Homework overload in elementary school?

I had never given the concept of homework much thought until Noah started first grade last September. But along with falling leaves came fill-in-the-blank "ditto" sheets, each reeking of that fresh copier smell. Every night he had language arts and math assignments, not to mention book reports, social studies, and special projects. Some of these were weekend assignments.

No sooner had Noah gotten these under his belt than he was assigned 10 spelling words a week. Soon, he was engaged in good old-fashioned word copying, and my favorite: writing 10 complete sentences.

At first he wanted to write complex, playful sentences, but eventually he learned it took less time to write short, boring ones. Then his teacher added practice time for addition and subtraction tests to the nightly load. The piece de rsistance came later: booklets in which he was supposed to practice for the Stanford 9 Achievement Tests over spring break.

So it came to be that Noah and I spent an hour or two every evening at the dining room table, trying to complete this dizzying array of assignments while eking out a measure of meaning. In between school and work, we squeezed precious time from friendships, play time, outdoor time, dinner time, bath time, reading together, and whatever little we might have had for plain old down time.

Noah could handle the work, but after a long day at school with one short recess, he was restless. "Mommy," he'd say with a whine creeping into his voice, "I want to play. I haven't had a chance to play all day. I need to play."

He was right. From where I stand, he does need to play. Scientific study has confirmed common sense: We now know that play is a crucial component of learning. Although some of his homework was interesting and could be made into "play," Noah had no time for self-guided exploration - the highest form of play.

Concerned, I read up on "homework." Educators who tout homework, like those running the Washington, D.C., public school system that oversees my son's school, explain that it helps reinforce information and skills children learn at school - in essence extending classroom learning time. Homework, they say, helps prepare children for the tough challenges ahead in high school, college, and life.

I didn't have as much homework in first grade, nor did my parents. But low elementary school test scores in the 1970s and 1980s drove the trend toward more homework. Homework improves test scores, advocates say. Schools are judged by test scores.

All this is well and good. However, who says we can judge learning or future achievement by test scores? Studies have concluded that homework for elementary school children has little or no impact on their long-term achievement. A number of psychologists advise that homework places undue pressure on young children, and intrudes on play time and life learning.

Many of the best private schools in and around Washington - some attended by the children of the governing elite - agree. For these very reasons, they don't breathe a word about homework until at least the third grade.

What does the heavy homework load say about our culture? For starters, it says that some school systems are in a rush to shove information into our children's minds so they will pass tests. Consequently, parents who choose to or must send their children to public school, often buy into an emphasis on achievement, not learning. This means their children don't learn to value self-guided exploration. They learn early on that they are supposed to be as nonstop busy as their parents.

Homework overload also propagates the advantage of educated, two-parent families with a parent at home full time. The days are long gone when most moms were at home and could supervise homework. One friend, a single mom with two children, arrives home at 6:30 p.m., cooks dinner, then devotes an hour and a half to working with her fourth-grader, who has some learning disabilities and can't do his homework without guidance. As a result, she has no time for her first-grader.

I know other parents who don't speak, read or write English: Their children are doomed to be left behind, even with the help of well-meaning tutors who can only provide limited support.

Yes, we are sending some very nutty messages to our children. Noah, for one, is alternately frightened he won't get his homework done and resentful about his lack of play time.

"Can I go to a school where they give less homework?" he begs when the going gets rough.

Noah's not the only child I know who is overly focused on homework. Chatting with a bright seven-year-old the other day, I discovered that she knew every teacher's "homework reputation." In fact, homework was her main criterion for deciding which teacher she wants.

Now that we are nearing the end of the year and the spring achievement tests are over, the load has lightened. Ditto sheets and book reports still arrive home. But mostly, we're supposed to read together. That's more like it!

We've read "The Borrowers" and explored the idea of alternative realities. We're reading "The Chronicles of Narnia" and discussing the concepts of good and evil. Noah has time to ask questions, and we have time to research the answers discovering, for example, which US presidents wore wigs and fluffy collars. We can play catch; observe flickers and cardinals at the bird house; plant pumpkins.

There is time for thoughts and ideas to settle in, then work their way back into the world. But I know it's just a reprieve. Second grade is just around the corner.

*Nadine Epstein is a freelance writer, artist, and mother in Washington, D.C.

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