Rethinking Homework

As another school year begins, George Bush wants to test our schools as never before. Standardized testing is a growth industry. Administrators and teachers, themselves now under the gun, are turning to an old remedy, ratcheting up the homework. Unfortunately, this conventional medicine may be doing more harm than good.

Educators and much of the public likes to think lengthy homework makes sense: It is well tested and, besides, it is what everyone is doing worldwide. No wonder American businesses lose jobs to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean firms. Their schools are strict and they study harder.

Yet every element of this familiar scenario is outdated or debatable. American students don't always lose the "educational Olympics." They have been world leaders in reading. Even in math, where results have been less satisfactory, blaming deficiencies on homework is unwarranted. Japanese schools spend up to 25% more per teacher on professional development and resources than the US, make better use of the existing school day, and rely on elaborate after school programs.

It is also curious that US educational and business leaders embrace longer hours just at a time when even Japan has growing doubts about its work and school practices. Some of its business and educational leaders now concede that workaholism is not merely a psychological problem but a barrier to innovation and creativity. Japanese production line workers may be more facile in using math than in redesigning existing products or national economic priorities. Many Japanese leaders now worry that these workers spend so much of their lives in narrow cognitive tasks that they are unlikely to be broadly creative. Even the Japanese Educational ministry now recognizes that the rigid emphasis on long school hours must be re-examined. Perhaps our most significant gap with the Japanese is our unwillingness to open similar questions here. If homework were a prescription drug, the FDA would demand its recall. Harris Cooper, a respected scholar and long time homework advocate, has admitted: "The conclusions of past reviewers of homework research show extraordinary variability. . Even in regard to specific areas of application such as within different subject areas, grades or student ability levels, the reviews often directly contradict one another." Cooper is forced to conclude that for the elementary grades: "Teachers should not assign homework to young children with the expectation that it will noticeably enhance achievement. Instead, teachers might assign short and simple homework to younger students, hoping it will foster positive, long term educational behaviors and attitudes." (emphasis mine) Cooper provides no extensive studies or documentation to defend his hope.

Research conducted by a colleague and me in Maine show that extensive homework assignments have played a major role in school dropouts among disadvantaged families. In interviews with high school dropouts as part of a study for the Maine Department of Education, we asked students if there was a moment when they knew they were going to drop out of school. Every teenager cited tales of the crushing burdens of homework in the context of inadequate housing, educational resources, and adult assistance.

If homework is no answer to our educational dilemmas and may even exacerbate inequalities, this is no excuse for "dumbing down" public education. Schools can and must do a better job, but punishing regimes for the children are not the way. Studies both in the US and Western Europe provide far more support for other ways to improve education. Smaller class size, an emphasis on teacher training and development, and robust preschool programs have all delivered more consistent gains than intensifying homework.

Contemporary learning theory tells us why. Learning theorists now recognize that not only do students progress at different ages, they also do not all go through one invariant set of stages. Just as not all students are naturally right handed and should not be made to write in this fashion, distinctive learning styles are developed and may well persist over a whole lifetime. In such a context, the imperative to gear academic exercises to the particular limits of the individual child becomes even stronger. Small class size is crucial, and both class organization and homework must be rethought.

A modest amount of independent work, say two hours a day, is appropriate for high school students, but all children should have equal resources for such independent work. Teachers or other adults with appropriate skills, resources, and experience should be paid to assist our children in independent projects that would advance their learning.

Nonetheless, even high school students shouldn't be forced to labor more than forty hours a week. This goal, established more than sixty years ago for adult workers, is now regarded as passé. The long hours parents now work is often cited in defense of increased homework for our children: Children must get ready to work long adult hours. Parents and children pay a high price for this cavalier or even celebratory attitude toward work. Loading more work on kids and parents won't encourage educational excellence or prevent children from watching mindless television. Only a culture that learns to value the free time that parents and their children spend together can enhance education and family life. The unstructured time parents and children have for hobbies, recreation, religion, and visits to relatives plays a key role in fostering children's creativity, self-discipline, and emotional development. Homework intensification is an obstacle to such development and serves as a cheap but ultimately counterproductive response to our educational and economic crisis.

John Buell is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. His most recent book, "The End of Homework: How Homework Overburdens Children, Disrupts Families, and Limits Learning" (with Etta Kralovec), has just been re-issued in paperback by Beacon Press.

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