LOS ANGELES -- Vanessa Perez was a homework scofflaw. The Marshall High School senior didn't finish all of it -- largely because she worked 24 hours a week at a Subway sandwich shop.
Alvaro Ramirez, a junior at the Santee Education Complex, doesn't have his own room and his mother baby-sits young children at night. "They're always there and they're always loud," he said, explaining his challenges with homework.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system, has decided to give students like these a break. A new policy decrees that homework can count for only 10 percent of a student's grade.
Critics -- mostly teachers -- worry that the policy will encourage students to slack off assigned work and even reward those who already disregard assignments. And they say it could penalize hardworking students who receive higher marks for effort.
Some educators also object to a one-size-fits-all mandate they said could hamstring teaching or homogenize it. They say, too, that students who do their homework perform significantly better than those who don't -- a view supported by research.
But Los Angeles Unified is pressing forward, joining a growing list of school districts across the country that are taking on homework -- including Fontana, Calif., and Pleasanton, N.J. In many districts, limits are being placed on the amount of homework so students can spend more time with their families or pursue extracurricular activities such as sports or hobbies. The competition to get into top colleges has left students anxious and exhausted, with little free time, parents complain.
In Davis, Calif., a policy that took effect this year specifies homework maximums, with some exceptions for advanced courses. And it prohibits assigning homework over weekends and holidays while also addressing the quality of the assignments.
That effort, and others, aligns with national trends and widely accepted research.
A good thumbnail is 10 minutes per day multiplied by the grade of the student, said Duke University professor Harris Cooper. So a sixth-grader should be able to handle 60 minutes. Cooper said homework patterns have followed 30-year cycles: the Soviets' launch of Sputnik in 1957, for example, also launched a crusade in this country to increase homework. The trend is now swinging against more-is-better.
The Los Angeles approach is intended to account for the myriad urban problems facing the district's mostly low-income, minority population. It's also aimed at supporting the district's increasing focus on boosting measureable academic achievement.
According to the new policy, "Varying degrees of access to academic support at home, for whatever reason, should not penalize a student so severely that it prevents the student from passing a class, nor should it inflate the grade." It was distributed to schools last month.
Veronica Castro, a Santee junior, cooks and cleans for her family. She also shares a room with her sister, who likes to watch television. Another TV blares in the living room next door: "Sometimes homework is the last thing I have to do instead of the first."
Santee science teacher Cesar Alcaraz said he already takes students' home environments into consideration and hopes the policy will curb poor homework practices by teachers.
Homework should not be used to punish or reward; grades should be based on learning so that it "accurately represents what a student knows and is able to do," the policy says. Grades should not be based on how students attain knowledge "nor (on) their behavior, attitude, effort or attendance."
Previously, teachers could determine how much weight should be given to homework, tests and other assignments.
The homework change accompanies another policy being tested: More than three dozen campuses are experimenting with boosting a student's grade for improved performance on state standardized tests.
Both policies were quietly developed this year under the auspices of Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott. Both emphasize measurable results in a school system in which teachers, principals and even the superintendent will be evaluated on student performance.
The new policy is commendable but should be combined with helping teachers improve their use of homework, said Etta Kralovec, co-author of "The End of Homework" and a University of Arizona associate professor.
Wheelock College associate professor Janine Bempechat said the district should focus on providing students the support they need to complete their homework, which remains crucial. "To make homework worthy of only 10 percent of a student's grade sends a message that is it not important," Bempechat said.
Though many Santee students have burdens outside of school, "students need to realize that they're held accountable," said Chris Johnson, who teaches Advanced Placement English and history.
"They have to rise up to meet that, organize their time and be much more mature at a younger age than many students," Johnson said. "If it takes till midnight, then you burn the midnight oil." Without substantial homework, he can't cover the necessary course work, he added.
Several students praised the quality of Johnson's homework but added that others assigned busywork, including coloring.
"By the time I got to that assignment, at 2 in the morning, I found it irrelevant, tedious and not worth doing," said junior Israel Hipolito. "I got high scores on tests but a lower grade because of the coloring assignment."
The district policy doesn't speak to how much homework should be assigned.
Several teachers said they intended to continue assigning homework as before, but questioned whether students would take it as seriously.
Compliance is already a problem. In non-honors classes, teachers said they were fortunate if 50 percent of students did their homework.
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