Image: Kerry Dickinson and son, Sam
Paul Sakuma  /  AP
Kerry Dickinson, right, sits with her 13-year-old son, Sam, an eighth grader, as he does math homework at their home in Danville, Calif.
updated 7/14/2009 4:42:40 PM ET 2009-07-14T20:42:40

Christina Harris doesn't believe kindergartners should have homework. So at the beginning of her son's kindergarten year, she flat-out told the teacher he wouldn't be doing any.

"I don't believe that there's any use for it," said Harris, of Federal Way, Wash. "I think that's a complete waste of childhood."

A grassroots parents movement has taken hold in recent years calling for less — or at least better — homework. Books like "The Case Against Homework" (Crown, 2006) and "The Homework Myth" (Da Capo, 2007) have argued that too much of today's homework is mindless busywork that takes away from family time and does not improve academic performance. Homework's critics argue that kids should instead be reading for enjoyment, exploring and being creative.

Many school officials are taking note.

But how much homework is too much?

One standard that many school districts are turning to is the "10-minute rule" created by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper. The rule, endorsed by the National PTA and the National Education Association, says kids should get 10 minutes of homework a night per grade. A first grader would have 10 minutes of homework each night; a fifth grader 50 minutes.

Cooper said the amount of homework in America actually hasn't changed that much over the past 50 years except that there has been an increase in the amount given in the early grades.

Attitudes towards homework go in cycles, he said. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, he says, there was a drive toward more homework because it was thought that the United States was falling behind. The same happened in the mid-'80s, and again in recent years.

If a child is doing homework effectively but it seems to be taking too long, Cooper suggests that parents approach the teacher in a non-confrontational way, as a collaborator in the education process.

Kerry Dickinson, a Danville, Calif., mom of two, took that advice a step further. She asked other parents what they thought about homework, then she and a friend met with the school district's director of curriculum and instruction. She got a call days later saying the San Ramon Valley Unified School District was forming a task force to rewrite homework policy.

Last year, the district implemented a new policy, adapting Cooper's formula, for kindergarten through eighth grade. A new high school policy will take effect in the fall.

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"I think what I'm most happy about is this dialogue has started in this community about rethinking accepted homework practices," she said. "That's the most important thing, that we don't always accept the status quo in education."

Some Danville parents, however, thought the old homework policy was fine.

Mary Grace Houlihan, who has two teenagers, says attempts to limit homework can amount to lazy parenting: "At what point do you start saying, whoa, I decided to be a parent and learning doesn't stop at 3 o'clock?"

In her home, she said, homework often turns into a family discussion. Learning outside the classroom is necessary for students to be accepted into major universities, says Houlihan, whose daughter was just accepted to Princeton.

Cooper's research found that practice-style assignments in elementary school, such as learning number places and vocabulary, do help improve unit test scores, but found little or no connection between the amount of time spent on homework and academic achievement. Homework does help secondary students overall and on tests, he said.

Other places that have wrestled with the homework question recently include Broward County, Fla., where the school board recently approved the 10-minute rule, and urged teachers to assign academically challenging work, but not too much. An elementary school in Glenrock, Wyo., implemented a no-homework practice in fall 2007.

In Vermont, the Colchester School District now makes homework count for only 10 percent of a grade, instead of the previous 40 percent. And no longer are kids kept in from recess if they don't do their homework.

"It helped us really define what our purpose is," said Gwen Carmolli, Colchester's director of curriculum and instruction. "Our purpose is to help students understand the concepts they're learning at school. But we shouldn't give homework just to give it."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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