Archive for Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Are we slaves to homework?

October 22, 2003


A new report on students and homework fails the grade.

On Oct. 1, the Brookings Institution suggested that most American students spend very little time on homework. Based on questions asked of high school-bound seniors, self-reports on K-8 students and parents, and surveys before a national standardized test, Brookings concluded that students average less than one hour per night. The study implied this lack of homework is a major reason for the poor performance of U.S. schools in international competition.

Most Americans accept homework, it argued, and if people are critical of homework, the nation could fail in the global marketplace.

We were among the critics.

Our book, "The End of Homework," pointed out that whatever the hours spent on homework, the practice had a major and negative impact on many families, often failed to deliver promised benefits and distracted public discourse from alternatives to enhance educational performance.

The author of the Brookings report, Tom Lovelace, cited a survey done by Public Agenda. Typical of all survey research, much depends on how the question is asked. Satisfaction with homework was based on how parents responded to the question of whether their children did too much, too little or the right amount of homework.

More important than the exact amount of time spent on homework -- which is hard to ascertain through any of these self-reported surveys -- is the effect any amount has on many families. Unfortunately, the current popular obsession with homework unfairly focuses blame for educational failure on lazy families and children.

Brookings neglected another survey by Public Agenda asking if homework was a source of family conflict. That survey found that 50 percent of families reported conflict in the last year, and a third experienced homework as a continuing source of conflict.

We contend that schools should make better use of the time available to them and thus teach students more during the school day.

No, we're not talking about taking away recesses. International comparisons suggest that interruptions in the school day -- from such activities as fund-raising projects, pep rallies and administrative announcements -- waste three times more U.S. classroom time than in Japan.

At the high-school level, academic achievement could be better enhanced not by homework, but by expanding the opportunities for students to do intellectually engaging independent work in settings in which they have adequate resources and trained personnel available to help them.

Some of the differences between children who do well in school and those who don't are attributable to what happens on vacations, weekends and time away from school. Here, homework is not the key variable, but class is.

Johns Hopkins University researchers said in a study of children's academic progress: "Better-off children more often went to city and state parks, fairs or carnivals and took day or overnight trips. They also took swimming, dance and music lessons; visited local parks, museums, science centers and zoos; and more often went to the library in summer."

Far too many of our children do not have these opportunities. Part of the obsession with homework is the assumption that children are little more than recipients of school knowledge. Yet anyone who has children or works with them understands they are siblings and community members, budding artists, musicians and athletes. They are inventors and scientists and spiritual beings.

We ought to give our children the time to exercise these other selves, rather than confining them to the role of homework slaves.

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