School Board gets homework assignment
by John Tawa
The Manhattan Beach School Board last Wednesday began tackling an issue that students in the district have been tackling for years--homework.
The district's homework policy has been in place since 1993. After questions were raised at board meetings last year about the policy and the prevailing practices in assigning homework across all grade levels, the board decided to examine whether the policy needed revision.
Two options, one that gradually increases the homework load from grade to grade and another that is less structured with emphasis on quality not quantity, will be crafted and presented for the board's consideration in the spring.
The current policy, an affirmation that homework serves many beneficial purposes including reinforcing skills taught in school, is notable for the time parameters its sets for homework.
According to the policy, children in grades K-3 are expected to spend an average of 20 minutes per night doing homework four or five days per week. For students in grades 4-6, 45 minutes per night is expected on average. Seventh and eighth graders should get an average of 90 minutes of homework per night, while high school students are expected to work 30 minutes per subject per night.
Before the discussion reached the school board level, principals at district schools were surveyed about the homework policy. All agreed that the quality of homework being assigned was good and only two, Janet Schwabe at the Middle School and Dr. Christie Norvell at Pacific Elementary, suggested the need to augment the quantity of work assigned.
Schwabe said that the sixth grade homework requirement should be increased from 45 minutes per day to 70 minutes now that the kids were part of a departmentalized sixth grade at the Middle School. Schwabe added that teachers already are implementing this change, with humanities teachers assigning 30 minutes of homework per night, while math and science assigned 20 minutes each.
Dr. Norvell suggested that the time expectation for grades two and three be increased slightly.
The changes suggested by Schwabe and Dr. Norvell corresponded generally with board member LeRoy Nelson's view of what needs to be changed with the policy.
"At many points, there is a dramatic discontinuity in homework from one grade level to the next," he said.
Nelson said that he spoke to his school-age children and they agreed it would be better if the transition progressed naturally. Thus, he proposed having the homework load rise gradually over time, taking out the huge jumps between sixth and seventh grade, and eighth and ninth grade, which kids seem to have difficulty adapting to.
Under Nelson's plan, homework would remain at 20 minutes per night for grades K-2, rising to 30 minutes in grade 3, 45 in grade 4, 60 in grade 5, 75 in grade 6, 90 in grade 7, 120 in grade 8 and 150 in 9-12 (30 minutes per night for each of five classes).
Board member Peter Alfvin did not favor any increase in the homework load.
"My bias is there's too much homework right now," he said. "It's having too much of an impact on the family."
"Too much homework becomes drudgery for the student," Alfvin added. "I hated having drudgery home work when I went to high school and I'm not going to contribute to it now."
Research conducted by the University of Michigan appears to support Alfvin's position that kids today have more homework than ever. According to the study, 6-9 year olds in 1981 spent 44 minutes a week on homework. In 1997, they did more than two hours' worth. Time spent by 9-11 year olds increased from 169 minutes per week to more than 210 minutes.
As the Board policy now stands, 6-9 year olds are expected to spend 80-100 minutes per week on average and 9-11 year olds 180 to 225 minutes on average. Those numbers would increase if Nelson's suggestions are adopted.
Alfvin favored anything that would give parents control over how much time kids spend on homework. He also looked favorably upon a policy currently in place in Palo Alto, where principals are responsible for overseeing homework and the emphasis is on quality not quantity.
"I'd almost rather take my chances with that type of policy than one that regulates 2.5 hours of homework per night at the high school level," he said.
Mary Rogers countered Alfvin's comments, saying her two children, who attend UC schools, wouldn't be at the level they are now if they hadn't endured a tremendous amount of homework while at Costa.
Part of the competition to get into the UC system is the drudge they had to go through in those four years at Mira Costa to make that happen, Rogers said.
"They will both tell you the training they had at Mira Costa is making life easier for them now," she added.
According to an article that appeared in Time Magazine in January, there is evidence that homework does improve academic performance, at least in the junior high and high school years. It encourages good study habits and acclimates students to self-directed work - but only when it's not so oppressive that it alienates them from schoolwork.
"We need to emphasize that too much homework is counterproductive," Dr. Norvell stressed. "It turns students off to school."
Students interviewed took both sides of the homework debate.
Costa junior Laura Rosenberg said she doesn't have too much homework unless she's also doing a long-term project, the implications of which the board also discussed.
"It's never really been a problem," she said. "I'll just stay up until it's finished."
Senior Nkoli Udeorji spends between 30 minutes and three hours per night on homework.
"Some of it is a waste, but I think overall it's very valuable when it's done right," she said.
Senior Brian Siemak spends 45 minutes per night on average.
"It's rolling," he explained. "Some nights I have no homework. Other nights, it's three hours. You have to prioritize and see what's important to spend more time on."
Siemak said many teachers don't check homework, making it a pointless exercise. If you understood what went on in class, it's often just a waste of time, he added.
Junior Gabe Smith agreed. He has more homework than he'd like.
"It's hard to balance that and extracurricular activities and still be competitive," he said.
Is it helpful? "For some classes yes," he said. "For others it's just busy work."
"You don't have to give homework to be a good teacher," Dr. Norvell told the board. "There ought to be a good reason. If you can tell in five problems that the students get it, don't give them 50." ER
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