PISCATAWAY, N.J. — After-school conversations are much more relaxed these days in the Bellew household.
"When he comes home, the first words out of his mouth are not 'I have so much homework,' " said Linda Bellew, the mother of a sophomore at Piscataway High School. Bellew asked that her son not be identified.
As a freshman, her son earned straight A's, and spent up to six hours a night doing homework.
He is working on straight A's again this year, but a new policy set by the school board limits his homework assignments to no more than two hours a night. Homework is limited to 30 minutes in grades one to three, and teachers in all grades are discouraged from making weekend assignments.
At a time when children nationwide are facing heavier homework loads, this public school system of 7,000 students has drawn a line, largely at the behest of parents like Bellew who complained that their children were overworked and stressed out.
Nationwide, children ages 3 to 11 spent an average of two hours and seven minutes studying at home each week in 1997 — up about 50 percent from 1981, according to a University of Michigan study released last year. For ages 9 to 11, it was 3 1/2 hours a week, almost an hour more than in 1981.
A 1992 U.S. Department of Education survey found that 29 percent of eighth-graders reported doing two hours or more of homework daily. No figures were available for high school students.
Among the experts applauding Piscataway is Harris Cooper, author of "The Battle over Homework: An Administrator's Guide to Setting Sound and Effective Policies."
"In terms of formulating policy, the district did their homework. They didn't abandon it, but they were realistic about what it could accomplish," said Cooper, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Missouri. "Homework shouldn't be abandoned, nor should it be expected to solve the problems of our educational system."
Research has found little relation between the amount of homework and performance on achievement tests, he said — a matter of no little importance in Piscataway, where some 70 percent of the high school graduates go on to college.
Cooper endorses guidelines by the PTA and National Education Association that suggest 10 minutes of homework a night for each grade level. Thus, a seventh-grader should get about 70 minutes a night.
The focus should be on useful assignments, not just homework for homework's sake, said Joyce L. Epstein, director of Johns Hopkins University's Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships in Baltimore.
That's the goal in Piscataway, said Superintendent of Schools Ronald E. Bolandi, who recommended the school board adopt the homework limit. If the homework shows that the previous lesson was not absorbed, it must be taught again, he said.
"I believe that it's going to be a good policy, because it gives children a chance to be involved in other activities," said Joan Greenwald, who teaches sixth grade at a Piscataway middle school.
It is unclear how likely other school systems are to emulate Piscataway. Many have recently adopted mandatory homework policies where they did not exist before, Cooper said.
Among them is Chicago, the nation's third-largest public school system with 435,000 students. Its policy calls for homework five nights a week, ranging from 15 minutes for kindergartners to 2 1/2 hours for seniors.
The Piscataway policy is not without its local detractors. Agatha Asamoah is one. Her son, Nana-yaw, a high school senior, takes several advanced and honors courses, and two hours seems insufficient, she said.
"My son is in a class for 45 minutes with a teacher. You tell me how much can be accomplished in that time," Mrs. Asamoah said.
Some experts see a cyclical pattern to homework loads.
Emphasis on homework increased after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, decreased in the 1960s amid concerns that students needed time for other pursuits, then increased again in the 1980s and '90s amid questions about whether American students could compete with students at more rigorous schools in Japan and Germany.
"Educational policy seems to bounce between extremes," Cooper said.
The swinging pendulum bothers Karen Joseph, spokeswoman for the New Jersey chapter of the National Education Association.
"You can't say to the schools, the teachers and the students, 'Raise the bar, make higher standards, work harder, but we can't give you homework because homework may interfere with soccer or karate, or some other extracurricular activity,"' Joseph said.
On the Net: National PTA site: www.pta.org
Department of Education homework guide for teachers: www.ed.gov/pubs/HelpingStudents/title.html
Johns Hopkins University's Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships, National Network of Partnership Schools: www.partnershipschools.org
National Education Association, helping your child with homework: www.nea.org/parents/homework.html