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The Great Homework Debate

On a breezy Sunday afternoon, I ran into a good friend. While I had been in the playground with my sons, she had been photocopying her first-grade daughter's report on Anne Frank. She showed me the report, but she might as well have socked me in the stomach. It was perfectly spelled, grammatical, neatly handwritten, several pages long.

My son is also in first grade, and he seems eons away from this kind of work; he has just begun to read and can hardly spell at all. Suddenly the national debate on homework  -- the value of assigning more and more to younger and younger kids  -- cut close to home.

My friend had chosen what felt like the right path for her daughter: a rigorously academic program in a school across town, with lots of homework.

My husband and I had gone in a different direction: Our son attends a local public school that stresses building community and self-expression through the arts. Its products? Well, the school talks more about process than product, of building self-confidence, love of learning, independence. His teacher has not assigned any homework this year.

I stood there bound up in education angst. On the one hand, I had a nagging, competitive feeling: Is my son's school really doing right by him? If his peers are capable of this kind of work, why is no one expecting it of him? When will he develop study habits? Isn't self-confidence an outgrowth of difficult challenges tackled, and not feel-good philosophies?

My second reaction: It is a breezy Sunday and he is digging an intricate tunnel in the sandbox with his little brother. I could say he is doing his physics and engineering homework, but what is wrong with saying this: He is 7 and he is playing. There is time to learn about Anne Frank and the thorny, adult problems her story raises. What is important is that he loves school and is curious and highly motivated. And how frenzied would my week have been if I had to help him through Anne Frank, for clearly it was a group effort. My friend, whom I respect greatly, had accepted that adjunct-teacher role, but for me it would feel improper. Why not wait until he was ready to tackle Anne Frank on his own? Is one of these 7-year-olds being shortchanged, and, if so, which one?

The Teacher's View
My son has had the same teacher for two years in a kindergarten/first-grade bridge class. Interestingly, she regularly assigned homework last year but decided not to this year. She believed the children are too young to care about reviewing their homework once they have done it. "Each time they do an activity in the room," she says, "I see every page, so they know how to go off and work and then come back and discuss it. That is exactly what homework is supposed to do." Further, she says, it took a tremendous weight off both her and the class. As for the children, she says, "They can do better things at home, such as going on playdates. Quite a few of my students go home and write in a journal on their own." Finally, she says, "Homework should be something children can do," and she found last year, particularly with a project on autumn leaves, that most students were not ready to initiate and persevere without significant help (providing they have parents available to help). When I brought up the Anne Frank story, she acknowledged that it must be unnerving but stressed that what is ultimately more important is measuring your child's progress within the context of your child.

What About the Studies?
A recent survey shows that formal daily home study with parents does result in significantly higher school performance. Of course, a recent big study, touted in Newsweek, showed the opposite, at least among elementary-school students. Studies are analogous to standardized tests: They measure one set of criteria, but what about all they leave out? The intangibles  -- the myriad attitudes and masteries that do not fall within the narrow category of academic achievement  -- are always left out of the discussion for the simple reason that they are hard to discuss and impossible to quantify.

An Example
I talked to a friend and certified elementary-school teacher in West Hartford, CT, a town with a reputation for top-performing schools. She told me that in addition to a heavy load of homework, the town offers a huge packet of summer homework. She had taken it for two years, not wanting her children, ages 7 and 9, to feel they were falling behind. This year they both burst into tears when the sign-up sheet went out, and she said enough already. Then she told me about a professor of drama who approached the school system offering to re-create a highly successful performing-arts program she had done elsewhere. The principal's response? "He said he'd like it, but needed to know how it would improve test scores."

"In a town like this," says my friend, "people want to be doing the best for their children, want them to be successful, and they think this is the way to do it. I find it scary. So much emphasis is put on academics that children no longer have an opportunity to play creatively and have fun. We may be producing a generation of adults who are brilliant academically and have no social skills."

A Final Anecdote
A mother in my son's school told me this story. Her daughter, Talia, is a second-grader in a class where the only homework assigned is an occasional game or puzzle. During Christmas break, the teacher handed out some math puzzles with these instructions: Have a good time with these and share them with your family. Talia spent the break with her cousin, who is in a third-grade gifted-and-talented program. The cousin spent the vacation complaining bitterly about homework while her mother worried about the pressure her daughter was feeling. The punch line: Talia took out her puzzles and the cousin took out her math homework, and they were exactly the same.