- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

My 9-year-old fourth-grade twins attend a “high performance” public school. Their teacher assigns homework every day except Friday, some of which they generally finish during spare time at school. At home, they do it pretty much on their own, usually helping one another instead of asking for my help (one of the blessings of having twins).

They do not dawdle or put off assignments that are due later. Yet, they are having to spend an average of three hours per night on homework, and that does not include studying for tests and quizzes. Is it my imagination, or is this just a bit much for fourth grade?

A: No, it’s not your imagination. Three hours of homework a night, four nights a week, not including study time, for children who are 9 years old is outrageous. There’s no excuse for it. It’s child abuse. I say report the teacher to the authorities.

OK, I’m getting carried away. The assigning of massive amounts of homework is a fairly common practice in public elementary schools these days, all the more so in “high performance” schools that are obsessed, or so it often seems to me, with student performance on standardized tests.

In my book “Ending the Homework Hassle,” I point out that any good thing has a point of diminishing returns. When that point is exceeded, the “thing” in question is no longer good. Furthermore, if one exceeds the point of diminishing returns by much, chances are that the gains acquired to that point will be wiped out.

The purpose of homework is to provide practice that strengthens certain academic skills. That’s well and good. But at some point, practice becomes nothing but tedium. Self-protectively, the brain goes on “automatic pilot,” and learning stops.

Furthermore, the tedium associated with the learning makes future learning along the same lines more difficult, and certainly less rewarding than it otherwise would have been.

In all fairness to teachers, because of disciplinary distractions and various “fluff” that must be inserted into the curriculum, today’s children are getting less work done in class than was the case 30 or more years ago.

So, they bring more work home, where parents are expected to pull the educational slack. Once upon a time, teachers were able to effectively teach because parents sent children to school who were effectively disciplined.

Today, teachers cannot teach nearly as effectively because parents do not discipline nearly as well. Therefore, children get less work done in class; therefore, they bring home more homework. Nonetheless, three hours for 9-year-olds will result in very little gain in any area except that of “I hate school.”

This teacher is probably not aware that research into the effect of “massed practice” would predict that the amount of homework she assigning is counterproductive. Unfortunately, one parent talking to the teacher about the problem is not likely to make a difference.

Call around and find five other mothers of good students (the operative qualifier) who feel the same way, then schedule a group meeting with the teacher. It will be impossible for her to dismiss five parents as neurotic and overprotective, especially if the parents in question represent responsible children.

If you get nowhere, which is unlikely, ask the principal to mediate a further discussion.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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