It's a phrase heard daily in all sorts of contexts: "Do your homework." In other words, put in the effort to improve learning and performance.
But in schools, homework is under siege. Controversy swirls over the amount and type of homework - and over parents' roles. Some school districts have even taken the route of reining in homework.
The 7,000 students in Piscataway, N.J., schools are probably smiling over a recent school board decision to limit the amount of homework. Teachers there are forbidden from using homework to determine grades or as a basis for punishment. Weekend assignments are discouraged.
Two years ago, the East Porter County school district in Indiana decided to end all "busy work" homework assignments. The district wants only homework that is interactive, creative, or enriching.
Such actions may relieve pressure on students and busy parents. But they should also spawn a fresh rethinking about the purpose of homework.
Can homework be made more engaging, or be challenging enough for students to do original research and use their parents as a resource? Is homework being used to instill a life-long love for learning beyond just classroom education?
But beyond that, how much homework is "too much"?
The question is growing louder in the elementary grades as youngsters are pushed to meet state-set standards in reading and math (and as more and more parents hold down a job). Some homework - measured in minutes, not hours - may be appropriate. Above all, very young students need to know that learning can be fun and fulfilling.
In higher grades, self-motivation and the back-up role of parents become key issues. Middle-schoolers or high-schoolers, heading toward college or the world of work, have to gain the discipline to do their own work and meet deadlines. Every parent knows that. But some pre-teens and teens don't seem to have an inkling.
The temptation to plunge in and do it for them can be great. But parents have to resist. Homework may seem a family burden, but is the burden the amount of work assigned, or the challenge of getting junior away from the TV, Internet, video games, music CDs, or other distractions?
Helping students learn better time management is a big part of unraveling homework tangles. Some schools offer courses or counseling in basic study skills, including how to set priorities and avoid last-minute rushes on major assignments. The Internet, too, has lots of sites devoted to homework aids and tips. Parents can nudge their kids toward such help. And most teachers will doubtless be happy to add their support.
Homework too easily becomes a point of contention among students, their families, and schools. It should be a focus for teamwork.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society