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October 23, 2014

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How much homework do our children need?

Pop quiz: Did you know California once banned homework in schools? True. Following a campaign by the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal — which argued that the practice was not, in fact, good for kids — the state briefly halted it in 1901.

Now, most students, some parents, not a few teachers and members of the homework-reform movement will immediately become wistful for such an era (just as I’m wistful for a time when a print magazine could throw its weight around like that).

For years there’s been a persistent, intermittently noisy movement to eliminate homework: Kids are overburdened, parents are fed up, and you know all those countries whose students test better than ours? They don’t assign homework at all!

Thomas Loveless, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, gave a talk last week at UNLV titled “Do Students Have Too Much Homework?” As a scholar, Loveless can bring the data. Bar graphs. Pie charts. Numbers arranged in columnar fashion. All of it meant to scotch this idea that kids are being flattened under excess homework.

Let me nutshell his research for you: The typical student does less than an hour a day of homework, a figure that hasn’t changed much in several decades; most parents think that’s about right. Loveless endorses the PTA standard: about 10 minutes a night per grade level. If there are individual problems, they should be worked out by parents and educators, not women’s magazines and legislatures.

I’ll cite just one study he used: For years, researchers have asked college freshmen about the amount of homework they did in their senior year of high school. The latest figures? Sixty-three percent said they did less than five hours a week. “That’s the lowest ever in 44 years,” Loveless said.

OK. Let us now leave the data and go into un-pie-charted territory.

Pop quiz: Would you rather your child be an A student with very few friends or a C student with a lot of friends? The answer is obvious, of course; you want an A student with ...

“Americans always pick the C,” Loveless said. This came late in the talk, when questioners had steered the discussion toward the rest of the world’s students and their homework.

That factoid quickly backlit the issue in an interesting way — Americans’ vastly different conception of childhood, as compared to other societies. Loveless said that in Asia, for example, childhood is viewed as preparation for adulthood, so it is the realm of parents, not teachers, to give their children homework. “Parents are working with their kids at the kitchen table,” Loveless said. “But it’s not (school-assigned) homework. It’s academic work provided by the parents.”

Likewise, teens rarely work; school is their job. “If you ask them, ‘How many of your kids work,’ they look at you like (makes universal facial sign for “You must be crazy”). There’s a stigma to it.”

On the other hand, Americans think of childhood as its own specific phase of life, complete with its own logic and its own rounding-out qualities. Play. A lot of socializing. Learning to get along. Then it ends and we move on to young adulthood. We think of them as discrete phases.

In that context, it’s no wonder an hour a night sounds excessive to students and just about right to parents — homework and scholastic achievement are just elements of the amorphous, multifaceted, ever-shifting process of growing up here. There’s so much else we want our kids to pack in.

Anyway, children aren’t stupid. Just from watching adults, they figure out that life eventually sorts out the knowledge you need from the knowledge you don’t. I realized long before I graduated high school that I wouldn’t lead the sort of life that would require me to conjugate fractions, or whatever you do with ’em. So I put in exactly the amount of effort required to squeak by. Hasn’t hurt me in the long run.

Which just makes me American, I guess — when you rank global education, the greatest nation in the world is pretty much in the middle of the pack. (Contrary to beloved myth, we’ve always lagged there; there was never a golden era when American learning led the world, Loveless said.)

“We like to think of ourselves as educated,” he observed, “but we’re not going to work too hard at it.”

Maybe if they called it something besides homework.

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  1. With Nevada ranking bottom in the USA in education, do you advise young students cut out the extra practice and skills reinforcement they get when doing their homework????

    As a teacher at a Title 1 School, who tries to offer the standard within daily lessons of "guided practice and independent practice," all too often, with students who are still struggling with the English language and work a little slower because they are being careful and learning the language as well, these students run out of practice time in the classroom and we have to trust that they will continue in the homework at home.

    Yes, children need to have a childhood, go home and have a life. But it never fails, every summer vacation, every holiday, or extended weekend, young children lose ground on what they HAD learned, and teachers spend an inordinate amount of time "reviewing" such skills.

    If it were a perfect world, and NO assigned homework, good parenting would include having a child read for fluency and comprehension, with an adult asking about elements of the story or what they had read daily, and a child engaged in playing games involving money or time, to help with counting, telling time, money, and critical problem solving. Millions of dollars in labor, paper, and copying costs paid by the taxpayers via the school district would cease.

    But, in the neighborhood my school is located, most children are outside playing in the streets until the street lights go on. And teachers' salaries are going to be based on these students' performance on high stakes testing! Great!!!

  2. Chunky says:

    In teaching anyone anything "one-size" / "one style" does not fit all!

    If kids are not retaining what is taught, maybe its the methods and teachers and not so much the kids?

    Chunky thinks a lot more could be done by parents to spend quality time with their children teaching them how to be good citizens and how to be well-mannered.

    In days-gone-by, a parent or family member was usually home to raise their children. Today, with both parents working and more single parents that is not always possible.

    Are we still using teaching methodology based on the days of yesteryear two parent stay at home mom/dad family model?

    What are we asking of our children that requires a 5-7 hour day of school plus extra work at home? What is realistic to expect of their attention and retention span?

    Should the "struggling students" be sorted out into classes they can manage or keep up with or is that not PC these days?

    Should all students or the struggling student be in a year-round curriculum?

    Should struggling students be involved in organized extracurricular activities?

    Would turning off the TV and video games or even yet not getting them hooked on them at an early age as "visual pacifiers" help?

    That's what Chunky thinks and ponders this evening!