A Student’s Job Is Never Done

November 01, 2000 6 min read

THE END OF HOMEWORK: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, by Etta Kralovec and John Buell. (Beacon Press, 119 pages, $18.) This summer, my 10-year-old daughter, who had never been much of a reader, plowed through the Harry Potter series then moved on to C.S. Lewis. In late August, after finishing the Narnia books, she announced sadly that her reading streak was over. “With school and so much homework,” she lamented, “there won’t be time.”

The goofy irony of the situation—namely that homework crowds out the kind of reading schools want to promote—is at the heart of this long-overdue book, which makes the case for reducing the amount of homework schools give kids.

Kralovec and Buell, both education researchers at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, cite studies showing that the primary reason dropouts give for leaving school is their inability to complete homework. As parents themselves, the authors also describe how excessive homework left their own imaginative children little time for extracurricular pursuits. And other parents, they write, frequently regaled them with stories of how homework was undermining their family lives.

All this raises some obvious questions: If parents dislike excessive quantities of homework—at some schools, the authors report, 10-year-olds get as much as two hours a night—why do so many put up with it? And why are teachers who have little time to correct homework giving ever-increasing amounts?

As it turns out, parents are torn. They feel homework overwhelms their children, but they also believe it gives kids an academic edge. And many, the authors assert, believe that “substantial homework is the sign of a good teacher.” Teachers who give little are perceived as laggards. Not surprisingly, this influences teachers. They pile assignments on, the authors write, to “assure parents that there are standards in place.” What we have, then, is a mutually enabling situation, in which parents and teachers put up with homework policies that neither party likes.

According to the authors, parents are simply wrong to think that kids who get lots of homework have an educational advantage. There is little correlation, they write, between academic achievement and the amount of homework children do. But their critique goes beyond this, for they believe that the recent emphasis on homework stems largely from a capitalist work ethic run amok. The principal goal, they assert, is for youngsters “to learn to deal with adult levels of pressure” so that one day they will thrive in a “competitive world whose purpose lies in endless production.”

Some educators have argued that the problem with homework has less to do with quantity than quality. Rather than spending hours on dull exercises, kids should do engaging work-hands-on projects, real-world math, and the like. But Kralovec and Buell take this argument apart, too. They point out that many young students turn this kind of homework over to their parents, who wind up building models of everything from spaceships to the Taj Mahal as their kids watch.

Kralovec and Buell want pediatricians to warn parents that too much homework, like second-hand smoke, may be bad for their children’s health. That’s unlikely to happen any time soon, but in the meantime parents and teachers alike can, as the authors suggest, “just say no” to homework excess.

WITH RIGOR FOR ALL: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students, by Carol Jago. (Calendar Islands Publishers, 178 pages, $19.50.) In this engaging book, veteran English teacher Jago boldly assails urban schools for assigning students easy books they can “relate to” at the expense of the “ornery and difficult” classics. Jago, who teaches at Santa Monica High School near Los Angeles, believes that all students should read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison, and the like. Such authors, she argues, not only inculcate in students a love of literature but also, by presenting complex characters working their way through complex situations, challenge adolescents’ often complacent sense of themselves and others. Unfortunately, suburban public schools teach this kind of literature more than their urban counterparts, which often assign what Jago refers to as “workplace documents.”

But how can inner city teachers get students who have never read much of anything, let alone Beowulf and The Odyssey, to dive into difficult works? Believing that a laissez-faire attitude is doomed to fail, Jago takes a very active role in the classroom, carefully leading her students through the books, explaining the intricacies of the plot and how literary devices work. To ensure that students stay engaged, she keeps them moving ahead even if some don’t fully grasp what’s going on. Sometimes, she writes, a partial understanding is “good enough.” Perhaps most important, Jago holds students accountable for keeping up with the reading, routinely asking them to write plot summaries and character sketches.

While these techniques may be effective, readers of With Rigor for All will quickly see that what most inspires and motivates Jago’s students is her own love of the classics. This is a teacher, after all, who tells us that she wants her former students “to feel vaguely sick when they go for too long without having read a good book.” Given Jago’s skill and passion, it’s easy to imagine her former charges reading their way to good health.

FIGHTING TO SAVE OUR URBAN SCHOOLS . . . AND WINNING: Lessons From Houston, by Donald R. McAdams. (Teachers College Press, 312 pages, $19.95.) In 1990, the author was elected, along with three other reform-minded individuals, to the Houston school board. The four soon forged a reform document that demanded nothing less than a sweeping transformation of the school system. Among other things, they argued that the district should decentralize authority, focus on student performance, and implement a core of academic subjects for all students.

This compelling book is McAdams’ behind-the-scenes account of the seven-year political battle to implement the reform plan. Indeed, as described by McAdams, the fierce lobbying of special interests was as intense as in Washington politics. The business community fought for greater accountability but did not want to pay for it. The teachers’ union demanded a steep pay hike but refused to give up an ineffective evaluation system. Local activists, meanwhile, wanted representatives from their groups appointed to key posts, even though some were not qualified.

Amazingly, the warring factions finally found enough common ground to implement the reforms and raise student achievement. McAdams gives particular credit to Rod Paige, the district’s hard-driving superintendent. Paige not only managed to steer the reforms into place but also to keep his job, something few urban superintendents can boast these days. Most big-city school chiefs, it seems, quit after short tenures or get driven from their jobs by fickle school boards.

McAdams addresses this broader leadership problem, arguing that the “root cause of failing urban schools is direct democratic control.” He suggests that these schools won’t significantly improve until districts replace elected boards with a governing structure that insulates schools from the political clamor of the moment.

—David Ruenzel

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