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How We Can Solve the Homework Problem

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This week I worked with another teenager who is failing in school because he doesn't do his homework. He sat across the desk from me in my office and told me he spends seven hours a day in school and feels he's "put in his time." Homework is an unfair burden to impose on top of his long day in school, he says. Or maybe he told me he has the best of intentions each day when he gets home from school but he just can't bring himself to open his books. Or, since this is a composite picture and it's not just boys I work with, perhaps it was a girl who told me that she's too busy doing things with friends and doesn't see the importance of homework. Or maybe she has a job after school, which gives her both satisfaction and spending money but leaves her little time to spend on schoolwork. Or perhaps the youngster lives in a family where education is not valued, or where it's denigrated, or where the student is needed to help out with child care or housekeeping and, again, has no time for homework.

Failure to do homework leads students to fail classes, flunk grades, and ultimately to drop out of school. I would like to propose a simple solution to the homework problem.

Here's how it would work. We know most high schools in the United States track students: They offer vocational tracks, college-preparatory tracks, general education tracks, and honors tracks. Some schools even track within tracks (by offering high and low college-prep classes, for example). I propose we add one more track: a no-homework track.

In this track, students would not be assigned homework. In order to pass their classes, they simply would need to attend them regularly and carry out the in-class assignments. If they needed help with those assignments, the teacher--or other students--would be there to assist them.

Presumably, classes without homework would not be able to cover the same amount of material in the same amount of time. That problem could be solved by adding more time to the no-homework track, either by adding a fifth year to high school or by having no-homework-track students attend summer school for every summer they're in high school.

What are the advantages of this solution? Here are some:

  • It would end the homework wars. Parents would no longer have to fight with their children about doing their homework. In fact, parents could request that their kids be placed in the no-homework track as a way to avoid those battles right from the start.
  • Teachers would no longer have to hound students about homework. If homework problems became chronic, teachers could just suggest to students that they were placed in the wrong track and invite them to make an appointment with the guidance counselor to request a transfer. A no-homework track would also free students from the burden of dreaming up novel excuses for what happened to their homework and why they failed to hand it in.
  • Teachers could more closely supervise the students' acquisition of skills. They could also provide alternative learning or performance strategies. They could build study skills into classes before exams and teach kids different ways to study. For students who have trouble sitting down and reading a book, they could have them listen to the books on tapes or have them read parts of books and then watch movies. For students who need help with writing papers, the assistance would be there.
  • A no-homework track would acknowledge up front the reality of family lifestyles today. Parents have less time to supervise homework, and students have more options for how they spend their time after school than ever before. Students who want to hold jobs, participate in sports, or get involved in a variety of extracurricular activities would no longer have to juggle these demands with homework. And those students for whom seven hours in school is thoroughly draining would not be confronted with more hours of tedium in the afternoon or evening.

What are the possible disadvantages of adding a no-homework track? These come to mind:

  • Cost. But, at least in many urban schools, statistics have shown that upwards of 40 percent of 9th graders flunk their freshman year in high school--there's the extra year right there. It's quite possible that, given a choice, fewer than 40 percent of the student population would choose the no-homework track, so this solution might save schools money rather than cost them. And if it kept more students in school until graduation, it would certainly save communities money in the long run, as it would keep more young people away from welfare or other forms of public assistance.
High school graduation should no longer be thought of as a date at the end of four years when students receive a certificate showing that they 'put in their time.'
  • Space. Adding the extra time needed for a no-homework track could lead to overcrowding. This could be alleviated by offering the additional time during the summer. The added advantage to summer school is that it would build in two months a year when the school is actually "smaller." This could make it easier for teachers and other caring adults to "connect" with students. A personal connection with adults in schools is a proven way to lower dropout rates. And if the no-homework track begins the summer before the students starts high school, this might ensure their getting off to a good start and would enable them to graduate in June of their senior year along with the rest of their classmates.
  • Some might suggest that a no-homework track would cause scheduling nightmares. But as long as the numbers of students enrolled in the no-homework track were equivalent to those placed in other tracks, this shouldn't be a significant problem.
  • Students might resist spending the extra time in school needed to cover the curriculum without assigning homework. For those students, perhaps choosing one of the other tracks would appear more attractive, once they are given a reasonable choice.

Of course, I write this proposal with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I'm not really encouraging schools to create no-homework tracks. What I do suggest--and this would be far more difficult to achieve than a no-homework track--is that schools alter their conception of high school graduation. High school graduation should no longer be thought of as a specific date at the end of four years consisting of a ceremony in which students receive a certificate that shows they "put in their time."

A high school diploma should be replaced by a series of certificates earned by students, each one articulating a set of skills that society values and the student has mastered. When students have acquired the certificates representing the full set of skills the community believes high school students should possess--whether mastered in two years or six--then we grant them a diploma.

The analogy that comes to mind is the "belts" used in martial arts programs such as karate or tai kwan do. Each different-colored belt represents a set of skills the martial arts student has learned, practiced, and mastered. Students proceed through the martial arts course at the pace that works for them, fast or slow, passing on the first exam or failing and trying again. The belt is a powerful symbol of achievement, because its meaning is universally under- stood by all who practice that martial art.

Is it coincidental that the student who sat in my office this week because he fails to see the value of homework is now a third-degree black belt in tai kwan do? He has been working for a year and a half to earn the next belt, and he thinks it may take him six months to a year longer to earn it. This same student has trouble completing tomorrow's homework assignments.

Surely there's a better way.


Peg Dawson is a psychologist with the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders in Portsmouth, N.H. She formerly worked as a school psychologist in public schools in Maine and New Hampshire.

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