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As Homework Load Grows, One District Says 'Enough'
New York Times; New York, N.Y.; Oct 10, 2000; Kate Zernike;


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Copyright New York Times Company Oct 10, 2000

Her daughter's tears would start the minute Linda Markowitz arrived home from work.

It was homework again: math problems, a science report, worksheets. By the time Mrs. Markowitz had read enough of her daughter's science textbook to figure out how to help, it was 10:15 and they still had to go on the Internet to do research. Then, more tears as they argued over whether her daughter had time to practice her saxophone and get a good night's sleep before getting up at 6:45 to catch the school bus.

And that was just fourth grade.

This year, there are no more tears. There is time for dance lessons, Hebrew school, and even the occasional board game.

This year, Piscataway stood up to homework.

The school board in this district of about 7,000 students limited it on weeknights, from 30 minutes in elementary school to two hours in high school, ''discouraged'' homework on weekends, and prohibited teachers from grading it or using it as punishment.

The school board, which unanimously voted for the policy, said homework was putting too much pressure on students' already over scheduled lives, too often dragging parents into helping finish it -- read, doing it -- and becoming a substitute for good teaching in the classroom.

Some parents and teachers worry that fewer assignments will leave students less prepared for college. Some studies suggest that rigorous homework leads to better scores; other researchers say there is no correlation.

Still, the policy has made the superintendent of schools in this middle-class suburb about 35 miles southwest of Manhattan something of a hero among parents, not only those like Mrs. Markowitz here in Piscataway, but across the state and even the country, who have been phoning him at his office and on call-in radio shows to ask how they can push their schools to do the same.

Homework has come in and out of vogue through the longstanding debate over whether children need more rigor or simply more time to be children.

Experts say it is hard if not impossible to know how many school districts nationwide limit homework. The National PTA and the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, encourage limits similar to the ones imposed here; on the other hand, in 1998, the rural community of Akron, N.Y., outraged some parents by imposing minimum daily requirements that are about the same as what Piscataway sets as a maximum.

There is no question that officials in Piscataway have tapped into a growing frustration among parents who say homework is consuming not only their children's lives, but their own.

''We're attacking the fabric of an institution,'' said the superintendent, Ronald E. Bolandi. ''I think we've opened up people's eyes. If Piscataway is in the forefront, so be it.''

It was really not so long ago, in the 1930's, that cities including New York and Chicago banned or limited homework, and the American Child Health Association classified it as child labor. But after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, raising concerns about the state of American education, and again after the ''Nation at Risk'' report in 1983, policy-makers and parents came to see homework as a solution for schools that lagged woefully behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations. When the school board in the tiny California town of Half Moon Bay considered banning homework in 1994, it became something of a laughingstock, and the proposal was quickly scuttled.

Yet in recent years, many educators see a growing desire for more limits.

''Today, homework is not so much an issue because of legitimate pedagogical concerns, but because of increasing pressure on parents' time,'' said John Buell, a former teacher and co-author of ''The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning'' (Beacon Press; 2000). ''It's not that parents don't want interaction with their kids, it's that when they get home from work, they don't want that interaction determined by another boss, i.e., the school. We don't want to have to again do someone else's chores. There are enough things we have to order our children to do anyway; there is enough stress in that relationship. Why aggravate it?''

Some teachers say they feel constrained by the limits, that the school board seems to be second-guessing their lesson planning. ''A.P. parents expect kids to come home with homework,'' said Michael Modugno, who teaches senior English as well as the Advanced Placement class. ''If they don't see books to read, plays to read, essays to write, I get calls asking what's wrong.''

And in practice, the homework policy can be hard to monitor. Already, parents say assignments that teachers say will take a half-hour take two. And some high school students said teachers were finding ways around the policy, grading homework as part of class participation or saying homework assigned on a Friday is not ''weekend homework.'' Several said they saw homework as a fact of life, policy or no.

''No one likes it, but if you don't do it, you only have to study more for the tests,'' said Troy Ogilvie, 15, a 10th grader at Piscataway High School, who was lugging a bulging backpack on a Friday afternoon.

In a town fiercely proud of its schools, where 70 percent of students go on to college, academic preparation is prized.

Teresa Hopkins, a mother of three, said: ''You're not going to be competitive in the world by doing the least you have to do. That's the message we're sending. All you have to do is show up to school.''

A University of Michigan study last year found homework increasing overall from 1981 to 1997, with the biggest increase falling on students ages 6 to 8, whose homework load tripled.

Mr. Bolandi found the same thing, anecdotally, when he toured the schools here, a former farming community now given to low corporate office parks and tidy new colonials. Parents complained that children were arriving home with four or five hours of homework, and that teachers were sending home assignments without teaching the concepts first, meaning parents had to brush up on their own skills or hire a tutor.

He also said that he was worried about the inequities that homework caused. Piscataway is notable for its economic and racial diversity -- the district is about one-third black, one-third white and one-fourth Asian, with 75 languages spoken in the schools. Some students cannot afford tutors.

Mr. Bolandi cites studies that show no link between homework and high achievement. But others studies are varied. One found higher standardized test scores among Chinese-American students whose parents demanded they spend more time studying. Another suggested that homework improved achievement, especially as students grew older.

Parents complained that assignments cut into family life, and into other activities that helped round out their children.

''For college, they say you have to see the kid as a package,'' said Linda Bellew, whose son is a high school sophomore. ''I'm trying to give him that package, but a lot of homework makes it very difficult.''

In middle school, Mrs. Bellew said, her son's homework forced him to cancel appearances at birthday parties and a christening. He sat at the dinner table with an open book many nights, and his assignments provoked countless arguments about whether he had time to go to karate lessons. She doubted whether he was even learning from it.

''If you have six hours of homework, you're not doing it to learn, you're doing it to get it done,'' she said.

Mrs. Markowitz envisioned more homework headaches when her daughter entered sixth grade this year: not only was she moving to a junior high school, she was going to be taking accelerated math classes.

''The last two years were nightmares,'' she said. ''This was an A student losing her interest in school, losing her desire to learn. I just didn't see why they had to give 40 math problems when 10 would show that they get it.''

The change in her daughter this year, she said, is remarkable.

''She is looking forward to doing her homework, because she knows she's not in for three or four hours of hell.''