Mention homework among the parent set, and you're likely to set off a discussion with all the explosive potential of a go-round on gun control or animal rights.
Lots of homework is all the evidence many partisans need of high standards and rigor. But for others, it's the stuff of horror stories about family fights, seventh-graders who don't go to bed till midnight, and assignments that resemble busywork.
Etta Kralovec and John Buell fall among the skeptics. Educators both, they're out to convince schools and parents alike that it's time to reassess the hallowed ground on which homework currently stands. Their new book - "The End of Homework" (Beacon Press) - charges that homework can be discriminatory, unnecessarily burden family life, and actually inhibit the learning it's designed to enhance. What would really help students in this era of higher standards, they say, is to reform our concept of homework, giving less (if any) and putting much of it back into school under the watchful eye of a trained teacher.
The following are excerpts from a recent conversation with the Monitor:
Why homework is a signature issue:
Kralovec: I conducted a study for Maine's Department of Education and interviewed kids who dropped out. All told stories about their reasons that involved homework. Then in speaking at professional organizations, people were very interested in talking about the problems they had with homework with their own kids.
As we demand more from schools, we're going to realize teachers need more control over the learning process. Homework is a black hole - teachers can't monitor who's doing the work, and they have a hard time following academic progress when they don't have complete control over the work kids do.
Buell: With the push for standards, some teachers think homework is a way to fill gaps. If you keep asking a school to deliver higher performance, and you realize you're not going over enough material, an apparent way to fill the gap is to throw on more homework.
On the history of homework:
Kralovec: In the 20th century, there were waves. In the 1920s, there was an "Abolish Homework" society. Again in the '60s. In progressive periods, there's attention to the education of the whole child. Homework is seen as limiting the development of the whole child.
On a better structure for schools:
Buell: Under our proposal, you'd have seven hours of school, then we might add another hour a day in a supervised setting with trained people. That's enough, especially if you add all the [extracurriculars].
Kralovec: We need to remember that school is a human construct that is changeable. We talk about the importance of parent-school collaboration. Parents should be able to participate in a discussion about the schedule, what their needs are.
My ideal school day would have four subjects in depth, and classes would be two hours long. I would take loudspeakers out of the classroom so there weren't constant interruptions. This is the workplace of the kid. Schools are chaotic, action-packed, and they're not very conducive to learning. So you need to slow them down, and intensify the work that's done there.
How a new structure would affect teaching:
Kralovec: I taught a philosophy class to college-bound kids, and I gave no homework. I had an opportunity to structure a class, top-level, and to work with kids on how to do it. We read less, but everyone actually did the reading. Let's be honest: Kids read in front of TV, they get CliffsNotes, whatever. In our case, we read one Platonic dialogue, not three, for example. We did it in class. It meant thinking differently about class time, which became work time.
On better classroom learning:
Kralovec: [A recent] Rand Corporation study found three things were important for learning: prekindergarten, lower class sizes, and more resources for teachers. We may not like what we know about how to improve schools because it's very expensive. Homework is school reform on the cheap. Homework disempowers teachers and deprofessionalizes them. Your kid isn't doing well in reading? Well, you can help him at home. But you really can't because teaching those kinds of things is complex.
Buell: When we ratchet up homework, we're really relying on unpaid labor of parents. I don't think it's fair or equitable. There are other things parents would like to be doing with children that make substantial contributions to a child's long-range development.
On good homework:
Buell: In social studies, you might have students read some op-eds from newspapers, in a setting where a trained adult is available to talk. There are all kinds of projects that could be done in a short amount of time within school settings that would enhance students' abilities, and wouldn't systematically privilege some kids [with more resources] at the expense of others.
Kralovec: A really good example is the science fair. Usually, there's a paper that comes home with the steps. Due in a month and a half. If this is such an important thing, and it is, why should it be done at home at night? That class should be turned into a lab. The fair should be done all day long with the kids working in groups and functioning like scientists in their classroom.
How homework discriminates against the poor:
Buell: Students come home to very different [situations]. Ten percent of housing in California is substandard. What about kids [in] those homes? Forget about whether they have access to a computer. The notion that they'll have a quiet and safe place to do their work is absurd. Then you have different educational backgrounds of parents. Those are the kinds of things that ought to be looked at if homework is key to getting people left out of the global economy back into it.
On pressure in school:
Kralovec: With Columbine, for a few moments, we actually listened to kids talk about their experiences in school. It was terrifying to hear them talk about the pressure to succeed and excel that they feel they're being pushed into. Kids never escape their student role. They're in school all day, then they go home and they have to continue to be students. Schools work really well for about 10 percent of kids. The other 90 percent sort of muddle by. So when there's no escape from a role you're not very good at, I think kids are snapping.
On parents speaking up:
Kralovec: Individual teachers don't set school policy. The teacher has to assign X amount of homework. The parent has to become educated about how schools operate, they need to become politicized, go to school board meetings, and find out where they can intervene effectively - and it's not with your child's teacher. Also, if you go in with a group of five or six parents, they can't victimize you. it changes the tone of the discussion.
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