Teaching Opinion

Lazy Children Or Misplaced Priorities?

By John Buell & Etta Kralovec — October 29, 2003 6 min read
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Contrary to some reports, most American students spend very little time doing homework.

The American family took a hit where it could least stand it earlier this month. The Brookings Institution suggested that, contrary to some reports, most American students spend very little time doing homework. High school students spend less than an hour a day. This is the major reason American students score consistently lower than their major foreign competitors. American parents should stop whining about homework and spend more time helping their kids to do more homework. Otherwise, they can sit back and watch their children fail in the global marketplace. (“Homework Not on Rise, Studies Find,” Oct. 8, 2003.)

Since we were among the major “whiners,” it is hard not to take this message personally. Yet, before demanding that we issue our mea culpas, reporters and the major media should do their homework and scrutinize every aspect of this Brookings report.

The Brookings study argues that with the exception of a few whiners, most Americans are either satisfied with the amount of homework their children are doing or even want more. The authors cite a survey-research study by Public Agenda that asked Americans that very question. Yet they fail to tell us that another survey report by Public Agenda, in which parents were asked if homework was a source of conflict in their families, showed that 50 percent of American families reported conflicts over homework, and a third found homework a continuing source of conflict.

As with much in survey research, an awful lot hangs on how the question is asked. Parents who were offered or could see no other way to help their children’s performance might well say homework is fine. Nor do we know from any of these surveys how many children and families simply gave up on homework or altered their expectations about school as a consequence of difficulties with homework.

Even more basically, the real issues with homework are not quantitative but qualitative. If students are having trouble, is more homework the answer? The Brookings authors, despite the great publicity from this study, provide no new empirical evidence to suggest that homework will improve student performance. Yet the most careful work on homework, even by many of its defenders, is much more ambiguous on the question of just how effective homework is, and even concedes that homework in the elementary grades does not improve student performance.

Before all American parents rush home to spend more time with their children on homework, they should ask just how badly American schools are doing and whether there are other answers that could help our children without further burdening already-stretched families.

For starters, we might ask if schools are already making the best use of the time they have available to them. And no, we’re not talking about taking away recesses or eliminating physical education. International comparisons suggest that interruptions in the school day from such activities as fund-raising projects, pep rallies, and administrative announcements waste three times more classroom time in the United States than in Japan.

The most careful research is ambiguous on the question of just how effective homework is.

Even so, U.S. schools are not doing as badly as Brookings suggests. As educational statisticians such as Gerald W. Bracey point out, many of these international test-score rankings are in apples-and- oranges comparisons. Here in the United States, a very large portion of students continues on through high school graduation, but in much of the rest of the world, many of the less motivated or less gifted students are weeded out long before the senior high school years.

There are lessons we can learn from several of the countries that do well on these international tests. Boston Globe columnist Robert Kuttner, a co-editor of The American Prospect, has noted, for example, that “in these countries, the national or provincial government assumes responsibility, rather than leaving school funding at the mercy of local property-tax wealth.” He continues: “These countries, by the way, also far surpass the United States in child care and early-childhood enrichment programs, which make young children ready for school.” We would argue that, in addition, academic performance at the high school level could be better enhanced not by homework as conventionally defined, but by expanding the opportunities for students to do independent work in settings in which they have adequate resources and trained personnel available to help them.

The Brookings study made much of the low reported homework during the senior year. No one would argue that the typical senior year represents the height of academic excellence. The report of former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s National Commission on the High School Senior Year, issued in 2001, recommended expanded and rigorous alternatives to the traditional senior year, rather than more homework, to solve the problem.

But enough is enough. If schoolwork is appropriately structured and adequate opportunities for independent work provided, students, like adults, can do all they need to do within the framework of a 40-hour week. A neglected aspect of the story is the personal and even academic importance of leisure. Recent studies suggest that some of the differences between children who do well in school and those who do less well is attributable to what happens on vacations, weekends, and time away from school. And it is not a matter of the high-performing children doing homework over their vacations. As the Johns Hopkins University researchers Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson point out in their study of children’s academic progress, “Better-off children in the study more often went to city and state parks, fairs, or carnivals and took day or overnight trips. They also took swimming, dance, and music lessons; visited local parks, museums, science centers, and zoos; and more often went to the library in summer.”

Before American families give in to the demands of school or corporate authorities, it's time to step back and look at other ways to enhance both our creativity and the quality of our lives.

Yet where are American families to get the time on weekends and on vacations for these essential activities? Leisure is the last thing that many business and political leaders seem eager to promote. Just as Americans are being told to spend more time on homework, American corporations and the Bush administration are making it harder to take time away from the workplace. But before American families give in to the demands of school or corporate authorities, it’s time to step back and look at other ways to enhance both our creativity and the quality of our lives.

Not only grade school pupils, but also high school students and adult workers deserve time for the kind of unstructured play that fosters creativity and sustains a lifelong interest in learning. Work as the solution to all our woes is reform on the cheap and at the expense of all.

Children, like all of us, are more than recipients of school knowledge. They are siblings and community members, budding artists, musicians, and athletes. They are natural inventors and scientists and spiritual beings. Do we—will we—allow our children to exercise these selves?

John Buell is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News, in Bangor, Maine, and the author of the forthcoming Closing the Book on Homework (Temple University Press). Etta Kralovec is the vice president for learning at Training and Development Corp., a nonprofit design and development organization, and a faculty associate at College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine. They co-wrote The End of Homework (Beacon Press, 2000).

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