School Homework For Summer Vacation

It's summertime and the living isn't so easygoing anymore for students. Homework is cutting into their 8-week video game and hanging-out time, but the debate isn't over on the efficacy of vacation assignments, according to Great Schools, a nonprofit organization geared toward parents.

It's not just light summer reading anymore, where kids get to select a book of their choice and write a five-paragraph essay. In many high schools, Advanced Placement courses, for instance, load up students with weeks' worth of work before the school year begins.

An incoming senior at a Florida high school had to complete 100 calculus problems, read Madame Bovary, and complete "a packet of art history questions," according to a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel.

"I haven't started any of it and school starts Monday, and I'm freaking out," the student, Lauren Duffy, told the Sentinel.

Meanwhile, summer preparation for sophomores taking AP U.S. History at Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, called for reading six chapters of the textbook, supplemental reading, and developing four essay outlines. Students entering the school's International Baccalaureate program had to read two books for one class and watch two documentaries and take graded notes for another, according students interviewed in June for the student newspaper, the Shakerite.

A Great Schools article by Leslie Crawford last summer described one student whose summer workload included reading five novels for AP English and one book for AP U.S. History, completing packets of problems for AP Calculus and Chemistry, and writing summaries of scientific principles for Honors Physics.

Homework's Effects

There are no academic studies looking at the extent of summer homework, but it's on the rise, researcher Harris Cooper told Great Schools. He's the chairman of the psychology and neuroscience department at Duke University and the co-author of a leading meta-analysis on the effect of homework during the school year on academic achievement that was featured earlier this year over at the Inside School Research blog.

Cooper's analysis, presented in the Review of Education Research, found "there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement."  

Summer homework has evolved as a response to the growing body of research on the harmful effects of summer learning loss, especially among low-income children.

When it comes to summer homework, the question is, however, is it just busy work or do students get tangible benefits?That depends on how much students and parents buy into it, Stanford University's Denise Pope explains in Crawford's Great Schools report.

"In order for any learning to be retained, there has to be engagement on the part of the students," said Pope.

It's not just the amount of work creeping into vacation that causes students to balk, it's that they often have no guidance from teachers should they have questions or run into problems.

"You're just handed over a textbook and sort of forced to figure it out yourself," junior Bess Aronoff told the Shakerite.

However, some of her classmates find it helpful to get a leg up on the subject before classes start, even if they're not thrilled with the idea of summer homework.

"There are some classes, especially AP and IB classes, where you do kind of need it to get started and introduce the material before the year starts," sophomore Max Markey told the Shakerite. "With the [economics' documentaries], it should be interesting, but for the most part it'll be horrid."

Japan has long been notorious for its super-short summer vacations — it’s just five and a half weeks at the public school my seven-year-old daughter started in April. But just in case kids still have a little too much unstructured time on their hands, the school provided a big brown envelope stuffed with homework assignments.

Yumiko Ono/The Wall Street Journal

There’s the math and Japanese drills, a book report and two diary entries to submit, each with an appropriate drawing capturing the highlights. There are six songs to practice on a musical instrument called the “keyboard harmonica” or melodica, which looks like a portable keyboard with a mouthpiece attached to the side to blow into.(10 times per song.)

Two observation reports must be submitted, noting the condition of her sprawling morning-glory plant that she took home (or rather, I lugged home) for the holidays. Once the fall term begins in late August, we have to take the plant back. That, of course, is a huge incentive to keep it alive by watering it every day.

Then there’s something called “independent research” — the ultimate test of a child’s creativity and presentation skills, and a nightmare for many parents. A detailed newsletter distributed by the school listed helpful suggestions on appropriate topics for a first-grader: observing an insect, conducting a simple science experiment or detailing a special trip.

If you’re still stuck, there are a slew of online sites to the rescue. Gakken Education Publishing Co., a major publishing company, has a site called Study Kidsnet that lists 500 suggested research topics categorized by the appropriate grade level and the amount of time it takes. For those really pressed for time, it even sells science experiment kits.

All this is a far cry from the summer vacations I had while growing up in Flushing, NY in the 1970s. I fondly recall spending leisurely weeks at Mid-Queens Day Camp playing Jacks, singing camp songs and just  enjoying being out of school for almost three months.

Of course, my American friends tell me that summers for the children of hyper-achievers there are no longer quite as relaxed as I remember them either. There are plenty of intense summer programs aimed at elementary schoolers geared to show accomplishment, instill discipline, and put them early on a path toward a top college. However, those are rarely related to the kids’ school, which may or may not care what they do over the summer. Another difference: the Japanese school year starts in April, which means the summer break comes in the middle of a school year. That makes it easier for the teachers to give out the homework since they know they will be the ones grading the assignments.

The attitude of Japanese schools is that summer vacation is “a period of fun, excitement and of danger,” says Gail R. Benjamin, an American anthropologist who chronicled her two children’s year in a Japanese elementary school in her book, “Japanese Lessons.” The danger, she says, arises “from the possibility that the summer vacation will involve a change of routine and that the goals and habits established through hard work and vigilance in the previous months will be eroded.”

Indeed, the most effective way to minimize this danger may be to supply lots of homework. Just to make sure, there’s the last bit of assignment, called “It’s Almost The Fall Term”  may come in handy. Starting a week before school starts, my daughter Yuzu will fill out a form with a drawing of seven mouth-watering cups of shaved ice. If she can get up by 7 a.m., she can color the shaved ice in any color she likes. If she is in bed by 9:30 pm, she can color the bowl light blue. The good news: You don’t have to be asleep as long as you are tucked in bed.

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