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Readers sound off on excess homework

My column Saturday on the campaign by a San Marino mom to persuade school officials to cut back on “useless and ineffective” homework assignments uncorked a storm of bottled-up angst among readers, from Santa Monica to Pasadena to Orange County.

The woman I wrote about, Tracy Mason, said her middle-school daughter’s homework load had crowded out sports activities, impinged on family time and turned their household into a battleground.

She launched her less-homework campaign when she realized that her constant carping was poisoning their mother-daughter relationship. “All of a sudden, they’re hating you for being the homework enforcer and you’re looking at it and thinking, ‘This is just a bunch of crap anyway.’ ”

Her stance infuriated some parents in San Marino -- a San Gabriel Valley suburb where the predominantly Asian American school district posts the highest test scores in the state. There, many parents want more homework for their children, not less.

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But judging from the phone calls and e-mails I received, Mason has supporters in other places. Readers blamed homework overload for everything from childhood obesity to teenage suicide.

“We dread September,” e-mailed Kimberly Frost of Santa Monica, mother of a Lincoln Middle School student. “Everything is put on hold. Our lives revolve around making sure our middle-schooler does his homework.

“From a family perspective, it is so detrimental.” And the homework, she said, “is generally pure drudgery.”

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Frost was among about 50 parents who attended a PTA meeting on homework in Santa Monica last month. They heard accounts of research that shows that “burying our children in homework does not improve test scores,” she said. “Anything over an hour a night starts to have the opposite effect [and] brings scores down.”

But the research on homework is hardly conclusive. Some studies show that high school students who do more homework have slightly higher test scores. Others suggest that the type of homework matters more than the amount.

Most educators agree that 10 minutes per grade level -- that would mean two hours a night for a high school senior -- is about right. But what one student can finish in 20 minutes might take another an hour. Because homework is considered a good way to promote responsibility, some districts require homework every night for even the youngest students.

Carol Smith of Cerritos e-mailed me about her kindergarten grandson, who is in school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then has three or four pages of homework each night.

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“I cannot understand why, when he’s been involved in academic pursuits all day, they expect an hour of homework also,” she said. “His solution is to rush through his work so he can play.” He brings a full lunch box back home each day because he’d rather spend lunchtime on the playground than eat.

In the Orange Unified School District, Jim Stephens runs 23 early morning and after-school programs and keeps them free of academics, even though that sometimes means battling parents and teachers. He observes the fruits of our homework obsession in overweight and unhealthy kids.

“If I told you my child sat and spent three hours doing homework today, you probably wouldn’t think that was awful,” he said. “But if I told you my child had sat and watched TV for three hours, you’d probably be appalled. What’s the difference physically?”

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But not everyone feels buried by homework. An eighth-grader at Huntington Middle School -- the San Marino campus Mason’s daughter attends -- said she was “shocked” at the assertion that homework intrudes on family time.

“I find it simple to get my homework done within an hour and a half (and I’m getting good grades) . . . and still have time to drive to Canyon Country most weekends to see my grandmother,” e-mailed Maggie Moreton. When she read the column, “I thought GET OVER IT LADY. . . . The kid will get used to it.”

And an engineer named Richard said Mason came off as “a typical brainless ‘soccer mom’ who would rather have her kids watch American Idle or some other brain-dead program than to teach them the importance of excelling in education.”

I’ll presume his misspelling was an intentional dig at the television program. If not, Richard needs some spelling homework.

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But most parents I heard from were like Susan Colletta, trying to make the best of the inevitable.

She recalled a spring break when she took time off from work so she could spend it with her twins, high school students in Pasadena. “We had dreams of a trip to Disneyland, playing board games, working on a project or jigsaw puzzles. . . . Relaxing would be a word that comes to mind.”

Instead, they spent spring break doing research for a 14-page biology assignment. Then, last summer: seven books to read, seven essays to write and 535 vocabulary words to study. Then came September: Two teachers announced they would each assign two chapters to be studied during the winter vacation.

“My daughter came home in tears,” Colletta said. “September 20-something, and the anticipation of Christmas was over.”

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As a mom who has watched her own children do math work sheets on a crowded plane headed for Thanksgiving in Ohio, diagram sentences on the beach during a Hawaiian vacation, and make note cards for essays while everyone else was clearing the Christmas dinner dishes, here’s one Christmas miracle I’d like to see.

No homework this holiday. Please.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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