A University of Michigan study last year found homework increasing overall from 1981 to 1997, with the biggest increase falling on students aged 6 to 8, whose homework load tripled. Piscataway is one of many school districts to ban or severely limit homework across the country.
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, 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. A few studies suggest that rigorous homework leads to better scores; but most researchers say there is no correlation.
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 that 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 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.
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.”
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. 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. 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.
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.
Homework has been an increasing problem for students across the country. Despite what some educational analysts may believe, the limits in homework have helped countless families live a normal life. It was just a matter of time before someone stood up to the school districts.