extra three hours at school each day.
The program is highly structured; an hour is spent doing a creative project (during a recent session, Claude Morris, a third grader, correctly calculated that it would take 8 centimeters of root-beer soda to make ice cream in an ice cream float, float); an hour of club time (for geography, reading or board games); and a half-hour reviewing homework. At the homework session, the teacher, Denise Norfleet, had the children go over that night's reading assignment, a story about Violet Hill Whyte, Baltimore's first African-American police officer.
''Do I want you guessing?'' Ms. Norfleet said at one point. ''Where do you go for the answer?''
''Back to the story!'' they called out.
Mary Brown, who has custody of her grandson Christopher, says the program has been a godsend. It is divided into three sessions a year. ''Last year, he took one,'' she said. ''This year, we're going to take all three.''
Christopher smiled. ''Good news,'' he said.
The Baltimore program has melded two of the major trends in American education today -- more homework and more standardized testing. At Dr. Bernard Harris, there is no subtlety about it -- teachers are now spending the entire school year teaching for the standardized tests: the California Achievement Tests that the children are given each fall, and the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, test they take in the spring. There are lists of MSPAP vocabulary words posted in all the classrooms, along with lists of MSPAP test hints. And weekly homework packets have been written specifically to drill the children on what is on each test. The homework packets geared for the California test require the children to answer questions by filling in the right bubble, just as they will have to do on the actual test. The MSPAP homework uses MSPAP vocabulary words.
''I have MSPAP on the brain,'' said Mae Williams, a Baltimore third-grade teacher. ''But their scores went up this last time, so it's worth it.''
There are many ways to measure a successful school -- the creativity of the students, their happiness, their hunger to learn new things, their love for reading. But at this point in American history, the most important measure, the one that gets printed in all the newspapers, the one that individual schools and entire school districts are measured by and all the politicians talk about, is performance on standardized tests. And as long as that is true, those backpacks are likely to be full each night starting in grade 1 and maybe earlier.
What the pendulum will swing back on homework is certain, but to change things it will likely take a major cultural shift impossible to envision right now.
Concerned that the Millburn schools were giving too much homework too soon, a parents' group helped pay to fly Dr. Cooper, the University of Missouri expert, to New Jersey in October. Dr. Cooper explained to 150 parents and teachers that little children have a limited attention span, and he recommended just 10 minutes of homework a night starting in first grade and adding 10 minutes to that time each year after, through high school.
''If it's a different type of community,'' he said, meaning a high-pressured suburban district, ''I would raise it to 15 minutes.''
Dr. Cooper has found that despite his recommendations, most suburbs don't lighten their homework load after he visits, and, indeed, Deerfield Elementary still assigns the alleged 20 minutes of homework to its first graders. Parents in places like Millburn may feel in their hearts that their children have too much homework, but as long as everyone else is doing it, there's pressure to do it.
When Phyllis Catz, the assistant superintendent of Millburn schools, was asked during an interview whether she felt elementary students had too much homework in her district, she said no, that it built good study habits and discipline for future years.
''Of course,'' said Dr. Catz, who has been an educator for 35 years, ''if you talked to me in the 1970's, I'd have given you a different answer.''Continue reading the main story
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