Saturday, September 15, 2007

Homework. Who Gets Hurt?

When you see "The Homework Wars" in a headline, the story is likely to be about one of two subjects: the nightly skirmish between parents and children to make them finish their homework or the expanding parental crusade to encourage limits on the amount of homework kids are assigned. This anti-homework movement is in conflict with another pair of evergreen education stories -- the academic successes of Asian kids whose parents push them to scholastic achievement from birth, and the ever-increasing difficulty of getting into selective colleges.

The homework-limiting contingent has especially targeted the younger grades, where the trend has been to pile it on even the youngest children. Any parent who dares to question this policy is likely to hear the same excuse: "other" parents are demanding it. I don't know who these other parents are, but they must have a lot of time on their hands. Because here's the dirty little secret about elementary school homework: the parents do it. Much of it is simply too hard for children to do by themselves.

This means that the "parental involvement" that schools claim to value translates into parental over-involvement. Show me an elementary school parent who hasn't spent too many hours "helping" with homework and I'll show you someone whose child has never been assigned to make a papier mache volcano. Or some similarly complex and time-consuming project.

Elementary schools are the worst over-assigners, but high schools do it too. My daughter's high school claimed to limit homework to two hours a night, but apparently neglected to communicate that to the teachers. Cait regularly needed three or four hours to finish, and more on weekends. At the same time, the school encouraged students to be well rounded, to pursue hobbies and take advantage of the cultural offerings available to them. But when, exactly, were they supposed to do this? Even during vacation periods the students were loaded with work. (Just recently New York's Stuyvesant High School, one of the most competitive public schools in the nation, moved to restrict vacation homework.)

This kind of mixed message is typical. Educators routinely caution parents against getting too involved in their children's schoolwork—then turn around and give assignments that virtually demand it. At one point in my daughter's high school career, some of the parents made it known that they were unhappy about the strain placed on their kids by the work load. The school's response was to schedule a meeting at which the principal chided parents for allowing too many outside activities. Then, too, she noted, some kids are just naturally Type A—that's why they were feeling so pressured. Not our fault, in other words.

Clearly, too much homework stresses out kids and cuts into parents' lives. But heaping on the homework shows a special disregard for single parents and for families in which both parents work outside the home. It's hardest on poorer families, where parents may be juggling several jobs (and where in high school the kids may be working too).

This is an issue that anyone who values educational equality should care about, not just people with school age children. The cult of excessive homework is one way in which advantaged families maintain an edge in college admissions. (Especially now that it's harder to buy your child's way into the college of your choice by contributing funds for a new gymnasium.)

It's difficult to imagine how parents struggling to pay the rent can keep up with over-demanding homework. They don't have the luxury of declining a social engagement, as a friend of mine recently did, on the grounds that "we have a big physics project due Tuesday."

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