For some kids, academic competitiveness seems to begin in the womb, and tons of homework is just an extension of family expectations. Many kids respond to tremendous pressure to complete unprecedented loads of homework.
For many other kids, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and TV all compete for after-school time. Some kids just don't do homework at all.
TV is a very powerful competitor for homework time, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey. That survey found that four of five kids in grade 4 spent two or more hours a day watching TV, and one in five spent six or more hours a day in front of the tube!
Are students really overloaded with homework, or is "homework overload" more a case of low motivation?
Today, teachers in most school districts have so much material to cover that most students can't complete all the work during school hours. Not every homework assignment is exciting; some homework is necessarily based on the old "drill and kill" model.
"All parents want their children to be motivated by the desire to learn new knowledge and expand their horizons," Harvard's Janine Bempechat, author of Getting Our Kids Back on Track: Educating Children for the Future, told Education World. "We all want them to be intrinsically motivated -- to learn for the sheer sake of learning. Yet the reality is that at some point, all of us have to master material that we are not particularly interested in or may even despise.
"Motivational qualities take many years and hundreds of experiences, negative as well as positive, to foster," Bempechat continued. "We simply cannot expect [children] to develop these strengths of character overnight. As parents and educators, we have to help children learn how to maintain their interest in learning when the subject in question is not appealing to them."
Although it would be nice if teachers could gear homework assignments to kids' abilities and interests, should students have the option to skip assignments they don't like? What are a family's priorities if kids who watch TV for two or more hours a day don't have time to finish their homework?
For a child to succeed, a family must make education a top priority, maintained Bempechat. In many families, however, education is not the top priority. In a survey conducted by the nonprofit research group Public Agenda, almost half the parents polled admitted their children's homework habits could be better. That same survey found that K-12 public school teachers believe only one parent in ten actually checks to see whether children do their homework. Many students, especially young ones, frequently need help completing homework assignments, help that may not be available at home.
"First, young children who are struggling in school probably take longer to finish assignments," Harris Cooper, a professor at the University of Missouri, told Education World. "Second, young children have limited ability to keep their attention focused. The distractions at home entice them away from the books spread out on the kitchen table. Third, young children haven't yet learned good study skills. They don't know how to apportion their time between easy and hard tasks or how to engage in effective self-testing."
To avoid negative connotations, schools should not use homework as a punishment or let kids skip homework as a reward. Those actions imply that homework is no fun. "The amount and type of homework [students] do should depend on their developmental level and the quality of their support at home," added Cooper. "Homework policies should give individual schools and teachers some flexibility to take into account the unique needs and circumstances of their students, [but] all students should do homework."
Many parents, who may have limited time and energy, find helping their children with homework very stressful. Although many students complete their homework assignments, some do not. The Public Agenda survey revealed that student failure to do homework is one of teachers' most serious professional concerns. In response to those findings, many schools have devoted energy to creating programs that help avert homework hassles. Some of those programs seem to be working!
Educators have tried many approaches to motivate students to complete homework. In some schools, teachers provide time and help for students to tackle homework assignments during class or study halls. Many students record homework assignments on check-off lists or in agendas (journals); teachers check the students' journals to be sure assignments are accurately recorded. Such journals let parents know what assignments children have. In many communities, students or parents can call homework hotlines that offer taped recordings of assignments.
In addition, many schools provide before- or after-school homework programs. Frequently, paid teachers offer aid, and students receive free bus transportation home at the end of the day. In Bridgeton, New Jersey, the after-school homework program even "serves a snack and includes [lessons in] study and organizational skills," special education teacher Kathy Munkel told Education World. At Munkel's former school, honor students tutored for $5.00 an hour.
Believing that taking advantage of after-school tutoring is difficult for students who have after-school jobs, Richard Clark, dean of the Graduate College of Education at the University of Massachusetts (Boston), came up with a novel solution. He proposes that instead of working at part-time jobs, students should go to work on their homework and be paid for that.
Homework TV seemed a natural progression to educators in Horry County, South Carolina. Because kids may already spend hours in front of the TV, now they can watch a teacher solve math problems and answer homework questions from the comfort of their own living rooms!
Some schools in Indiana's East Porter County and Portage Township school districts employ yet another approach to avoid homework hassles. Believing students should do most of their work in class, many schools there just don't assign homework!
Some other schools provide students with the URLs of Web sites that can offer help. In communities where many children belong to dual-income or single-parent families and public libraries have reduced their hours, kids can turn to the Net for the help they need. The following are among the Web sites often suggested as aids for completing homework assignments.
Joyce Epstein, from Johns Hopkins University, provides a series of interactive homework assignments geared to open communication between elementary and middle school children and their parents. The national program, called Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS), does not require parents to teach skills. Instead, students might explain something they learned in class or interview an adult about the past.
In Dade County, Florida, Fienberg-Fisher's 21st-Century Learning Center (part of a national program) offers at-risk K-6 grade students one hour of free tutoring four days a week. In exchange, families must attend weekly meetings where parents learn how to help their children.
"Like many people, our parents work long hours," site coordinator Beverly Heller told Education World. "They find it hard to fit the sessions into their schedules, but they seem to love the result, the sense of empowerment and parent-child bonding our program encourages.
"Homework can serve as a link between the home and the school. It can help parents keep abreast of what the child is learning, but helping a child with homework can be difficult for parents who themselves are unfamiliar with the topics," added Heller.
"My parents don't know much English, so they can't help me with reading and writing homework, and I wasn't getting very good grades," Raymon Torres, who is currently enrolled in the 21st-Century Program, told Education World. "Now I get help from teachers in the school who really know what I need to know. Now I understand what to do."
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