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by Cathy Vatterott
Table of Contents
Homework is a long-standing education tradition that, until recently, has seldom been questioned. The concept of homework has become so ingrained in U.S. culture that the word homework
is part of the common vernacular, as exemplified by statements such as these: "Do your homework before taking a trip," "It's obvious they didn't do their homework before they presented their proposal," or "The marriage counselor gave us homework to do." Homework began generations ago when schooling consisted primarily of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and rote learning dominated. Simple tasks of memorization and practice were easy for children to do at home, and the belief was that such mental exercise disciplined the mind. Homework has generally been viewed as a positive practice and accepted without question as part of the student routine. But over the years, homework in U.S. schools has evolved from the once simple tasks of memorizing math facts or writing spelling words to complex projects.
As the culture has changed, and as schools and families have changed, homework has become problematic for more and more students, parents, and teachers. The Internet and bookstores are crowded with books offering parents advice on how to get children to do homework. Frequently, the advice for parents is to "remain positive," yet only a handful of books suggest that parents should have the right to question the amount of homework or the value of the task itself. Teachers, overwhelmed by an already glutted curriculum and pressures related to standardized tests, assign homework in an attempt to develop students' skills and to extend learning time. At the same time, they are left frustrated when the students who most need more time to learn seem the least likely to complete homework. Teachers are afraid not to give homework, for fear of being perceived as "easy."
With diversity among learners in our schools at levels that are higher than ever, many teachers continue to assign the same homework to all students in the class and continue to disproportionately fail students from lower-income households for not doing homework, in essence punishing them for lack of an adequate environment in which to do homework. At a time when demand for accountability has reached a new high in its intensity, research fails to prove that all that homework is worth all that trouble. (The research on homework is discussed in Chapter 3.)
Although many people remain staunchly in favor of homework, a growing number of teachers and parents alike are beginning to question the practice. These critics are reexamining the beliefs behind the practice, the wisdom of assigning hours of homework, the absurdly heavy backpack, and the failure that can result when some students don't complete homework. There's a growing suspicion that something is wrong with homework.
This more critical look at homework represents a movement away from the pro-homework attitudes that have been consistent over the last two decades (Kralovec & Buell, 2000). As a result, a discussion of homework stirs controversy as people debate both sides of the issue. But the arguments both for and against homework are not new, as indicated by a consistent swing of the pendulum over the last hundred years between pro-homework and anti-homework attitudes.
The history of homework and surrounding attitudes is relevant because the roots of homework dogma developed and became entrenched over the last 100 years. Attitudes toward homework have historically reflected societal trends and the prevailing educational philosophy of the time, and each swing of the pendulum is colored by unique historical events and sentiments that drove the movement for or against homework. Yet the historical arguments for and against homework are familiar. They bear a striking similarity to the arguments waged in today's debate over homework.
At the end of the 19th century, attendance in the primary grades 1 through 4 was irregular for many students, and most classrooms were multiage. Teachers rarely gave homework to primary students (Gill & Schlossman, 2004). By the 5th grade, many students left school for work; fewer continued to high school (Kralovec & Buell, 2000). In the lower grades, school focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic; in grammar school (grades 5 through 8) and high school, students studied geography, history, literature, and math. Learning consisted of drill, memorization, and recitation, which required preparation at home:
At a time when students were required to say their lessons in class in order to demonstrate their academic prowess, they had little alternative but to say those lessons over and over at home the night before. Before a child could continue his or her schooling through grammar school, a family had to decide that chores and other family obligations would not interfere unduly with the predictable nightly homework hours that would go into preparing the next day's lessons. (Gill & Schlossman, 2004, p. 174)
Given the critical role that children played as workers in the household, it was not surprising that many families could not afford to have their children continue schooling, given the requisite two to three hours of homework each night (Kralovec & Buell, 2000).
Early in the 20th century, in concert with the rise of progressive education, an anti-homework movement would become the centerpiece of the progressive platform. Progressive educators questioned many aspects of schooling: "Once the value of drill, memorization, and recitation was opened to debate, the attendant need for homework came under harsh scrutiny as well" (Kralovec & Buell, 2000, p. 42).
As pediatrics grew as a medical specialty, more doctors began to speak out about the effect of homework on the health and wellbeing of children. The benefits of fresh air, sunshine, and exercise for children were widely accepted, and homework had the potential to interfere. One hundred years ago, rather than diagnosing children with attention deficit disorder, pediatricians simply prescribed more outdoor exercise. Homework was blamed for nervous conditions in children, eyestrain, stress, lack of sleep, and other conditions. Homework was viewed as a culprit that robbed children of important opportunities for social interaction. At the same time, labor leaders were protesting working hours and working conditions for adults, advocating for a 40-hour workweek. Child labor laws were used as a justification to protect children from excessive homework.
In 1900, the editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, Edward Bok, began a series of anti-homework articles. He recommended the elimination of homework for all students under the age of 15 and a limit of one hour nightly for older students. His writings were instrumental in the growth of the anti-homework movement of the early 1900s, a harbinger of the important role media would play in the homework debate in the future. By 1930, the anti-homework sentiment had grown so strong that a Society for the Abolition of Homework was formed. Many school districts across the United States voted to abolish homework, especially in the lower grades:
In the 1930s and 1940s, although few districts abolished homework outright, many abolished it in grades K–6. In grades K–3, condemnation of homework was nearly universal in school district policies as well as professional opinion. And even where homework was not abolished, it was often assigned only in small amounts—in secondary schools as well as elementary schools. (Gill & Schlossman, 2000, p. 32)
After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, the trend toward less homework was quickly reversed as the United States became obsessed with competing with the Russians. Fearful that children were unprepared to compete in a future that would be increasingly dominated by technology, school officials, teachers, and parents saw homework as a means for accelerating children's acquisition of knowledge.
The homework problem was reconceived as part of a national crisis: the U.S. was losing the Cold War because Russian children were smarter; that is, they were working harder and achieving more in school … the new discourse pronounced too little homework an indicator of the dismal state of American schooling. A commitment to heavy homework loads was alleged to reveal seriousness of purpose in education; homework became an instrument of national defense policy. (Gill & Schlossman, 2004, p. 176)
Within a few short years, public opinion had swung back to the pro-homework position. During this period, many schools overturned policies abolishing or limiting homework that had been established between 1900 and 1940. However, homework in the early elementary grades was still rare (Gill & Schlossman, 2004).
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the midst of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, a counterculture emerged that questioned the status quo in literally every aspect of personal and political life. A popular book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity
(Postman & Weingartner, 1969), attacked traditional methods of what was labeled "the educational establishment." Indicative of the times, a new debate emerged over homework and other educational activities. The anti-homework arguments were reminiscent of the progressive arguments of the early 20th century—again, homework was seen as a symptom of too much pressure on students to achieve.
Two prominent educational organizations went on record opposing excessive homework. The American Educational Research Association stated,
Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents. (In Wildman, 1968, p. 204)
The National Education Association issued this statement in 1966:
It is generally recommended (a) that children in the early elementary school have no homework specifically assigned by the teacher; (b) that limited amounts of homework—not more than an hour a day—be introduced during the upper elementary school and junior high years; (c) that homework be limited to four nights a week; and (d) that in secondary school no more than one and a half hours a night be expected. (In Wildman, 1968, p. 204)
Not surprisingly, by the late 1960s and during the 1970s, parents were arguing that children should be free to play and relax in the evenings, and again the amount of homework decreased (Bennett & Kalish, 2006).
But by the 1980s the pendulum would swing again. In 1983, the study A Nation at Risk became the "first major report by the government attempting to prove that the purported inadequacies of our schools and our students were responsible for the troubles of the U.S. economy" (Kralovec & Buell, 2000, p. 50). The report claimed there was a "rising tide of mediocrity" in schools and that a movement for academic excellence was needed (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). A Nation at Risk
planted the seed of the idea that school success was responsible for economic success. It ratcheted up the standards, starting what has been called the "intensification movement"—the idea that education can be improved if only there is more of it, in the form of longer school years, more testing, more homework. A Nation at Risk explicitly called for "far more homework" for high school students.
In 1986, the U.S. Department of Education published What Works, which also recommended homework as an effective learning strategy. "Whenever you come across a particularly savage attack on the state of public education, it's a safe bet that a call for more homework (and other get-tough messages) will be sounded as well" (Kohn, 2006, p. 120).
The pro-homework trend continued into the 1990s, as the push for higher standards resulted in the conclusion that more homework was a remedy. As noted earlier, this was not the first time homework became the scapegoat for the perceived inadequacies of public education:
Whenever reformers attempt to improve the academic outcomes of American schooling, more homework seems a first step. The justification for this probably has more to do with philosophy (students should work harder) and with the ease of implementation (increased homework costs no extra money and requires no major program modifications) than with new research findings. (Strother, in Connors, 1992, p. 14)
During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, an occasional journal article would question whether more homework was necessarily better, but those voices were few and far between. Most journal articles and popular books about homework took the safe position of being pro-homework and focused on strategies for getting children to complete homework. In 1989, Harris Cooper (now considered a leading expert on homework research) published an exhaustive synthesis of research on homework (1989a) that seemed to have little effect on popular practice and received little media attention. In 1994, a board member in the school district of Half Moon Bay, California, made national news by recommending that the district abolish homework. The board member "was widely vilified in the national press as just another California kook" (Gill & Schlossman, 1996, p. 57). The general media reaction was dismissive; the story was handled as cute and quirky, as if the idea of abolishing homework were just plain crazy.
By the late 1990s, however, the tide would begin to shift back to an anti-homework focus. With increasing frequency, articles critical of traditional homework practices were published in educational journals. In 1998, the American Educational Research Association conducted a symposium on homework practices. In 1998, Harris Cooper's latest research about homework (Cooper, Lindsay, Nye, & Greathouse, 1998) garnered much more public attention, catapulting the topic of homework into the popular press and landing him on Oprah and Today. In March 1998, the cover of Newsweek featured an article titled "Does Your Child Need a Tutor?" along with another article titled "Homework Doesn't Help" (Begley, 1998). In January 1999, Time magazine's cover story, "The Homework That Ate My Family" (Ratnesar, 1999), generated considerable media buzz. It portrayed homework as an intrusion on family tranquility and as just one more stressor in an already overstressed life, especially for two-career families. The article also cited a University of Michigan study showing that homework for 6- to 8-year-olds had increased by more than 50 percent from 1981 to 1997.
As homework increased, especially for the youngest students, and parents began feeling overwhelmed, stories detailing the struggle appeared widely in the popular press. Now the mood was one of concern for overworked students and parents. In 2000, Piscataway, New Jersey, received national attention for implementing a homework policy that limited the amount of homework, discouraged weekend homework, and forbade teachers from counting homework in the grade (Kohn, 2006). Unlike the story about Half Moon Bay only six years earlier, this story was given serious media coverage, and the school district was deluged by requests from schools seeking a copy of the policy.
Also in 2000, Etta Kralovec and John Buell's book The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning received massive media attention and spawned an ongoing debate between the anti-homework and pro-homework contingents. In 2006, two popular-press books kept the debate going: Kohn's The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, and Bennett and Kalish's The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It. Since then, the debate has continued with arguments similar to those first heard in the 1930s and 1960s. Like religion and politics, the arguments for and against homework stir intense emotions among parents, teachers, and administrators. To fully understand today's debate, we must first examine the beliefs about homework that have developed over the last 100 years and the cultural forces that have shaped them.
Beliefs about the inherent goodness of homework are so entrenched, so unshakable for many parents and educators, they seem almost cultlike. For many, these beliefs are unexamined. Kralovec and Buell (2000) said it best: "The belief in the value of homework is akin to faith" (p. 9). The true believers hold homework in such reverence, many educators are afraid to recommend that we eliminate it completely. Too many people just won't accept the idea. How can anyone be against work? It's as if the tradition of homework has been so romanticized as to be accepted as truth. Parenting magazines and newspaper articles accept without question that homework is part of school life and then continue to give advice on how to help kids complete it (Kohn, 2006). Freelance writers have learned that writing that is too anti-homework will probably not be published in the mainstream media.
To understand the culture of homework and how it developed over the last 100 years, it is necessary to dissect the dogma, which can best be summarized by five largely unexamined beliefs about children and learning. How many of these beliefs are based on fact, and how many are based on faith, tradition, or moral judgments?
Belief #1: The role of the school is to extend learning beyond the classroom. Many believe it is not only the inalienable right of teachers but their obligation to extend learning beyond the classroom. Inherent in this belief is the assumption that teachers have the right to control children's lives outside the school—that we have the right to give homework and that students and parents should comply with our wishes (more about this assumption in Chapter 2). Many teachers claim that homework keeps children out of trouble and that homework is better for children than television or video games. This view is rather dismissive of the judgment of parents to make good decisions about their child's use of free time. Is it really our job to be the moral policeman for our students' personal lives?
Perhaps our role in extending learning outside the school is to instill in students the value of learning and the joy of learning, and to expose them to the vastness of the universe—how much there is to learn. Perhaps our role is to help students find something in life they feel passionate about and to help them find their purpose in society.
Belief #2: Intellectual activity is intrinsically more valuable than nonintellectual activity. Many homework advocates believe that intellectual development is more important than social, emotional, or physical development. Intellectual pursuits hold an implied superiority over nonintellectual tasks such as throwing a ball, walking a dog, riding a bike, or just hanging out. This belief presupposes the limited value of leisure tasks. Concurrently, some worry that too much unstructured time might cause children to be less successful, less competitive with others. As with Belief #1, this view shows a distrust of parents to guide children in the productive use of free time and a distrust of children to engage in intellectual pursuits on their own. In reality, physical, emotional, and social activities are as necessary as intellectual activity in the development of healthy, well-rounded children.
Belief #3: Homework teaches responsibility. One of the most resilient beliefs is that homework promotes responsibility and discipline. Even though there is no research to support this belief, many people continue to tout homework's nonacademic virtues (Kohn, 2006). Responsibility is often a code word for obedience. When we say we want students to be responsible, are we saying we want them to be obedient—to do what we want them to do when we want them to do it, to be mindless drones, blindly obedient to authority? One teacher said she thought not doing homework was a sign of disrespect for the teacher! When we say homework promotes discipline in students, does that mean being self-disciplined enough to do something they hate to do because it's their duty?
Many teachers are fixated on homework as the way to teach responsibility, as though we have no other avenues. Yet we tend to neglect all the other ways students could be given responsibility in the classroom—involving them in decision making about their learning, teaching them how to self-assess, letting them design learning tasks, or allowing them to help manage classroom and school facilities (Guskey & Anderman, 2008). Even in the task of homework itself, children are rarely given responsibility for choosing how they wish to learn, how they might show what they have learned, or how they might schedule their time for homework. True responsibility cannot be coerced. It must be developed by allowing students power and ownership of tasks (Vatterott, 2007). (Chapter 4 presents more about how to do this.)
Another supposed virtue of homework is that it teaches time management. Does time management really mean the ability to delay gratification—to work when we want to play? Homework does not reinforce time management if adults have to coerce children into doing it; if children are coerced, they are not in charge of scheduling the time or making decisions about the use of the time.
If we are using homework to teach responsibility, won't 10 minutes of homework work just as well as 60 minutes? If we are using homework to teach time management, don't long-range projects that require scheduled planning do a better job of that than daily assignments?
Belief #4: Lots of homework is a sign of a rigorous curriculum.
Many people equate lots of homework with a tough school, regardless of the type or length of assignments (Jackson, 2009). Parents will often brag: "My child goes to a really good school—he gets lots of homework." If the mind is a muscle to be trained (as was believed in the 19th century), then more work must equal more learning. If some homework is good for children, then more homework must be even better. If 10 math problems for homework are good, then 40 problems must be better. This belief, more than any other, is responsible for the piling on of hours of homework in many schools today. Yet we all know that those assignments could be busywork, of no educational value (Jackson, 2009). More homework gives the appearance of increased rigor, and "difficulty is often equated to the amount of work done by students, rather than the complexity and challenge" (Williamson & Johnston, 1999, p. 10, emphasis added). Ah, if it were only that simple. More time does not necessarily equal more learning. The "more is always better" argument ignores the quality of work and the level of learning required. Rigor is challenge—but it is not necessarily the same challenge for each student. Given the diverse nature of students, challenging learning experiences will vary for different students.
Belief #5: Good teachers give homework; good students do their homework. Probably the most disturbing belief is the belief in the inherent goodness of homework, regardless of the type or length of assignment. Homework advocates have believed it for years, never questioning whether it might not be true. This belief is born from both the belief that homework teaches responsibility and discipline and the belief that "lots of homework" equals "rigor." If good teachers give homework, it naturally follows, then, that teachers who don't give homework are too easy. This mindset is so ingrained that teachers apologize to other teachers for not giving homework! Yet we know that some very good teachers don't give a lot of homework or give none at all. Instead of being apologetic, teachers who don't give homework should simply explain that they do such a good job of teaching that homework is not necessary.
The danger in the belief that good students do their homework
is the moral judgment that tends to accompany this belief. To children who dutifully complete homework, we often attribute the virtues of being compliant and hardworking. To children who don't complete homework, we often attribute the vices of laziness and noncompliance. But is a lack of virtue the reason many children don't do homework? Therein lies the problem. Students without supportive parents (or with single parents overburdened trying to make ends meet), with inadequate home environments for completing homework, or with parents intellectually unable to help them are less likely to complete homework (Vatterott, 2007). Are these less advantaged students bad? Of course not.
These beliefs form a dogma, a homework culture. The foundations of that culture are a trinity of very old philosophies. Homework culture is a complex mix of moralistic views, puritanism, and behaviorism. The beliefs that underlie the homework dogma have been fed by our moralistic views of human nature, the puritan work ethic that is embedded in our culture, and behaviorist practices that still reside in our schools. The five beliefs and these three philosophies are so well entwined, it's hard to tell where one idea begins and another ends. An exploration of these philosophies will illuminate the foundations of the dogma that is homework culture.
Historically, one mission of the school has been to instill moral values. Unfortunately, much of traditional schooling operates on the theory that children are basically lazy and irresponsible, that they can't be trusted, and that they have to be coerced into learning. They must be controlled and taught to be compliant. Therefore, it follows that it is necessary to use homework to teach responsibility.
If students naturally have a tendency to do evil, then they cannot be trusted to use time wisely. Idle hands are the devil's workshop, and therefore children should not be idle. This philosophy assumes not only that children don't want to learn but also that learning is inherently distasteful.
No one would dispute that we want to encourage students to work hard. After all, hard work is what made America great, right? The Puritans believed hard work was an honor to God that would lead to a prosperous reward. That work ethic brings to mind the stereotypical stern schoolmarm, rapping a ruler against the desk and saying "Get busy!" The tenets of the puritan work ethic most evident in homework culture are the following:
Here we see the origin of Belief #4, that more work equals rigor, and Belief #5, that "good" students do their homework and "good" teachers make students work hard. Unfortunately, when it comes to learning, the bleaker side of the puritan work ethic has also taken hold:
There is a prevalent myth that if a teaching/learning experience is too enjoyable it is somehow academically suspect. If it is "rigorous," or better yet painful, then it must have merit. (Raebeck, 1992, p. 13)
The work ethic is obvious in views that homework is a way to train students how to work—that homework trains students how to study, how to work diligently and persistently, and how to delay gratification (Bempechat, 2004). Along similar lines, homework is also viewed as practice for being a worker:
Homework is work, not play. … It is assigned by a teacher for students to complete on the teacher's schedule, with the teacher's requirements in mind. So it helps to have the right attitude. Homework means business, and the student should expect to buckle down. As in the workplace, careless efforts and a laissez-faire attitude are likely to make the wrong impression . . . homework is, in part, an exchange of performance for grades. (Corno & Xu, 2004, p. 228)
The premise of Corno and Xu's article is that "homework is the quintessential job of childhood"—as though children need a job. Which begs the question: Is our job as educators to produce learners or workers?
No philosophy is more firmly rooted in education than behaviorism. The idea that behavior can be controlled by rewards and punishment is so embedded in the day-to-day practices of school, one rarely even notices it (Kohn, 1999). Discipline, grades, attendance policies, honor rolls, and even the way teachers use praise and disapproval—all reflect this philosophy that behavior can be controlled by external stimuli. So it's no surprise that teachers believe rewards and punishments are the way to make students do homework. When punishments don't work, teachers often increase the punishment, as if more of the same will accomplish the goal.
If we believe that good students do their homework and lazy students don't, then it becomes morally defensible to give failing grades for incomplete homework, thereby punishing the vice of laziness and rewarding the virtue of hard work. Behaviorism is most evident in the use of late policies and zeros for uncompleted homework (more about that in Chapter 4).
The moralistic, puritanistic, and behavioristic foundations are so firmly entrenched in homework culture, traditional homework practices may be accepted without question by both teachers and parents, as if a sort of brainwashing has occurred. To use a 1970s metaphor, "if you drank the Kool-Aid," you may not realize how the cult affects your attitudes about homework.
Homework beliefs and their historical influences affect the debate today in insidious ways. The arguments today are strongly reminiscent of the earlier arguments for and against homework, yet something is different. This time around we face new and unique challenges.
Never before have we lived with the specter of No Child Left Behind and the accountability it demands. The pressure to meet standards has never been more intense, and homework is seen as a tool for meeting those standards. The pressure has changed education even at the kindergarten and 1st grade levels. A Newsweek
cover story called it the "new first grade":
In the last decade, the earliest years of schooling have become less like a trip to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and more like SAT prep. Thirty years ago first grade was for learning how to read. Now, reading lessons start in kindergarten and kids who don't crack the code by the middle of the first grade get extra help. (Tyre, 2006, p. 36)
Many parents complain that homework is now routinely assigned in kindergarten and 1st grade. YouTube hosts a now famous 911 call from a 4-year-old preschooler who needed help with his "takeaway" math homework. In the desperation to meet standards, even recess has been affected. One survey indicated that only 70 percent of kindergarten classrooms had a recess period (Pellegrini, 2005).
Media and technology have broadened the homework debate to be more inclusive than in the past; more people are participating in the conversation. The Internet has given the public more information, served as a forum for many pro-homework and anti-homework blogs, and given us a window to similar debates in other countries. Today the homework debate is played out on iVillage and other parenting Web sites, as well as on radio and television and in the print media. Web sites such as
www.stophomework.com (Bennett & Kalish, 2006) have united parents and given them strategies for protesting homework policies in their child's school. Technology has reduced the isolation of parents; their private homework struggles can now be vented in public with the click of a mouse.
Just as 100 years ago the Ladies' Home Journal writings sparked a movement, over the last decade the media have been a friend of homework reform. Since the release of Cooper's 1998 comprehensive study, major news magazines and talk shows have conducted a national dialogue about homework and have brought increased attention to the anti-homework movement. With a seemingly endless supply of television talk shows, quasi-news shows (such as
Dateline), and round-the-clock cable news coverage, issues affecting families—including homework—have received more coverage. The availability of online media has allowed us to access that homework story on Today or that homework article in the
New York Times long after publication, and without leaving our homes. Media and technology have helped to accelerate the growth of the anti-homework movement.
But the media has also been an enemy of the anti-homework movement. Every year, around back-to-school time, the media buries us with books, magazine articles, and television segments that reinforce a blind acceptance of homework as a good thing, endorsing the importance of homework and offering parents the same stale tips for getting children to do homework "without tears." Throughout the school year, stories appear frequently about how to get your son or daughter into the Ivy League, how to ace the SATs, or how to help your child write a killer college essay.
All this press fuels a mass hysteria among parents about their child's ability to compete and to be successful. An American Academy of Pediatrics report labeled the trend "the professionalization of parenthood":
Parents receive messages from a variety of sources stating that good parents actively build every skill and aptitude their child might need from the earliest ages. … They hear other parents in the neighborhood talk about their overburdened schedules and recognize it is the culture and even expectation of parents. (Ginsburg, 2007, p. 185)
The new mass hysteria has parents driven by fear. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and the competition is tough. If you're not careful, you won't survive. It's a high-stakes game, with your child's future on the line. For many parents, the mantra has become "do whatever it takes" to get their child accepted at the best college—all of this with a tacit acceptance of the premise that admission into Harvard equals a high-paying career, which equals happiness. As one high school student put it:
People don't go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high-paying job, which brings them happiness, so they think. (Pope, 2001, p. 4)
And as the superintendent in one wealthy district sardonically stated, "Our parents believe there are three career paths for their children: doctor, lawyer, and unsuccessful."
There seems to be little discussion that, in fact, this could be a faulty hypothesis, and only recently have some experts advised parents to question whether the Ivy League is right for their child. Three faulty assumptions actually feed this trend: (1) the Ivy League is the only route to success; (2) advanced placement (AP) classes are essential to get there; and (3) excessive homework is an inevitable part of AP or honors classes.
Talking with other parents at a neighborhood get-together, Haley's mom is worried. Even though Haley is a good student—taking three AP classes, active in cheerleading and other activities—her mom is worried that she is not in the top 10 percent of her class. "She's only in the top 15 percent—she can't get into the University of Texas unless she's in the top 10 percent." Her mom wishes kids today weren't so competitive and claims her daughter wants to take three AP classes. She claims she's not pushing her daughter and doesn't even realize how clearly her anxiety about the future is communicated and how readily her daughter picks it up. Mom goes on to remind the others, "Look at the jobs John's kids got when they graduated from Peabody and Georgetown—all the money they are making!"
The stress is cultural—absorbed by parents and then fed to their children, creating a hypercompetitive attitude for both parents and children:
Parents receive the message that if their children are not well prepared, well balanced, and high achieving, they will not get a desired spot in higher education. Even parents who wish to take a lower-key approach to child rearing fear slowing down when they perceive everyone else is on the fast track. (Ginsburg, 2007, p. 185)
This trend has led many parents to have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward homework. They complain about the stress homework brings to children, the battles over the dinner table, and the disruption to family life, yet at the same time they are worried about their child's ability to compete for entry into the best colleges. Although never proven by research, parents assume an automatic relationship between homework and future success. They have bought into the cult of beliefs about homework and accepted a connection between hours of homework and acceptance to an elite college. (Unfortunately, the manner in which many AP courses are taught reinforces this belief.) They wrongly assume that if it takes hours of homework in high school to guarantee admission to college, so be it.
One result of the mass hysteria has been a virtual explosion of the tutoring industry, now a $6 billion business (Bennett & Kalish, 2006). Some parents use tutoring to give their college-bound children a leg up. But more often, for parents who can afford it, the answer to the stressful and time-consuming job of supervising homework has been to "subcontract" the job to a tutor.
One of the potential negative effects of the tutoring craze has been the possibility that mass tutoring may "raise the bar" for homework assignments. After all, if most students are getting adult help with homework, it gives teachers the misperception that the students know more than they really do. It makes it appear that students are ready for more challenging assignments.
The candy factory episode of the classic I Love Lucy sitcom comes to mind. Lucy and Ethel are hired to work on an assembly line wrapping chocolates that pass by them on a conveyor belt. Struggling to keep up with the pace, they begin taking chocolates off the conveyor and stuffing them in their mouths and their hats. When the supervisor comes to check on their progress, they appear to be keeping up, so she yells to the back, "Speed it up!" Mass tutoring has the same potential to affect the difficulty of homework assignments in wealthy communities while widening the gap between those wealthy students and disadvantaged students whose families can't afford tutors.
At the same time that some parents are mired in the mass hysteria, a backlash is occurring. Other parents are backing up and slowing down, seeking a balance in their children's lives. Although some are recommending that homework be abolished, many more are suggesting that excessive homework is interfering with family life and not worth the loss of a carefree childhood. The movement is less an anti-homework movement than an anti–excessive homework movement, based on the idea that children should not have longer than an eight-hour workday (Vatterott, 2003). As a reaction against the mass hysteria movement, these parents have decided they are unwilling to mortgage their son's or daughter's childhood for the nebulous promise of future success. Nearly 30 years ago, David Elkind warned about The Hurried Child (1981)—a trend to push children too hard, to overstructure their time, and to burden them with too many adult responsibilities. Today's balance movement echoes that concern, and it is continuing to gain support among teachers, other professionals, and the general public.
In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report indicating the importance of undirected playtime for children (Ginsburg, 2007). The report addressed the tendencies of parents to overschedule and "build résumés" for children, and the negative ramifications of such actions. The report stated that play not only enhances social and emotional development but also helps to maintain parent-child bonds. It also recommended that pediatricians encourage active play and discourage parents from the overuse of passive entertainment for children (such as television and computer games). Some parents have already heeded this advice. With the ability of children to be connected and stimulated 24/7, some parents are now beginning to limit screen time and force kids to take "media fasts." A worldwide Slow Movement, for both children and adults, is catching on and is documented in the book In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed
(Honore, 2004). The London-based author claims that the Slow Movement can help people live happier, healthier, and more productive lives by slowing down their pace.
Parents who feel strongly about the need for balance are concerned about both immediate and long-term effects of homework engulfing their children's free time. The immediate effects are simple—loss of leisure time, stress, and overall health.
Loss of leisure time. Parents often remark that, because of excessive homework, children are "losing their childhood" and "don't have time to be kids." They point to the need for fresh air, unstructured playtime, family time, and downtime. Their concerns are supported by recent brain research showing the importance of downtime and rest for peak learning efficiency (Jensen, 2000).
Stress. The stress levels of school-age children are another concern. "This hurried lifestyle is a source of stress and anxiety and may even contribute to depression" (Ginsburg, 2007, p. 185). While some are recommending children's yoga and meditation as a way to cope with stress, others are targeting the sources of stress, and homework is a major culprit. Pediatricians and counselors report many stress-related symptoms, such as stomachaches and headaches, related to children's anxiety over their inability to complete homework. In an acknowledgment of the stress experienced by high school students, Stanford University now sponsors a program called Challenge Success (formerly called Stressed Out Students [SOS]) that works with school teams composed of the principal, students, parents, counselors, and teachers or other adults (Pope, 2005). The program helps schools implement school-level strategies known to improve students' mental and physical health and engagement in school.
Overall health. And finally, parents are concerned about the effect of excessive homework on the overall physical and psychological health of children. The traditional practice of assigning homework in every subject every night and the antiquated reliance on textbooks as curriculum have led to a physical problem. The weight of the backpack has been a subject of concern for some time, with an increasing number of students complaining of back pain (Galley, 2001). The American Chiropractic Association, the American Physical Therapy Association, and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons all recommend that the weight of backpacks not exceed 15 percent of the child's body weight (Moore, White, & Moore, 2007). Yet in one study of students in grades 5 to 8, more than half the students interviewed said they regularly carried backpack loads that were heavier than 15 percent of their body weight, and roughly one-third of the students interviewed had a history of back pain (Galley, 2001). Research done more recently now supports the recommendation that 10 percent of body weight be the cutoff for safe use of backpacks at all grade levels. The problem has doctors so concerned that, beginning in 2005, the American Occupational Therapy Association has sponsored a National School Backpack Awareness Day each September. Researchers recommend that schools review homework policies to reduce the necessity of carrying textbooks home (Moore et al., 2007).
Many children sacrifice fresh air, exercise, or sleep to toil over hours of homework. Recent alarming news about the level of childhood obesity, the negative effects of sleep deprivation, and the established connection between sleep deprivation and obesity add strong arguments to the move to reduce homework to allow for more exercise and sleep. One child advocacy expert has compiled cutting-edge research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy physical, emotional, and spiritual development. He warns that today's overworked and overscheduled children can suffer from what he calls nature deficit disorder, resulting in obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorder (Louv, 2005).
Love of learning. In addition to these short-term effects, parents are also concerned about homework's long-term effect on children. In educational circles, discussion almost exclusively focuses on short-term achievement or passing the test, not on what the practice of homework does to a child's long-term learning, attitude about learning, or attitudes about the intellectual life. But parents are worried about the potential of excessive homework to dampen their child's natural curiosity, passion, and love of learning. Their concern, as stated by Alfie Kohn, is that homework may be "the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity" (2006, p. 17).
Historically, the homework debate has continued to repeat itself. But the flawed belief system that homework is grounded on has yet to be adequately challenged. What complicates today's debate is the diversity of attitudes about the value of homework. The mass hysteria and balance movements illustrate the breadth of those attitudes. The pendulum is swinging both ways at the same time. As a country, the United States is so diverse economically, culturally, and in parenting styles, it is not surprising that not all would agree on a practice that bridges both school and family life. This diversity of attitudes requires not only a critical examination of homework practices but also a rethinking of the school-family relationship. This topic is discussed in Chapter 2.
Copyright © 2009 by Cathy Vatterott. All rights reserved.
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