- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

BALTIMORE — Instead of savoring the final days of summer by the pool, many students are cramming to complete assignments before heading back to school.

Reading, written reports and other summer homework increasingly have become popular tools used by teachers to bridge the gap between the end of one school year and the start of another.

Some education experts say the “lazy, hazy, crazy” days of summer are over as schools feel increased pressure on accountability for student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“It’s really going to focus attention on this period of time when kids aren’t engaged,” said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.

But as teachers pile on the summer reading and math problems, some parents are seeing the fun of summer slip away.

“I don’t know what good this really does,” said Sheryl Preiss, a Baltimore County parent of twin 13-year-old girls entering high school this year. “Life isn’t always about a test. I think it’s important for children to be children, to be well-rounded.”

Mrs. Preiss said her daughters spent weeks in summer camps and away on vacation before they had a chance to start their summer assignments.

“Basically, I have the summer reading hanging over my head when I’d like to do other stuff,” Allison Preiss said.

She said she enjoyed reading “The Color of Water” by James McBride, but the assignments that go with it — choosing five passages to describe and analyze — seem redundant.

“Even if I don’t like an assignment, I still do it,” she said.

After seeing summer assignments when her daughters were in middle school and hearing complaints from other parents, Mrs. Preiss wrote to Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to ask if the school system had a policy for summer assignments.

“As a parent, if I want my child to participate in academic programs during the 10-week summer vacation, I should be the one deciding this,” she wrote.

Mr. Hairston’s response surprised her. It said, in part:

“While we encourage students to read and keep up on their math skills during the summer break, summer assignments are not required, and there is no consequence to a student that does not complete the work.”

Mr. Hairston copied his response to an administrator who clarified the school system’s practices with principals. The superintendent refused to comment on the matter.

Schools spokesman Charles Herndon said Mr. Hairston had “acknowledged the fact that we don’t have any legal or statutory authority to be instructing the students over the summer.

“This did not mean that we weren’t going to assign books,” Mr. Herndon said.

So summer homework is still assigned in Baltimore County with due dates for written work set back several weeks into September. But the issue is not going away. Parents from Prince George’s County to Salt Lake City complain that the homework load is increasing despite national studies that say otherwise.

“Homework is school reform on the cheap,” said Etta Kralovec, director of teacher education at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “Political leaders can say we’re getting more rigorous with our academic standards because we’re assigning more summer homework, but they really don’t do anything at all.”

Mrs. Kralovec co-authored the book “The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning” in 2000. She argues against homework altogether because she said it puts poor children at a disadvantage.

“I just think it needs to be done in a school with access to a trained educator where all students have access to the same resources,” she said.

Some assignments seem relevant, said Ellen Snydman, the parent of a Baltimore County sixth-grader. “The math, I think, is an excellent idea,” she said of her daughter’s summer assignments.

But assignments vary across the county, Mrs. Snydman said, and her daughter doesn’t know what her new teachers expect because she’s never met them.

“If they want me to buy into this, they need to give me more information,” she said. “I don’t know how they put these assignments together and why they’re different across the state.”

The presentation of an assignment determines how effective it will be, said Joyce Epstein, who studies homework and parent involvement at Johns Hopkins University.

“In the summer, frankly, I think it has to be fun,” she said. “If it’s introduced well, designed well, any youngster can do it.”

As for whether schools are taking the fun out of summer by assigning homework, Principal Pat McCusker at Eastern Technical High School said he hasn’t heard any complaints.

“The summer time is their own,” he said. “It’s to their advantage to read during the summer so they don’t have to cram in the fall.”

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