BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan board of education is instituting a time limit for nightly homework – but is still concerned about how that will play out for honors and advanced placement classes.

The board voted by a 5-2 count, with one abstention, at its Aug. 26 meeting on part of a revised policy resolution regarding homework and chart regarding homework times.

Amy Buckalew, who works as a music teacher and has two children in the district, serves on the board’s homework committee, and said she is concerned about the new timetable. She said she would like to see a maximum daily homework total.

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“Twenty minutes per class should be sufficient at the high school level,” said Buckalew.

She added that there is a lot more to the issue than a timetable, as teachers might be unaware of the strains a student could be suffering from at home, and she encouraged more parents to speak up.

According to the chart, first graders in the district will be assigned a maximum of 10 minutes of homework per day; second graders, 20 minutes; third graders, 30 minutes; fourth graders, 40 minutes; fifth and sixth graders, 10 minutes per class per day; seventh and eighth graders, 15 minutes per class per day, and; ninth to 12th graders, 20 to 30 minutes per class per day, with no differentiation between honors classes and Advanced Placement classes.

Board member Jeffrey Brookner said he likes the idea of 20 minutes per high school class, with one exception, for reading novels. Superintendent Russell Lazovick asked if the board could vote on the table as it was, with teachers and students alike to be encouraged to plan and study their lessons by the week instead of the day.

The board also discussed grading, and the weighting of grades with regard to homework. Board member Zachary Malek suggested removing weighting for Advanced Placement classes, which are used to obtain college credit while students are still enrolled in high school.

“Studying is an integral part (of college classes),” said Malek.

Malek said that student grade-point averages are based on the amount of work done, and said he feels they shouldn’t be weighted at all. He added that Advanced Placement students are expected to work at a higher level, with those classes being even more difficult than honors classes, but that those students also don't have a longer day in which to complete their assignments.

Malek added that colleges look at weighted and unweighted averages together.

“Students associate their worth with G.P.A.,” said Malek. who suggested getting rid of weighting.

Board member A.J. Joshi said it is expected that A.P. students will work even harder, and asked if that means more homework.

Malek replied that some students take longer to read than others, that they need more time to deal with harder homework, and then asked how the administration is enforcing the homework policy. Board member Melanie Thiesse spoke about teachers being cognizant of homework limits for students.

Brookner said an agreement has been reached on policy language, which could be changed. He added there are differences – that an average student might take 20 minutes (or more) to complete an assignment, and that they can't be blamed for doing that. He also said that if a 20-minute assignment is taking 75 percent of the class 40 minutes, then that situation has to be addressed.  

“Outliers cannot be the basis of policy,” said Brookner.

Malek said that leeway has to be given to teachers, as the material to be covered is dense at the A.P. level, while Thiesse said that students can possibly be limited to a maximum number of A.P. classes, perhaps two in all.

Lazovick said he is hearing the same ideas from the same people, and that board members have gone on record about the issue.

“I hear your passion,” he said.

He also said that the policy on the agenda is “to fix inconsistency.”

Lazovick also said that the board has done an immense amount of work to change language in the homework policy, and that the academic committee had been asked to revisit it but not undercut the work done at board meetings.

Brookner brought up the difference between “maximum” and “guidelines” when it comes to homework. He said the former is difficult to enforce, while the latter is impossible to enforce.

Lazovick said that the school board gives guidelines and maximums to teachers, parents and students, ostensibly with no more than three hours of homework (max) per day. Brookner disagreed, in that some students are slower, while others have to work harder as they may have pushed themselves to take more difficult classes.

Lazovick said that when the averages are added up, it comes out to two hours and 40 minutes of homework per night, in establishing an average, healthy environment for students, with an average student falling within those limits.

“This is about what homework should take,” said Lazovick.

He elaborated that the board/administration is not the “minutes police” and can’t solve individual issues, but is trying to set a standard of what us healthy for students, whether it is, for example, 20 minutes of homework (per class), or 20 to 30 minutes.

“Let’s take a vote and see where we are now,” said the superintendent.

Board member Lynne Hurley said that if a proposed homework length chart is in the policy, she will vote no, as though the focus is on the chart and not the policy. She also added that “obsessing over numbers” has not been the intent.

Malek asked how not to be the “minutes police,” and how not to micro-manage the district’s teachers. Lazovick said that it goes back to the first meeting, that one size doesn’t fit all, and that the desire is to get more people engaged.

“It’s not about enforcement,” said Lazovick. “It’s understanding and communication.”

Brookner said that all the surveys and focus groups would be wasted if the board didn’t make changes, after three years of discussion. He also said the guidelines for homework have been in place for a long time, and are observed by a number of teachers, but that there are fundamental problems in some areas of school, with excess.

He went on to say that the guidelines could be made stronger and more enforceable. He also said the conversation needs to be started about why one student us taking 45 minutes a night on a homework assignment as opposed to 20 minutes, whether that means said student is slower or more challenged, or if a teacher is assigning too much homework depending on who is affected.

“Teachers aren’t always right,” said Brookner.

He said it is a board-level decision, and that the board exists to make decisions like that.

Brookner also said that A.P. classes have been the biggest problem identified on the surveys the board got back. He said that putting A.P.-caliber students into lower-level classes would be too easy for those students, and would result in them not learning.

He added they also couldn’t be “worked to death” or buried in their schoolwork, which he said has been the “overwhelming result in the survey.”

Malek said that in the original policy, there had been no limit on homework, and now there was one.

“We’re putting a cap on it,” he said.

Malek also mentioned that A.P. students need more time to complete their assignments.

“They’re college-level classes for a reason,” he said.

He added that students have a support system in high school – e.g., parents, family, friends – that doesn’t necessarily exist when they go off to college. He added that students needed to be pushed to their academic limits, and “not the edge”

Lazovick stated that high school academic levels are difficult, and then took a straw poll regarding homework. Three board members said they want A.P. classes to be listed differently, while four members wanted them to not be listed differently, and one member abstained.

In the end it was Barlow, Brookner, Joshi, Thiesse, and Walker voting for the chart, while Malek and Mead voted against it, and Hurley abstained.