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Strive for a little balance

As the Suffolk School Board awaits the results of a review it ordered after a parent appealed to members for a change in the district’s homework policy for elementary-age students, it would be wise for everyone involved to recognize one important point: There is almost no consensus on the question of how much homework is appropriate for young students.

Some school systems have cut back on homework requirements for children in elementary classrooms, some have called for their young students simply to read for a time each night and some have even dumped homework altogether for early grades.

But the trade magazine “Education Week,” in a 2014 article about the trend and its controversy among educators, quoted an apt description of the new relaxed policies in Chicago as a “grand experiment.”

A study by the Brookings Brown Center on Education noted that elementary-age children are the only group of students in the nation to self-report a greater number of hours spent on homework in 2012 than in 1986. Among 9-year-olds, there were increases in the percentage of students reporting a light homework load (defined as less than an hour a day) and among those reporting a medium load (from one to two hours a day). Clearly the amount of homework that age group is getting has risen, along with other claims on their time (like sports and even social media), but nobody is quite sure what results have been produced by the increased homework load — whether good or ill.

It’s easy to find studies on both sides of the issue. Some say homework is an important tool for reinforcing classroom lessons; others say it causes needless stress for children and their families and that it doesn’t produce measurably better students. Nobody can claim the science is settled on this matter, and the School Board should, hence, proceed carefully with changes.

That said, however, some things seem clear.

First, Suffolk’s policy allowing third- through fifth-grade students to be assigned as much as 90 minutes of homework a night — the heaviest workload allowed for children that age by any school system in Hampton Roads — would seem to be a bit of an overkill. It seems likely the city could reduce that workload by a third without hurting educational outcomes.

Second, the city’s public schools — some of which continue to struggle for full accreditation in the face of serious socioeconomic and fiscal challenges — could benefit from identifying some best practices to follow in this matter. And since the jury is still out on exactly what those best practices are, it would be advisable for Suffolk to avoid any wholesale changes to its policy. Now is not the time, for instance, for Suffolk to move to a homework-free policy for its elementary schools.

Instead, Suffolk Public Schools should look for balance on the matter in the short term, while setting up a continuing task to continue studying it in the future. Reducing the homework commitment is a good intermediate step that would allow the city to monitor results and carefully watch how things play out in other school districts that have taken a more drastic approach.