Remodeling homework

Our 9-year-old son, Nathaniel, arrived home after his first day in fourth grade, swaggering and wearing the self-satisfied smile of somebody who’d just hit the jackpot in Vegas.

“I’ve got no homework,” he announced as soon as he stepped foot in the door.

“OK,” I replied. “No homework on the first day of school. What’s the big deal?”

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head. “No homework ever again.”

“Yeah, right,” I said.

“No really, Mom,” he insisted. “They said we don’t have to do homework anymore.”

My mind raced. Could it possibly be so? An e-mail exchange over the next couple of days with Eileen Horowitz, the head of Temple Israel of Hollywood’s elementary school, confirmed that what Nathaniel had been crowing about was basically true. Although the school hadn’t adopted an out-and-out no-homework policy, it had decided to drastically reduce the amount of homework that students in all grades would be required to complete each night.

Nathaniel couldn’t be happier.

But here’s the funny thing: Neither could I. Last year, in third grade, as Nathaniel’s homework mounted to more than an hour a night, we found ourselves locked in constant combat. I begged, pleaded, cajoled and screamed for him to finish. Sometimes I even resorted to bribing him. He procrastinated, whined, cried and did everything he could to resist. Very quickly, his homework became the most stressful part of my day.

Making matters worse, I couldn’t help but wonder: How valuable is this stuff? Many of the exercises that came home -- endless packets asking the kids to find misspelled words in this or that paragraph or to measure the length of the kitchen counter using a cutout ruler -- seemed more like busywork than anything substantive. Still, I understood that these assignments were supposed to reinforce what was being learned in class, and who was I to argue with experts in pedagogy? As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one with doubts.

Harris Cooper, a Duke University psychology professor, is widely considered one of the nation’s leading researchers on homework. He has found that there is no positive correlation between heavy homework loads for elementary-age students and academic achievement. “Kids burn out,” he said. “Homework for young students should be short” and “lead to success without much struggle.”

Not everyone is calling for less homework. USA Today, for example, warned in an editorial last year that a growing backlash against homework, as seen in books such as “The Homework Myth” by Alfie Kohn and “The Case Against Homework” by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, could leave “U.S. students less prepared to compete in the global economy.”

To be sure, Cooper isn’t calling for the complete abolition of homework. He says that students in middle school and high school benefit academically -- as long as it doesn’t take more than two hours a night. As for those in elementary school, he believes that they shouldn’t get a free pass either. It’s still important for kids to read every night because doing so nurtures curiosity and fosters a love of books, he suggests. And there are some things that simply require extra practice at home to master -- multiplication tables, for example.

Cooper advocates the “10-minute rule,” which proposes that teachers add 10 minutes of homework each night as students progress from grade to grade. So, for example, a fourth-grader might be assigned as much as 40 minutes of homework a night, including reading.

Nathaniel’s school is taking an even less structured approach, and that’s fine with me. The more targeted tasks he’s now being asked to tackle, after all, have a clear purpose; it no longer feels like homework for homework’s sake.

“It became apparent that some of what we were doing was silly,” Horowitz said. “Why should our children spend time doing fill-in-the-blank assignments or writing spelling words five times?”

Of course, Nathaniel could hardly wait for his 10th-grade sister, Emma, to come home so he could tell her the news -- a fabulous, rub-it-in-her-face moment.

She tried her best to turn the tables. “You’re going to be in trouble when you get to seventh grade!” she warned as she stomped off to do her own mountain of English, history and Spanish.

That prospect had, in fact, occurred to my husband and me. Is it possible, we asked, that Nathaniel will eventually find himself at a disadvantage because he won’t have gained the sense of responsibility, discipline and time-management skills required to cope with the amount of homework sure to come in middle school?

Horowitz doesn’t think so. She is confident that her students will acquire all the good study habits they’ll need from working on long-term projects inside and outside the classroom, from their daily reading and from other assignments they’ll still be required to do occasionally.

Meanwhile, Nathaniel and his schoolmates are getting more than just a break. They’re getting an opportunity to do something that’s all too often missing in today’s time-pressed world: just relax and be kids.

“Maybe they can build a treehouse or go for a bike ride around the neighborhood,” Horowitz said. “Let’s give them a chance to play. Let’s give them a chance to dream.”

Heck, for some of us, at least one dream has already come true.

Randye Hoder is a writer living in Los Angeles.