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Schedule changes lead to more homework complaints in some Fox Valley schools

Teacher Erick Hornberg prepares class for exam recently Jacobs High School Algonquin. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

Teacher Erick Hornberg prepares the class for exam recently at Jacobs High School in Algonquin. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 8, 2013 6:03AM

High school freshmen Ethan Roberts, Kasie Chappell and Kallie Pifko have homework. A lot of it.

“It depends on the class,” said Roberts. “Some give you hours and hours.”

“Some classes give you so much you can’t study for any of your other classes,” said Chappell.

The three Waubonsie Valley High School students, like most students in the Fox Valley, head back to school Monday to finish up their first semester. They are taking honors biology this year, and each said that the course and the piles of homework that come with it have taxed their time management skills.

They spend “hours and hours and hours” on cell structures, genetics and protein synthesis.

And they’re not alone.

It’s no surprise that plenty of high school students complain about the amount of homework teachers assign. But what may be a surprise is that some parents and even school board members are voicing their concerns, too, urging schools and teachers to lessen the workload.

10 minutes for each year

The call for less homework is strongest at two Fox Valley school districts in particular — the Oswego School District and Carpentersville-based District 300 — which both moved this school year from block scheduling to eight-period school days.

That has brought with it complaints from students and parents about an increase in homework. It’s part of the reason Brad Clark, an English teacher at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, included a question about how much time students spend on homework each night in the mock election last fall at the school.

There is scant hard science on just how much homework students should be assigned each night to create the smartest students, but many experts agree on a 10-minute-per-grade target. In first grade, students should get 10 minutes of homework, with the goal of developing concentration and good study habits. By their senior year in high school, students should have up to 120 minutes, or two hours, of homework that reinforces content learned in the classroom.

Even for high school juniors and seniors, after about two hours’ worth, more homework did not result in high achievement, according to one oft-cited Duke University study.

At Jacobs High School, most Jacobs students reported that they fell within those rough guidelines, with most students completing one to two hours (28.3 percent) or 30 minutes to one hour (27.9 percent) of homework each night.

Students who maintain a 4.0 grade point average are more likely to do more homework: nearly 40 percent said they do two or more hours of homework each night, the informal Jacobs poll found.

Double classes

But that may still be more than students at the Oswego and District 300 schools are used to.

Previously, the schools in both the Carpentersville and Oswego districts operated on block schedules, where students took just four 90-minute classes a day for about nine weeks. This fall, both districts adopted a new schedule with eight periods, of about 45 minutes each, which means that students who previously took home assignments from just four classes now could potentially get homework from seven different teachers in a day.

With the move from block scheduling to the eight-period day that doubled students’ classload, “it became that much more critical” teachers take into account how much homework they assign their students, Clark said. That was something he said department leaders had stressed to teachers.

Homework lunch

Even school board members are starting to hear about the work load.

“We certainly are getting a lot of complaints from parents because the 48 minutes in the classroom are spent teaching, and that doesn’t leave the student any time to get their work done,” said board member Laurie Pasteris at a November meeting of the Oswego School Board.

In addition to more teachers handing out more daily assignments, the change to shorter classes has meant fewer minutes at the end of a lesson to finish assignments or to start homework.

At District 300 schools, only freshmen and sophomores are required to take a 45-minute advisory period or study hall. But at Oswego and Oswego East high schools, that’s not even an option — neither school offers study hall to their students. At the November meeting, Oswego School Board members asked for a review of the recently adopted Flex-8 schedule and the possibility of adding a study hall into the daily routine. 

“A lot of your AP kids or student athletes could use study hall,” said board member Alison Swanson. “Pretty much any kid could use a study hall. I’m not sure I enjoy the idea of giving my kids seven hours (of class) and doing homework while they’re eating lunch.”

Not time, value

But the conversation about homework in Fox Valley schools isn’t just about how much is too much. It’s also about what will help students learn.

One shift caused by the Common Core standards that schools across the state are implementing is in the importance of homework, according to Erick Hornberg, a U.S. history teacher at Jacobs.

“The old-school thought was the amount of homework assigned had to do with the amount of rigor, which is not actually true. The amount of homework doesn’t have anything to do with rigor,” Hornberg said.

What matters, say teachers, education researchers, and even students, is that the homework has value, either reinforcing or introducing new concepts to make instruction in class more efficient.

“I don’t mind my Spanish homework,” said Pifko. “It really does help me remember.”

Which is why some teachers, including Donna Thill, a teacher at Plank Junior High in Oswego, balk at the idea of using time in school to complete homework.

“Common Core standards dictate that rigorous instruction be the focus of each class period, not that the class period should be given an excessive amount of time for students to get their work done,” said Thill, addressing the School Board to argue for regular classes, not study halls. “We all have homework. It’s something that should be expected.”

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