Michelle Davis gives high marks to homework.
The after-school drive with her son, Jackson, a fifth-grader at Westside's Hillside Elementary, gives her a chance to hear the highlights of his day — she calls it a "backseat confession."
But sitting down with homework gives her a look at how different subjects are being taught, where his abilities — and sometimes his frustrations — lie.
"It's a window to what's going on in the classroom," she said.
These days, that window is getting additional scrutiny across the country, albeit for different reasons. In some parts of the country, concerns are being raised that homework is gobbling up family time, or even penalizing kids who don't have support at home.
After parental complaints about kids doing four or five hours of homework a night, the Pleasanton, Calif., Unified School District this summer adopted a policy discouraging homework over long weekends, holidays and vacations.
The Los Angeles Unified School District in July approved, then put off, a measure that would have limited homework to no more than 10 percent of a student's academic grade, noting that varying degrees of support at home should neither penalize students nor inflate grades.
Locally, there's little evidence of a public backlash against excessive homework. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor's recently published survey of nearly 400 Nebraska middle school parents indicated that the majority, like Davis, favor homework.
But a number of school districts in Nebraska and Iowa, like others nationally, are continuing a move toward what's known as a standards-based approach to teaching and grading. It says grades ought to accurately reflect students' knowledge and skills, based on standards set by state and national education officials. So work that's considered practice counts less toward grades.
Some districts give a breakdown. The Grand Island, Bellevue and Council Bluffs districts' grading guidelines say 70 percent of a final academic grade should be based on tests and major projects and 30 percent on daily assignments and quizzes. The Lincoln Public Schools are working on a high school report card with an 80-20 split. In the Papillion-La Vista Public Schools, which began the shift a half-dozen years ago, parents of junior high and high school students began hearing about the 70-30 split this fall.
The two trends — concern about overload and the standards-based shift — are "parallel movements that are overlapping," said Cathy Vatterott, an associate education professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of the book "Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs."
The movements share efforts to make homework more meaningful, to even out inconsistencies among different teachers and schools, and to provide more individualized work for students.
One K-8 district in New Jersey not only set limits on homework recently but also specified that students' development be considered when assigning it. A California elementary school redefined homework as "goal work" that may vary according to individual needs.
"Homework has been redefined in a very positive way," said Sue Evanich, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Westside Community Schools. "It's not busywork. It's based on standards. It should be appropriate for that child."
Certainly, discussions about homework's value aren't new. The Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the ensuing space race led to a push for more. The push slacked in the late 1960s and resumed in the 1980s with the publication of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," which called homework a defense against a rising tide of mediocrity in American education.
Much of the current concern about homework volume is coming from middle- and upper-class parents concerned about the pressures kids face to get into good colleges and to balance school with family and extracurricular activities, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. That's not occurring everywhere.
"You hear about the places and the communities where it's gotten out of whack. You don't hear about the ones where it's working nicely," he said.
Research indicates that homework does have value. But there is a point at which more homework doesn't improve achievement or learning, said Cooper, author of "The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents."
Educators often use a 10-minute rule of thumb — 10 minutes more per night on homework at each grade level — an approach Cooper endorsed. That works out to 30 minutes a night for a third-grader or more than two hours for a high school senior.
For younger children, educators say, that may cover nightly reading that many school districts recommend. But honors and AP courses and long reading assignments typically will exceed that guideline.
ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum and learning for the Omaha Public Schools, said the district will mention that rule of thumb in written grading practices it provides teachers later this fall.
Teachers also will be encouraged to collaborate to balance the amount of work for a given night, putting in writing what many schools already do, she said.
OPS continues to work on its approach to homework and grading. The district overhauled its grading system last fall as part of its standards-based shift, encountering some problems along the way. Some students were allowed to skate through with a passing grade, prompting the district to change its scale for this school year.
Westside, Papillion-La Vista, Millard and other districts here and across the country also are taking steps to coordinate homework assignments.
Locally, some districts also ask teachers — most of them informally — to be cognizant of what they assign on Wednesdays, which is considered a family night. The Millard Public Schools' policy specifies that assignments should be kept to a minimum on Wednesdays.
Ken Kiewra, the professor of educational psychology at UNL who surveyed middle school parents, said the standards approach makes sense because it's focused on academic achievement. And it makes some homework, at least the practice kind, more optional. "A student can say, I do need some practice, but maybe I don't need to do all 40 problems," he said.
His survey found that for most seventh-graders doing homework fell within 70 minutes, the rule of thumb for that grade. Most parents, 61 percent, found the amount assigned to be about right.
But Kiewra noted that roughly a quarter of parents thought that too much homework was assigned and that it interfered with family activities. As a parent of three, he agrees. Too much rote work can turn kids off school, he said. And it can interfere with students pursuing other talents. His oldest son, a chess champion, earned a full scholarship to play at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"We definitely value school, but we value other things as well," Kiewra said.
The good news that came from the survey, he said, is it showed that parents were involved with homework, usually by providing support.
That's certainly Davis' goal. A business analyst with a bank, she and her husband, Rob, decided before Jackson was born that she would work part time so she could pick him up from school and help with homework. Usually, it's math, sometimes spelling or reading.
"Then he's free to do what he wants."
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