http://danvillesanramon.com/print/story/print/2008/02/15/looking-at-homework


Danville Express

Newsfront - February 15, 2008

Looking at homework

Task force is reevaluating school district policies

by Natalie O'Neill

Graham Dickinson's grandparents came into town from Arizona one weekend, itching to take him to a theme park.

But the then-fifth-grader never made it out of the house. He was swamped with homework and spent the day indoors, finishing a writing project with his mom - missing the rare chance to hang out with his grandparents.

Students in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District know this type of scenario all too well, says his mother Kerry Dickinson. She's among the many parents who are pushing for the district to reevaluate its 13-year-old policy on homework.

"I have a radical view. I'd like to do away with all homework," Dickinson said.

High quantity and low quality homework - or "busy work" - is forcing some students to give up extracurricular activities and is invading family time, advocates of the reevaluation say. They believe limits on the amount of homework assigned should be reviewed and even eliminated in the younger grades.

"It all relates to wishing the schools would let us decide how to spend our evenings," Dickinson said.

Dickinson is part of the district's newly formed Home Work Task Force, made up of parents, teachers and staff with wide-ranging philosophies on after-school studies, from the traditional to the progressive.

The task force is now meeting to determine if and how the homework policy should be reevaluated.

"There are a lot of strong opinions about homework," said Kirby Hoy, district director of secondary education, who is facilitating the task force. "It's a good time to take a look at whether it should be revised."

The current policy states that homework should "extend learning that has already begun" and "help acquaint parents/guardians with the curriculum." It states that homework should be clearly assigned and purposeful.

There is no approximate figure mentioned for the amount assigned, in terms of work load or time frame. And there are no specifics about how much of a role parents are expected to play in assisting homework for younger students.

Parents of middle-schoolers in the district report that their children spend anywhere from half an hour to six hours on homework per night, with most falling around the two-hour mark, according to an informal survey taken from 60 parents in the district in November.

According to the survey, by parents' estimation, only about 52 percent of homework assigned is "of a high quality."

One recent study from the Third International Study of Mathematics and Sciences demonstrates that homework doesn't help with academic achievement. The study, which took data from 41 countries, shows that countries with the least amount of homework actually exhibited higher academic achievement.

The highest scoring countries - like Japan and Denmark - assigned little or no homework, while low-scoring countries - like Iran and Thailand - assigned a large amount.

Parents are pointing to these studies as they emphasize more value should be put on hands-on, creative or athletic activities after a long day of academia. This helps their kids be well-rounded, they say.

Fans of the more traditional method of assigning homework, on the other hand, say homework teaches responsibility and discipline, and is a form of vocational training.

Denise Pope, Ph.D., author of "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students," says the problem is that the way subjects are covered is "a mile long and an inch thick."

"We aspire to cover a lot of content in a not-so-deep way," she said.

Instead of wasting time on fact and date memorization, we should be teaching the skills to understand what it all means, she said. With the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, many teachers are also feeling "put upon because they have a coverage expectation," she said.

Pope is a Stanford University school of education lecturer and has also been involved in a recent survey of 4,000 students at high achieving middle and high schools.

The survey shows that students who report spending three-and-a-half or more hours on homework per night are more likely to experience poor mental and physical health.

"Some kinds of homework are hazardous," Pope said.

In 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported similar findings. The study showed that federal programs like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, along with parents who push children too hard academically, have resulted in too little unstructured playtime.

In the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, these are subjects some homework task force members have already been reviewing.

"I'm a big proponent of not over-scheduling our kids," Dickinson said.

Contact Natalie O'Neill at noneill@danvilleweekly.com

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