American School Board Journal, March 1978
At one of her first meetings as a new member of the Montgomery County, Maryland, school board, Marian Greenblatt introduced a motion she thought would sail through. Instead, she started a year-long brangle. Before it ended last November, board members, the superintendent, the local teacher union, principals, a nationally syndicated columnist, and a TV talk show had joined the fray. The correspondent for a London newspaper called Greenblatt to ask: “What is happening in America?”
What was happening? Greenblatt was trying to make homework a requirement in Montgomery County schools.
“Homework is hardly the biggest issue we face in our school system,” concedes Greenblatt. “I still can’t believe it could become so complicated. All I meant to do was to correct what I thought was an oversight in board policy. “As a former teacher, I know how important homework is. Advance preparation is absolutely necessary in order to make the best use of a teacher’s and a student’s time in the classroom.
“During my election campaign, I was surprised to see so many kids coming home from school with no books. `No homework,’ they would tell me. And many parents talked to me about declining standards in Montgomery County schools. As proof positive of a falloff, they would wind up by saying, `You know, the teachers don’t even give homework anymore.’
“Now, I know that isn’t true everywhere, but all together it was enough to make me think that a policy stating that all children should have some homework on a regular basis would be useful. So, when I was elected to the board, that’s where I started.”
Greenblatt’s proposal was hardly revolutionary. Like that of many another school system, her policy amounted to no more than a statement that homework would be required in increasing amounts as students advanced through the grades. Also included were guidelines for the amount of homework required: from 15 minutes for gradeschoolers to half an hour per major subject for high school students. Parents were to be reminded each semester about the policy and, Greenblatt assumed, if the homework were not completed, parents would take the matter up with the child’s teacher or principal.
(Other) school systems…have similar - and even more stringent - rules about homework. Why the flap, then? How could rich, progressive Montgomery County hesitate over such a policy, much less appear to oppose it?
With no dearth in objections, the sharpest point of contention among board members and others was over Greenblatt’s proposed time requirements for homework. Debate bogged down in how to enforce the proposed rule after the superintendent of schools presented the board with three pages of proposed regulations to implement the homework policy. The regulations called for a central office homework plan, plus plans to be developed by each area supervisor, each principal and teacher. All of the latter plans were to be submitted up the chain of command for approval.
Predictably, the Montgomery County Education Association objected strongly to the increased paperwork. The union also insisted that only classroom teachers could decide properly how much and when homework should be assigned.
Teachers were not alone in opposing the policy, however. Some elementary principals viewed the mandatory policy as an invasion of family privacy - several hinted darkly about calling on the American Civil Liberties Union to bring suit against the board, should the mandatory policy pass. Other principals simply dismissed the regulations as impossible to implement. Parents whose children already were coming home laden with books rose up against the mandate.
In the end, the elaborate regulations were quietly shelved and Greenblatt dropped the time guidelines from her proposal - but persisted in asking for regular assignments. When the Montgomery County school board finally passed a compromise resolution regarding homework last November, it was an anemic version of Greenblatt’s original idea. The resolution says, in effect: “We think homework is important,” and “the teacher, through control of the teaching-learning situation, can best determine the nature, frequency and length of homework assignment.” No stipulation is included to require homework regularly. Not exactly what Greenblatt had in mind, but still a plus, she says.
“If any good comes out of all the turmoil,” Greenblatt says, “it will be through focusing attention on homework and the circumstances in which it is useful.”