Missing out on their childhoods

After spending most of the day in school, children are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home. Thi is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few people ever stop to think about it. It’s worth asking not only whether there are good reasons to support the nearly universal practice of assigning homework, but why that practice is so often taken for granted – even by vast number of parents and teachers who are troubled by its impact on children.

The mystery deepens in light of the fact that widespread assumptions about the benefits of homework – higher achievement and the promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility – aren’t substantiated by the available evidence. As we’ll see later, supporting data are either weak or nonexistent, depending on the specific outcome being investigated and the age of the students. But, again, this has rarely prompted serious discussion about the need for homework, nor has it quieted demands that even more be assigned.

Parents frequently talk about homework when they get together, and it’s one of the first subjects to come up when they meet with teachers, either individually or in group sessions. There’s no more reliable way to pack the house at a PTA meeting than to promise advice for dealing with homework woes. Likewise, there’s a seemingly limitless demand for books that offer help, books with titles like: The Homework Solution: Getting Kids to Do Their Homework; Seven Steps to Homework Success; Homework Rules and Homework Tools; Ending the Homework Hassle; How to Help Your Child with Homework; Hassle Free Homework, and so on.

Clearly this is an issue of acute relevance to just about everyone who’s involved with children – and it’s one that leaves many of us feeling frustrated, confused, or even angry. But the assumption that homework should, even must, continue to be assigned despite our misgivings is rarely called into question.

This posture of basic acceptance would be understandable if most teachers decided from time to time that a certain lesson ought to continue after school was over, and therefore assigned students to read, write, figure out, or do something at home on those afternoons. We might have concerns about the specifics of certain assignments, but atleast we’d know that the teachers were exercising their judgement, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether circumstances really justified intruding on family time – and considering whether meaningful learning was likely to result.

That scenario, however, bears no relation to what happens in most American schools. Homework isn’t limited to those times when it seems appropriate and important. Most teachers and administrators aren’t saying, “It may be useful to do this particular project at home.” Rather, the point of departure seems to be, “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on we’ll figure out what to make them do.” This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools – public & private, elementary and secondary. Even many schools that see themselves as progressive have adopted homework policies specifying that children at a given grade level will be required to do a set number of minutes of some kind of schoolwork at home.

Has anyone spoken up to challenge this state of affairs? Consider the following passage from an article in Parents magazine:

If children are not required to learn useless and meaningless things, homework is entirely unnecessary for the learning of common school subjects. But when a school requires the amassing of many facts which have little or no significance to the child, learning is so slow and painful that the school is obliged to turn to the home for help out of the mss the school has created.

If you’re a regular reader of Parents but don’t recall coming across that provocative statement, it may e because the article appeared in the November 1937 issue. The author was a school superintendent named Carleton Washburne, for whom a school in his hometown of Winnetka, Illinois, was named after his death. As if to impress upon us how drastically attitudes have changed since then, the first thing a visitor to the Washburne School’s website notices today is a ‘student homework link’. But of course readers of mainstream magazines and newspapers already know how the subject is apt to be treated nowadays. The February 2004 issue of Parents, for example, includes an article that uncritically accepts the proposition that all children should be given homework, beginning in first grade, and then proceeds to offer practical suggestions for how to help kids ‘focus and finish’ whatever they’ve been assigned.

Anyone who is dissatisfied with that sort of advice may feel a twinge of nostalgia for the pointed questioning and progressive thinking that were more common in the 1920s through 1940s.

Sadly, it seems necessary today to make the same arguments and fight the same battles against the same practices and premises that Washburne and his colleagues faced. But that doesn’t mean the supposed ‘pendulum swings’ of educational philosophy are matched by changes in practice. With respect to schooling in general, progressive theory has periodically generated a surge of excitement among researchers and theorists but has never made serious inroads into most American classrooms. The phrase ‘back to basics’ is a misnomer: We never really left.

With respect to homework in particular, it’s equally important to recognize that shifts in attitudes on the part of scholars – or even the public at large – don’t necessarily translate into significant variations in the amount of homework that students actually have to do. It’s easy to confuse what’s being discussed with what’s being done. For example, a 1999 article in the New York Times included this observation: “Once the pendulum swings one way, it takes a long time to reverse direction, but there are signs that heaping on homework for young children is taking its toll.” The second half of that sentence is surely true and, as has happened during other periods some writers have taken notice. But that doesn’t mean the pendulum is swinging or, mechanistic metaphors aside, that anything is being done to relive children of this toll.

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