Monday, October 25, 2004

Every school year, English teacher Rose Marie “Rosie” Lewis expects students to groan and parents to call, at least at first.

Their concern: the amount of homework the Harry Harrison (H.H.) Poole Middle School teacher assigns.

“At first, I was overwhelmed by the amount, but I got used to it because it was a challenge. I enjoy challenges,” says Morgan Hamlin, 13. “You learn a whole lot in her class.”

Each school night and over the weekend, Ms. Lewis’ 118 eighth-graders can expect a half-hour of homework tied to the short story she assigns for the week.

The homework, which focuses on elements of the story, literary terms and vocabulary words, reinforces what she teaches in class and gives students a chance to link what they learn to real-life experiences.

“I just don’t give homework assignments. I expect children to relate that homework to their lives,” says Ms. Lewis, a teacher of 34 years who has been teaching at H.H. Poole, in Stafford, Va., since 1998.

If Ms. Lewis taught 40 years ago, she likely would have had to rely solely on classroom work, since homework was viewed as punishment.

“We’ve had a century-old love-hate relationship with homework. It’s been in vogue and out of vogue almost by the decade. Now, it’s back in,” says Gary Galluzzo, professor of education at George Mason University. He has a doctorate in teacher education.

In the 1900s, homework was seen as a way to develop memorization and self-discipline skills. High school students took home an average of two hours of homework a night, while middle school students spent one hour and elementary school students 20 minutes on their homework, Mr. Galluzzo says.

“The old routine of what came to be drill, memorization and recitation … came under very serious challenge,” says Steven Schlossman, professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. He holds a doctorate in history.

Homework during the post-World War I era moved out of favor, criticized as a way for students to practice mistakes, since the students did not have anyone to provide guidance or correction, Mr. Galluzzo says.

The view changed again after World War II and the launching of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957 when the United States wanted to increase its international competitiveness. Homework was seen as a way to extend the school day and give students a chance to practice content learned in the classroom, he says.

Homework during the 1960s upheaval was considered to be punishing and restrictive for students and continued to have less emphasis through the 1970s, Mr. Galluzzo says.

A decade later, homework was valued as a way to extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom, furthered by the 1980s “A Nation at Risk” federal report. The report, which found the state of education in the United States alarming, led to a national movement to standardize and assess what children learn in the classroom, he says.

“We’ve never had a national commitment on homework and what it seeks to teach,” Mr. Galluzzo says.

As such, Virginia and Maryland do not have state policies on homework and leave the decision up to the school districts. The National Education Association (NEA), which supports homework as a way to reinforce classroom instruction, recommends 10 minutes of homework a night per grade (10 minutes for first-graders, 80 minutes for eighth-graders, for example).

“The concept of homework doesn’t seem to be a troubling issue, at least around here,” says Sarah Entsminger, president of the Loudoun Education Alliance of Parents in Virginia.

The parent group discussed homework at one of its meetings last year and found that parents, if they did complain, were concerned about too much homework for their own children.

“Parents need to realize you need to pay attention to the homework the child is actually doing,” Mrs. Entsminger says.

Loudoun County Public Schools follows NEA’s recommendation, assigning no more than 30 minutes of homework a night for students in kindergarten through the third grade and an hour for fourth- and fifth-graders. Students at the secondary level take home an average of 30 minutes of homework per subject per night.

Homework helps students commit the concepts and skills they learn to long-term memory, says Barbara Hulver, director of secondary education at Loudoun County Public Schools.

“The key to practicing a skill or practicing a concept is to internalize it and to make that knowledge easily accessible so that they can recall it and use it for the next sequence of learning,” Ms. Hulver says.

Stafford County Public Schools, following NEA’s recommendation, assigns sixth-graders an average of 45 to 60 minutes of homework a night, seventh-graders, 60 to 70 minutes, and eighth-graders, 60 to 90 minutes.

“I think it’s an appropriate amount,” Ms. McGraw says. “It instills responsibility and teaches them how to meet deadlines.”

At the same time, teachers need to review and discuss the homework with students or give them an evaluation of their work, “so the children realize doing the homework meant something,” she says.

Arlington County Public Schools has a similar homework policy. Students in the sixth to eighth grades are assigned 20 minutes of homework a night for each course they take, or a total of 90 minutes. Courses for ninth- to 12th-graders have 30 minutes of homework, a total of three hours.

“We would like to relate to, build on and reinforce what was learned in the classroom,” says Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction for Arlington Public Schools. He holds a doctorate in education. “It should not be something that is entirely a new area for a child.”

The policy for Anne Arundel County Public Schools limits homework to one hour a night for middle school students and two hours a night for high school students four to five times a week.

Homework helps students practice the material and skills they learn in class, prepare for upcoming tests and assessments, and improve their study and work habits, says Mary Gable, director of high schools for Anne Arundel.

“It extends the understanding of concepts beyond what was given in the classroom,” Mrs. Gable says.

Homework allows students to demonstrate whether or not they mastered the material, says Karen Harvey, director of curriculum and instruction at Montgomery County Public Schools.

Ms. Harvey suggests that feedback be given on practice homework before homework is assigned for a grade.

“You have a better chance students [are] doing the homework on their own because they know what they’re doing,” she says.

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