Friday, December 21, 2007

Do Schools Use Homework for Social Control?

Isn't six hours of boredom plus a long bus ride enough school for one day? Isn't thirty hours plus six hours on a bus enough for a week, every week? When a child is required to do a lot more of the same uninteresting stuff every night as homework, I say it is required for reasons other than educational.

School systems have decided that homework is a good thing, regardless of its content, saying: "We are going to give children homework every day, and later on we'll figure out what to make them do." The prescribed amount depends on the grade, but it begins in kindergarten with ten minutes per night, and adds ten minutes for each grade until in high school kids are doing two or more hours per night. But is it worth the nagging, the family conflict and the exhaustion? I say No, there is no advantage.

Who makes such bad rules? Why do some parents demand it? Schools across America are doing this even though there is virtually no research that says there is a link between homework and achievement in the elementary schools, while there is evidence that homework can actually lower achievement. Alfie Kohn, longtime education activist writes: "No study has ever demonstrated an academic advantage for homework at the elementary school level," and at the high school level, "there is no proof that homework has ever led to higher scores." (from Kohn's book, "The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.")

The usual argument says that homework "reinforces" what is taught during the day. Yet, in many instances, schools expect the parents to do much of the teaching, because the teachers are simply too busy with discipline, or checking homework or other details and do not have the time to actually teach the material. At worst, the teachers simply don't know the material themselves, and are leaning on the parents for help.

Kohn: "Homework isn't merely pointless, it actually undermines children's interest in learning." He adds, "The homework that is being sent home is no better than kids watching TV." At least with TV, they get to learn something new.

"What is behind the schools' push for homework? Social control. Homework keeps the entire family focused on school. It acts to sell school--an artificial life--while undermining a robust family life or a child's own real interests. Thus, homework has a political element, seeking to monopolize the time of families and, of course, the children, even in their homes. Let's stop believing that homework involves learning. It is busywork whose goal is to occupy your child's time, denying them real lives. Parents need to encourage children to find their own ways of spending their time away from school. Let them find hobbies and creative pursuits instead of the drudgery of worksheets of math problems or diagramming sentences or other time-wasting. Kids need a real life, not a synthetic one.

The families might ask the school board to eliminate homework just one day each week - say Wednesdays -- so that children and families can use those evenings for activities apart from school concerns.

Schools often mention that they are preparing children for what they call, a "global competition." And yet, Kohn says that there's a movement in Japan to eliminate homework for elementary grades because it makes them unnecessarily competitive.

Bottom line: The effect of homework is that kids are turned off learning. Homework should be assigned, if at all, on the basis of the importance of the work, not because someone has decided to keep kids busy on worksheets when they might otherwise have real lives. Homework for the sake of keeping kids busy during their home time is a bad idea. Kohn says: "There is no basis in fact for the view that homework is necessary or desirable." Let those who set the homework policy provide research that backs their views. Otherwise, let homework be optional.

Ned Vare is an architectural designer and author; former private school teacher, businessman, and elected official.


ksbrainard said...

I love it! Great post, as usual!

I always hated homework. I still remember crying in elementary school because I had too many papers of homework to do, and I wouldn't be able to ride bikes that day.

Throughout my school career, I spent as little time as possible on homework, and I still managed to be on honor roll all the time. To me the key to success at school was test-taking skills, not learning. I am now a great test-taker, and learning how to learn.

This is a big part of the reason that I am unschooling my kids. Let's face it - they may not need to be able to solve a finite integral in the "real world". Or maybe they won't need to know what year Caesar took over the Roman empire. Perhaps balancing chemical reactions will prove irrelevant. And I am sure that forcing them to memorize these facts for a test won't help them learn.

Thanks for the consistently motivational posts!

Anonymous said...

I can't remember how I got here because I read several homeschooling blogs, but I am so glad I found your site! I should be going to sleep right now but instead I am reading every one of your posts.

Regarding homework....

I was probably the only kid who enjoyed it. Only because I had no siblings and had nothing else to do. Now, as a 30-year-old lady, I am interested in playing the guitar, web design, jewelry-making, and the list goes on. I think back to all of those years I spent bored out of my mind to the point where homework was happily accepted. I could have used that time to become the kick-ass guitar player I long to be now. I could have my own web design firm. I could have been doing something great instead of filling my time with meaningless homework. But at least I have learned something from it. I won't subject my son to it. He is going to fill up his time discovering what his passions are and he can spend as much time as he wants learning the guitar or whatever it is he wants to do.

christinemm said...

Sixth graders in my town are doing 3 hours of homework a night.

How can they do all that plus a sport or some other extracurricular activity that is not taught in school such as learning piano or more in depth art classes?

When is the time for play? When is the time for 'family bonding'?

The Wall Street Journal had a very long in-depth article about homework and how the amount of homework had no impact on grades or learning. It was either fall 2006 or sometime earlier in 2007. Despite that 'data', the public school chug on doling out lots of homework. Where is the logic? If it does no good, why bother?