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Hefty Homework Load Spells Mounting Stress for Students, Parents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s no hanging out in front of the TV, crunching on a sleeve of Oreos, when Kyle Schafer gets home from middle school.

The Irvine eighth-grader digs into 25 algebra problems and conjugates his Spanish verbs before heading out to swimming practice. After dinner, Kyle returns to the grind, hunkering down with his humanities class assignments: 60 pages a week of a John Steinbeck novel, essays, vocabulary and grammar.

The mountain of homework he confronts--lasting nearly 2 1/2 hours a day--can be overwhelming even to Kyle, a straight-A student who takes flying lessons on the side.

“I get stressed out sometimes,” he said. “It’s endless.”

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Homework, a daily headache for kids and parents, is causing even more pain for many these days. Assignments done at home are sapping more and more of students’ free time, leaving precious little for outside activities, sports, or just relaxing.

“There are some indications that kids are getting a lot more than in the past and it’s trickling down to the elementary levels,” said Nancy Paulu, who does research on homework for the U.S. Department of Education.

In 1997, 6- to 8-year-olds were burdened with as much as two hours of homework a day, according to a study by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. That’s nearly triple the amount assigned to the same age group in 1981.

The work might improve students’ math and spelling skills, but a body of evidence is growing that it creates its share of trouble as well. Dee Shepherd-Look, a Woodland Hills child psychologist, said she has witnessed a surge in homework-related problems, including diarrhea and nightmares, in the last four years.

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“There are more and more parents who see education as a primary way to get ahead,” Shepherd-Look said. “And parents exert a lot of pressure on teachers to give homework.

“It’s like if you go to the doctor and you don’t get a prescription,” she said.

Paulu said long homework assignments are more common in wealthy school districts where college-educated parents tend to be very involved in their children’s schooling.

“They think that the more homework they get, the better the education is,” she said.

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Not all parents are fans of a lot of homework.

“It’s relentless. It’s a pain and it’s every day,” said Lita Robinow. Her daughter, Allison, a seventh-grader at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School in Irvine, regularly sits down to two hours of homework a night.

How much is too much? Educators say the amount of homework assigned depends on the child’s age, the teacher and the course. One student may whiz through an assignment in 15 minutes; another may need an hour to complete the same work.

At a competitive high school that offers an array of advanced placement and college preparatory classes, hefty after-school assignments are guaranteed.

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Rebecca Shore, principal of Los Alamitos High School, said, “At this school, it is such a high-performing school, homework is expected and there’s a lot of it. There’s been an upping-the-ante, so to speak, of expectations on kids.”

Many campuses have a policy that explains how much and what kind of homework is assigned. Guidelines developed by the National PTA and the National Education Assn. say homework shouldn’t exceed 10 to 20 minutes a day for students in kindergarten through second grade and 30 to 60 minutes a day for fourth through sixth grade.

While more homework obviously is assigned to older students, studies have found that more than 60 to 90 minutes a day for middle schoolers and more than two hours a day for high schoolers doesn’t necessarily translate into higher test scores, said Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri.

“Anyone doing more than that wasn’t doing any better on tests,” Cooper said.

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Other educators said reading a book for pleasure is just as important as homework to do well in school.

Supt. James A. Fleming of the Capistrano Unified School District said two hours of daily homework may be steep for high school students who participate in extracurricular activities.

“We need to temper our assignment of homework,” said Fleming, whose two high-school-age children are often up past 11 p.m. finishing schoolwork. “A good part of children’s growth will occur outside of school.”

Clearly, homework has its pluses: It reinforces class lectures, teaches students to work independently and, in the upper grades, teaches them to develop time-management skills.

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But it will always be contentious.

Jean Fritzsche, who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders at University Park Elementary School in Irvine, acknowledged as much when she spoke about the subject at a recent PTA meeting. She described homework as “your favorite topic and mine,” and tried to reassure the group of mothers and a few fathers that “teachers do not assign homework for revenge.”

“Half the parents complain that there is too much homework,” Fritzsche said. “The other half will complain that there is not enough.”


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