District Looking at New Time Allocations for Homework

As the current school year came to an end, it was clear the topic of homework will soldier on through the summer months for the San Marino Unified School District’s administrators, teachers and parents.
A town hall-style meeting last week reflected as much, although the needle did seem to move closer to some sort of consensus between the argument of reducing homework loads and the idea of making homework more meaningful to the students.
Michiko Lee, the Academic Advisory Council representative who presented the body’s conclusions regarding homework (among other areas), summarized the relationship between educators, students and parents as “a triangle of responsibility.”
For the AAC’s part, its conclusion that SMUSD should reduce its minimum homework requirements across all grade levels was based upon academic research as well as the practices of nearby public and private schools whose student achievement levels mirror those of SMUSD.
“We really gathered the research first, and every time we came back as a group, we couldn’t not agree,” explained Meredith Sommers, another AAC member. “There actually wasn’t a single person in the committee who was divergent in thought from the conclusion we were coming to.
“We truly came into this in the interest of what was going on in each of these communities around us and where the world was going,” she added.
On the other hand, several parents at this meeting lauded conventional parts of education such as homework helping to prepare young students for the challenges of adulthood and teach them time-management skills.
“To me, academic rigor strengthens a student for life,” said Brady Onishi. “You need to figure out how to do what you need to do.
“It has to be smart homework and not a bunch of homework,” he added. “It puts the added burden on the teachers that they have to be more selective with what they are assigning.”
Proposed reductions for SMUSD’s homework policy included eliminating homework altogether through 3rd grade and substantially reducing the workload for high school students, who are currently allotted a part-time job’s worth of homework each week. (Lee’s presentations focused on the K-8 proposals because of the more unified consensus on those recommendations.)
Teachers who spoke at this meeting expressed support for the reductions, opining that the high-pressure academic environment of SMUSD schools has produced students whose mental health is caught in the crossfire when they juggle classwork, athletics, extracurriculars and homework — all in keeping with the ideal of getting into an Ivy League-caliber university.
“We’re finding that in (grades) 6-8, they’re already starting to feel this pressure,” said Huntington Middle School English teacher Robbin Nordsten, who was a faculty member of the AAC. “That should be concerning to all of us. That’s not something you want.
“Of course, we want to prepare them for high school and college, but assigning them homework is not the solution. Giving an inordinate amount of homework does not benefit the child,” she added. “Learning takes place in the class. Make no mistake. Homework is kind of a refresher, but there’s nothing as beneficial for a child as when they’re with us.”
Susan Flanagan, a former Carver Elementary School teacher who at a recent school board meeting argued favorably about the use of homework in education, reiterated her position at this meeting, adding that a responsible teacher modifies student work to address the needs of the student. She, too, touted the practice of homework as strengthening life skills.
“If you do not have a good foundation, like any house, you cannot build on that foundation,” Flanagan said. “You have to teach in 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades the basics of reading, and their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. A lot of that requires review at home. It cannot always be accomplished during the school hours.
“I totally understand and am sympathetic to the busy lifestyles of families today,” she added. “However, children should not be the ones to make the sacrifice.”
Another parent, Inez Cheng, said she valued homework as a way of freeing up classroom time to focus on learning the fundamentals of a new subject and added that students nowadays have more to learn than ever.
“There isn’t less that they need to know,” she said. “How do you reinforce facts? There are some things that are just rote learning. I don’t see how it is a good use of classroom time to reinforce multiplication facts.
“Stress is a part of life,” Cheng added. “I went through medical school. Do you want someone operating on you who was afraid of a little homework?”
Aiming for more of a middle ground, some parents and educators appeared to endorse the idea of giving homework more of a purpose for students, as opposed to simply assigning “busywork.” One parent endorsed differentiated learning to address differing needs among students and another proclaimed he would “gladly” give up SMUSD’s top ranking among California public school districts if it meant its students were in a better place mentally and emotionally.
Changing the local culture came up, too. Nordsten said she’s had students express frustration with the conflicting messaging in class and at home regarding the amount of work they need to do, with parents often pushing their students for those A-plus assignments and high achievement.
“They say, ‘That’s great in your class, but it doesn’t work in my home,’” Nordtsen said. “I’ve done less homework this year, and I’ve got to tell you, my kids are better off for it.”

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