Homework as an Issue in American Politics
by Etta Kralovec & John Buell,
The End of Homework
When Piscataway, New Jersey introduced a policy in the fall of 2000 limiting the amount of homework in its public schools, The New York Times treated the event as a major news story. A front-page article summarized the school's policy, the rationale for that policy, and the reactions of parents and children. Other major media quickly followed the Times' lead. For the first time in a generation, homework---both its amount and type---had become a subject for national debate. We were fortunate enough to be part of the debate.
We had recently published a book advocating limitations of and alternatives to homework. We were pleasantly surprised at the amount of attention our book received, but the opportunity to participate in this debate did more than flatter our egos. It has given us new insights on why homework reform is vital both for its own sake and for its connections to other related family and workplace issues. These insights have suggested some means and strategies for achieving homework and school reform in ways that build on and enhance related struggles to over the quality of family life.
Our first book on homework grew out of research we had undertaken in rural Maine. In a study of high school drop outs, we learned, much to our surprise, that homework had played a major role in their decision to leave school. Their stories prompted us not only to begin wider conversations with middle class families about homework but also to explore both the history of and scholarly rationales for homework. In the course of our study, we concluded that homework has not always played so prominent a role even in very successful public educational experiences and that there are constructive school reforms that might reduce the need for and burdens of homework.
We suspected that our book would be controversial, but we were unprepared for the depth of the media reaction. For many in the media our whole message was translated into a campaign to ban homework. CNN invited us to appear in a debate, and prefaced the debate with an instant on-air poll: Should homework be banned? "Our" side received thirty-eight percent of the viewer vote, but we were a bit taken aback that the whole message had been reduced to a campaign to ban homework without any discussion of the various alternatives our book had suggested.
It became clear to us that there was a need for further work on this topic, work that would explore more fully not only the evidence against homework but also look at the reasons why homework had become so emotionally intense a political issue. Building on such a foundation, school reformers might more effectively address homework and build alliances around other reforms so necessary if not only schools but broader quality of life is to be improved.
Our experience convinces us that the debate over homework is instructive for several reasons. Questioning the amount of homework brings out strong reactions in many citizens, reactions more intense than debates about many pedagogical techniques. Disputes over such academic matters as how to teach math may have filtered down to the general public in recent years, but, aside from occasional grumbling about the new math, few parents seem prepared to mount the barricades over it. Homework, however, stirs juices.
Virtually everyone in this society has a homework story. Parents have done homework and moaned over or gloried in it as children themselves. Most compare the amount and kind of homework their children do with their own. Some parents react in shock and disgust at the thought of limiting the hours of homework their children currently do; for others, discussion about limiting or even elimination is long overdue.
Secondly, debates about homework seldom stop simply at the school door or the kitchen table. Many homework defenders see the practice as intimately linked to key values of the society and argue at least implicitly that how we treat homework signals how seriously we take central moral values. Homework is after all work that a student does at home. Both work and the young have central places in our culture. Work is rewarded and the young are seen as future bearers of our culture. Homework brings both notions together. It is not surprising that homework has become a metaphor extended well beyond schools. Preparation of any sort for an athletic event, a public meeting, even a task at one's home is often referred to as "doing my homework."
Even for homework's opponents, the topic goes far beyond schooling. The language employed is that of the sanctity and importance of personal freedom, family, religion, and leisure, the very goals some see as sustained primarily by work itself. Homework as an issue thus becomes a proxy for broad debates about the future of our society.
Thirdly, although homework in our estimation is hardly a class neutral tool, debate about the topic, as with many other social issues, doesn't follow a neat class divide. As we were reminded often, some poor minority communities in inner cities beg teachers and school boards to assign more homework. They view homework as their children's ticket out of the ghetto. Yet we have also interviewed and spoken with many other families in poor communities for whom homework was the single largest factor driving them from the public schools.
Middle class professional families are similarly divided. Some worry that homework detracts from the already limited time they and their children have to engage each other and must be curbed. Others view homework as both necessary and salutary. Thus Jane Eisner, a leading editorial columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, remarks:
"Children in '81 spent 44 minutes a week studying; in 1997, it was just over two hours. Yet in 1997, those same children spent 12 hours and 38 minutes a week watching television. Spare the tears and turn off the TV... High schoolers benefit from sustained, independent learning at home – and... Americans lag behind ... global competitors."
For others, homework almost becomes what one critic has called the pedagogical equivalent of the Lexus. Schools where homework assignments are rigorous and long are not merely a tool to master the global economy but a badge of educational and social excellence.
Nor were children a monolith on the subject of homework. We have had many adults, especially those hostile to our theme, chortle, "Boy, children must sure love your message." Such a rejoinder reflects itself a subtle cynicism about the goals and motivations of our children. Some children have ardently defended homework. One fifth grader wrote to the New York Times in opposition to Piscataway's homework policy. She commented, "I am a fifth grade student in Duchess County, New York. Regarding your October 10 front- page article about the school board that limited homework…I think that having regular homework until 10:45 p.m. and then having to practice an instrument is terrible."
She continued, "But I also think the school went a little too far when it prohibited teachers from grading homework. What is the point of homework if it isn't corrected? At my public school in Red Hook, the Homework policy is: third grade, 30 minutes, fourth grade, 40 minutes, fifth grade, 50 minutes; and so on. That is a better policy because it is just enough to reinforce the concepts learned in school, but not so much that it makes us have to choose between getting a good night's sleep and practicing our instruments, in my case the trumpet."
But a Canadian youngster, writing to CBC radio about homework, commented, "Homework is one thing the average student dislikes a lot. The average student spends about eighteen and a half days a year doing homework. Instead of doing homework you could be doing other things that are just as educational but much more interesting. Building models helps you learn to use your hands and mind together. Building toys such as Legos and Connect helps you learn how to design and make your own creation. Drawing will help you when you have to make a sketch…. Tobogganing teaches you about friction…" (CBC, Canada, The Sunday Edition, January 21, 2001)
One network news producer nicely captured many of the conflicts implicit in this middle class dialogue in a conversation with us:
"Why should I worry if high school children are doing sixty hour of academic work a week? I hardly know anyone in my business doing fewer than that. But perhaps if there is something wrong with what we are doing to ourselves there's a problem with the demands we force upon our children."
We remain convinced that homework as currently constituted is a largely ineffective and overly burdensome practice. Contemporary learning theory suggests that homework as conventionally organized is a poor way to advance student learning. Learning theorists 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, it is important for teachers to recognize not only when students are having problems but also why. Simply sending work home and observing the results in school often makes it hard for teachers, students, and parents to really understand the roots of both academic success and failure.
Homework creates especially serious barriers for poor families.
Even many of homework's major proponents now admit that in the elementary grades it does not yield better grades or test scores. They resort to another favorite argument, one that clearly illustrates the debt this debate owes to basic cultural values. They claim, with even less documentation than earlier studies touting homework's academic merits, that homework may not produce better test scores for grade school students, but it is the only way to sow good study habits.
Kathy Seal, in a NY Times op ed a year ago, counters these claims with an at least equally plausible hypothesis that, "When kids play, they are free to experiment and to learn from their experiences without worrying about how well they're performing…… That's important, because research has shown decisively that when children study because they enjoy it, their learning is deeper, richer and longer-lasting."
Homework is a pivotal issue in the United States today because the families asked to monitor and assist homework have little time for play of any sort. They are increasingly burdened by the demands of their own jobs. Homework is closely connected to and rationalized by all the demands on family time and it has become an occasion to examine those demands.
For just this reason, building an effective case against homework involves more than posing dueling academic studies. Once we move beyond the controlled trials and the statistical evidence, homework opponents will need to construct alternatives based on contemporary learning theory and connect their struggles to other fights over educational resources and free time for families, workers, and children.
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 and all should enjoy substantial free time. Teachers or other adults with adequate resources and experience in assessing individual learning styles should be available to aid our children in independent projects. It is not surprising that many communities now recognize the importance of afterschool programs both to assist children in academic pursuits and to offer less structured enrichment opportunities. Unfortunately, such programs are still too rare and differ substantially in quality.
These first skirmishes in the homework wars also show that homework cannot be dissociated from our larger cultural dreams and anxieties about work itself. An exploration of the history of homework must place that history in the large context of the history of work itself.
That history clearly shows the connections of homework to the emergence of our modern global capitalism. Today's debates are framed by constant rhetoric about success in the global economy. Whatever homework's history or its failings and costs, it is likely to be retained as a practice as long as most of us are convinced that it is the only way to convey life long skills or character lessons essential to our survival. But if many corporate workplaces overwork and understimulate our best minds and if such exploitation is the root to long term economic decline, then re-examining the demands made by both schools and workplaces is appropriate.
It is curious that U.S. educational and business leaders embrace longer homework in part by citing the Japanese example. They argue that Japan has enjoyed economic success because its schools turn out workers with strong basic skills, primarily through an emphasis on work. Yet that economy today faces severe problems and even the Japanese government now 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.
Japanese production line workers may be more facile in taking math tests than in redesigning existing products or national economic priorities. Many Japanese leaders worry that workers spend so much of their lives in narrow cognitive tasks that they are unlikely to be broadly creative. Even the Japanese Educational ministry acknowledges that the emphasis on long school hours must be re-examined.
Homework as a worldwide issue poses challenges both to current educational practice and to prevalent notions of personal development. Homework reform is unlikely to take root until educators can not only understand its limits but also have clearer notions of how schools and classrooms can be organized without extensive reliance on homework as we know it. Nor will such schools necessarily undermine the kind of character development necessary to sustain a functioning democracy. The debate on homework can be more fruitful for all partisans if all can stake out more fully the political, educational, and moral ideals implicated in the debate.
It may well be the case, subversive not only to the Right but to even much of the Left, that the importance of play is culturally under-appreciated. Not only grade schoolers, but high school students and adult workers deserve time for the kind of unstructured play that fosters creativity and sustains a life-long interest in learning. Work as the solution to all our woes is reform on the cheap and at the expense of all. Children, like all of us, are more than recipients of school knowledge. They are siblings and community members, budding artists, musicians and athletes. They are natural inventors and scientists and spiritual beings. Do we allow our children to exercise these selves?
John Buell and Etta Kralovec are authors of The End of Homework (Beacon Press).