How to solve the homework problem

Some want to abolish it. Mr. Markiewicz and I have an idea.

Ann Hermes/Staff/FILE
A student does homework at an after-school program in New York.

Not long ago I saw the following headline: “Anti-
homework trend goes global.”

Anti-homework? Where was this trend when I was in school, lamenting my chemistry assignments? And if I tried to “forget” that English paper or history report, my dad, like clockwork, was there to remind me: “Don’t you have homework to do?”

Yes, I did. I almost always did. 

In short, my teachers and my parents were in cahoots, the message being that homework was important, homework was good, and schooling extended to the home, where my education continued unabated.

No longer. From what I have read, there are powerful parental forces at play to make homework a thing of the past. The reasoning: It stresses children and it steals “precious family time.”

Hmm ... I wonder. As a teacher, one of the problems I often encounter is that students assign far too little importance to their studies, resulting in shoddy or incomplete work. My experience is that a little stress – as exerted by the standards I lay out – impels them to do the good, thorough work they are capable of.

I also wonder about the “precious family time.” If homework were abolished, would the time thereby freed up be used for reading poetry aloud at the dinner table or having heart-to-heart discussions about the social and political landscapes? In the age of the internet and games such as Candy Crush, which has absorbed the time and interest of otherwise intelligent adults, I am doubtful.

When I was a kid, homework actually created precious family time. I still remember, after supper, clearing the table and replacing the dishes with my schoolbooks. And then, in swing shifts, my working-class parents would sit down with me and, to the best of their abilities, help me when and where they could. 

It wasn’t always easy for them, and I recall, on one occasion, my father wringing his hands over the so-called new math that was all the rage at the time. 

But I also remember their admonishments to write plainly, legibly, and clearly; to read the text before I attempted to answer the questions; and to show my work when answering a math problem. And, having done my duty – often under duress, I admit – I was extended the reward of a half-hour of television.

I’ve often thought that the homework question, or controversy, could be resolved if one thought of homework in terms of learning to play a musical instrument. For me, this was the clarinet, which I began learning at age 9. Every week I took a 30-minute lesson from an older Polish man, Mr. Markiewicz, who had a small studio above a hardware store in Jersey City, N.J. 

The thing was, 30 minutes a week was not enough for me to make satisfactory progress. (I recall how devilishly difficult it was to get even that first plangent tone out of the clarinet.) I mean, my goal was to play like Benny Goodman. Did Benny learn to swing like an angel by playing only 30 minutes a week?

“Practice an hour a day,” was Mr. Markiewicz’s no-nonsense directive. “Practice an hour a day, and you’ll be playing polkas before you know it.”

Because my motivation was strong, I did practice an hour a day, and I did learn to play “The Hot Kielbasy Polka” in a reasonable amount of time. But, beyond the 30-minute nudges from Mr. Markiewicz, it was my elbow grease that got me there.

And so I am willing to compromise. Let’s get rid of homework, but only the word “homework,” and replace it with “practice.” As a teacher, it’s all I ask: that my students listen up in class and then go home to practice, so that when they return to me to show me how much they understand, I – and their parents – can be proud of them.

What could be nicer than that?

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