Does homework really help kids learn?

slim@bradenton.comAugust 17, 2008 

MANATEE — Sure, the first day of school is exciting for students: Seeing old friends, meeting new ones; new clothes, new teachers. But going back to school also means facing the inevitable: homework.

And the Manatee County school board has recently adopted policies on how much time students should spend on homework each night. Younger students should spend less than an hour a day, depending on grade level, according to the new district policy. Middle schoolers should spend an hour to 1 hours and high schoolers up to two hours.

"Most school districts in the nation have a homework policy," said Lynn Gillman, the district's executive director of academics. "We need to look at the philosophy of homework and how much homework they are able to do."

The homework guideline is part of the district's efforts to streamline lessons across schools. In 2007, the board agreed to spend $4.6 million rewriting the district's curriculum for sixth through 10th grades.

The plan is to roll out the middle school portion this year and the high school one next year, she said.

The guideline is nothing new to teachers, who say they try to keep homework assignments reasonable.

Parents say they don't think the recommended time is unreasonable, but are quick to point out that they would oppose anything more. Many students say they spend that amount of time already on schoolwork at home. And they grudgingly agree that it helps them keep up in school and avoid cramming for tests.

"It gets annoying, but it's really helping," said Southeast High senior Amanda Agines. But is it really?

No consensus on value

Experts can't agree on whether homework helps students do better academically, according to the Center for Public Education. But most agree it does help form healthy work habits and instills discipline.

Some studies show homework helped raise test scores. Some say it benefits older students, but doesn't do much for younger ones. Some see homework as cultivating a work-oriented culture that puts family and personal well-being on the back burner, according to a 2007 article in a magazine Educational Leadership.

Some educators and parents are opposed to after-school work for younger students.

"Children need to be playing, socializing," said Stephen Rushton, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida and a father of two children. "Of course, if a child needs extra help, they need extra help. But a lot of the homework is not challenging the child's prefrontal lobe, inquiry part of brain."

Homework should be meaningful, and not add to a child's frustration, said his wife, Anne Joula-Rushton, a first-grade teacher at Wakeland Elementary.

"You can't hand a child a ditto sheet, and give them to 20 students and believe that will meet the need of 20 kids," she said.

The best type of homework should make children explore their surroundings, to tie in the lessons they learn in the classroom.

"Otherwise, you will have a child frustrated, or it means nothing to them," Joula-Rushton said.

As part of the district's new curriculum, Gillman said, teachers will be asked to plan more lessons together and discuss what kind of homework to assign. There will also be a focus on writing, an exercise students can accomplish at home without a computer or other materials, she said.

"Writing requires thinking and all our students can do that," Gillman said. "That is different from the rote work of worksheets that are taken home. Homework should be the springboard to that next discussion. In new learning, that happens the next day." 

History of homework

The amount of homework doled out over time has been a roller-coaster, according to trends.

During the Cold War — and the pressure from the space race — U.S. educators dispensed more homework, believing it adds academic rigor. That idea fell off in the 1980s when researchers said homework was bad for a student's mental health.

Now, however, "the focus on international competitiveness contributes to the idea that U.S. students should be working harder," the Center for Public Education reported.

So, how much time should students spend on homework? On average, U.S. students on all grade levels spend less than an hour a night on homework, according to the center. Ideally, high school students should spend about 1 to 2 hours on homework a day, some experts say. Middle schoolers should spend less than an hour a night. There is less research done on the elementary level, but homework is used to reinforce good study habits.

"I think it is an issue if a teacher gives them four hours of homework a day," said Debbie Massey, the mother of a Palmetto High 10th-grader. "Kids have to have a break, they can't go to school all day and do homework all night. Kids need to be kids."

Debbie Miele, who teaches math at King Middle, said she tries to assign math problems daily for her students to practice on, but makes sure it's something they can complete in 15 to 30 minutes. Some teachers even get their students to start doing them in class.

"I know a lot of teachers allow students to start homework in class so they know how to do it correctly," said Lisa Adams, a language arts teacher at Buffalo Creek Middle.

And teachers usually grade students on whether they did the work, not whether they get it right.

"We want them to try," Miele said.

And that seems to be the key, said Linda Boone, a foreign language teacher at Manatee High.

"It's amazing how much difference that continuity made as opposed to spending two to three nights a week," she said. "To me, shorter assignments more often are more productive than long assignments less often."

And the students?

"Homework does help if you really do it. If you do it just to do it, you don't learn that much," said Christopher Landig, a Bayshore High sophomore. "When you get down to it, it's mostly about the student. It's also about the teacher, if he or she is really good at keeping students interested." 

School starts Monday

School hours are:

Elementary: 8:30 a.m.-3:05 p.m. Wednesday dismissal is 1:15 p.m. Middle: 9:15 a.m.- 3:55 p.m. Wednesday dismissal is 2:10 p.m. High: 7:45 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. Wednesday dismissal is 2:20 p.m.

Homework guidelines Manatee County school district's new homework guidelines Kindergartner and first grade: 10 to 20 minutes Second and third grade: 20 to 30 minutes Fourth and fifth grade: 30 to 60 minutes Sixth to eighth grade: 60 to 90 minutes Ninth to 12th grade: 90 to 120 minutes

The homework guidelines are available at www.manatee.k12.fl.us/parents.html. Click on Student Progression Plan.

The dog and the baby

There's homework. Then there's the excuse for not doing it. Tirelessly, the kids tried. Amused teachers, who have heard most of them, remained unimpressed.

"I should keep a log of this. It's pretty funny when you tell them you don't believe them," said Lisa Adams, a language arts teacher at Buffalo Creek Middle.

Still on the list of lame excuses in middle school is the timeless refrain involving the family pooch. Another popular hit is "my baby sister/brother puked on it." The more common ones are variations of, "I forgot." They left it at home, or on the printer, or missed turning it in when it was collected in class.

Some high schoolers obviously gave their cover some thought. A student once told Manatee High teacher Michelle McCarthy he was involved in an accident in Fort Myers, and the car he left his homework in was wrecked and impounded

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