"The increasing amount of homework may not be helping students to learn more; indeed, it often undermines the students' health, the development of personal interests, and the quality of family life." Ted Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer, authors of The Students Are Watching
The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learningby John Buell, Etta Kralovec
The Book That Ignited the Great Homework Debate
Etta Kralovec and John Buell are educators who dared to challenge one of the most widely accepted practices in American schools. Their provocative argument first published in this book, featured in Time and Newsweek, in numerous women's magazines, on national radio and network television broadcasts, was the first… See more details below
The Book That Ignited the Great Homework Debate
Etta Kralovec and John Buell are educators who dared to challenge one of the most widely accepted practices in American schools. Their provocative argument first published in this book, featured in Time and Newsweek, in numerous women's magazines, on national radio and network television broadcasts, was the first openly to challenge the gospel of "the more homework the better."
• In 1901, homework was legally banned in parts of the U.S. There are no studies showing that assigning homework before junior high school improves academic achievement.
• Increasingly, students and their parents are told that homework must take precedence over music lessons, religious education, and family and community activities. As the homework load increases (and studies show it is increasing) these family priorities are neglected.
• Homework is a great discriminator, effectively allowing students whose families "have" to surge ahead of their classmates who may have less.
• Backpacks are literally bone-crushing, sometimes weighing as much as the child. Isn't it obvious we're overburdening our kids?
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Meet the Author
Etta Kralovec, a recent Fulbright Fellow, took her Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She was a high school teacher for over twelve years and professor of education and director of teacher education at the College of the Atlantic for eleven years.
John Buell, author of Democracy by Other Means and Sustainable Democracy, took his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts. He has taught at the College of the Atlantic.
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Read an Excerpt
Beth sits in increasing horror as her daughter's fifth-grade teacher reproaches the class's parents: "Many of the kids have after-school activities like Hebrew school or town soccer league or piano lessons, but you should all remember that homework must always take priority."
Every night Helene dreads coming home to a familiar scene: her fourth-grade daughter sits surrounded by a mess of papers at the kitchen counter, grumpy or weepy, unable to complete her homework and making everyone else share her misery.
Bob hardly ever sees his son, a sophomore in high school who does an average of four hours of homework a night and also works on the school paper, competes in debate, and manages the school track teamall at his guidance counselor's urging. Greg leaves for school at 6:30 A.M., rarely gets home before 6:00 P.M., and almost never joins the family for dinner, since he always has exams to prepare for or papers to write. His weekends are often entirely consumed by meets, debates, and study.
Pat sits in an orthopedic surgeon's waiting room. Her daughter, Anna, has had back pain for quite some time. Pat is convinced that her daughter's thirty-eight-pound backpack is contributing to her daughter's back problems. Anna is not alone. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (A.A.O.S.) reported that thousands of kids have back, neck, and shoulder pain caused by their heavy backpacks.
Margie phones her best friend Edna practically every night for "help" on the math homework. She really doesn't get fractions. What shereally wants are the answers to the problems, and most of the time she gets them. Neither girl wants to cheat, but Margie definitely will get into trouble if she doesn't turn in the homework and Edna just can't say no to her friend.
For the past eight years, we have been writing and speaking about the problems associated with homework. During this time, we have never ceased to be amazed by the strong initial reaction to our work: "What? Are you crazy? Homework is good for kids," or, "How can we compete with the Japanese if our kids don't do homework?" Equally amazing, however, has been the number of folks who eventually come back to us and say, "You're right about one thing: homework is making a mess of our family life."
For a number of reasons, we believe that it is time for a public discussion about the place of homework in the daily lives of schools, children, and families. The topic is central to current debates about school reform. Before we abandon the public school system in favor of some form of privatization, we need to take a hard look at the schooling practices that undermine social life and contribute to a growing sense of alienation and stress in students, their families, and the larger community.
Life for American families has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. The requirements and expectations of the workplace now take up a substantially greater proportion of the adult's day. It's not just the well-documented longer hours but also the cell phone, the portable computer, and e-mail that extend the working day. This phenomenon is an increasingly common topic on talk shows, in news analyses, and at neighborhood barbecues.
Work and schoolwork are part of our system of core values, and they play a vital role in our lives, but they do not define the totality of those lives. It is entirely legitimate and appropriate periodically to question the extent to which even core values should dominate our existence. Discussion about reasonable homework limits is more than just a debate about education; it provides an entrée into other core concerns about our civilization.
We live in dread of what might happen if the enormous homework burden borne by our students and their families was reduced. We fear falling further behind other nations on certain standardized tests. We are afraid our kids won't perform well enough to get into the best colleges. We seem to have lost sight of the importance of family and community life.
If parents were no longer held captive by the demands of their children's schools, they could develop their own priorities for family life. If students were permitted more freedom to structure their own time and to explore their own interests, they would find it much easier to develop both an authentic self and a meaningful social life.
We believe that reform in homework practices is central to a politics of family and personal liberation. Taking back our home lives will allow us to begin the process of enriching our community lives. Drawing a clearer line between the school and the home may enable families to reconstitute themselves as families, and help parents pass on to their children something other than the exhaustion of endless work.
"There's just too much," Janet whispered to another mother during soccer practice at their children's elementary school in the coastal community of Blue Hill, Maine. Later that afternoon, over vegetables at the market, Rosalie asked a friend, "Do you think they have too much homework?"
The same question was repeated throughout the community as the amount of homework assigned to the seventh grade kept growing. Finally a group of mothers approached the principal about the issue. Principal Patrick Phillips did what most prudent school administrators would do: he formed a committee.
Fourteen interested members of the school board and the community at large met to grapple with what a small group of parents perceived as the "homework problem." Two key issues lay behind the parents' concern. First was the stress experienced by the middle school students as they tried to balance the demands of homework with extracurricular activities and the need for family time. Second was the inequity inherent in the fact many students lacked the resources at home to compete on an equal footing with those of their peers who had computers, highly educated parents, and virtually unlimited funds for school supplies.
The committee members were charged with formulating a new homework policy that would ultimately be presented to the school board for approval. In late fall 1994, the group identified the major concerns and questions being voiced around town:
What is homework? How much homework is too much? What are and should be the purposes of homework? Can different assignments be given to different kids in one class? Who is responsible for homeworkkids or their parents? How is homework graded, scored, or assessed? What about quality versus quantity? How are age and developmental level factored into assignments? Is stress management an issue? How do extracurricular activitiesschool-sponsored and family-basedfactor in? What's the best way to deal with students who put extra time into their work (i.e., the overachievers)? How are assignments coordinated among teachers?
Principal Phillips provided committee members with packets containing the homework policies of schools in surrounding communities, as well as recommendations from organizations such as the National School Boards Association. The real debate began at the next meeting, when members reported that students had said there was more homework in the middle school than at the local high school. The two school board representatives on the committee, the only men other than the principal, stressed the value of homework in instilling a sense of responsibility in students and in helping them learn to budget their time.
The other committee members, mothers all, agreed that responsibility and effective time management were important, but they wondered aloud if there weren't other ways for kids to master those same qualities. Some noted that the vast economic disparity between the richest and the poorest in the community might have a significant impact on the poorer students' ability to do homework. One mother raised the question of the stress caused by excessive homework. On the positive side, a few mothers suggested that when the kids actually completed all their homework, they felt better about themselves.
After two months of meetings, the committee realized that homework was merely a piece of a much larger puzzle: any discussion of homework needed to be coordinated with consideration of many other aspects of the school, including its overall philosophy and value placed on its athletic program, as well as the community's own beliefs about learners.
The school board wanted a new policy to be presented at an early-spring meeting. Anxious to prepare a statement that would reflect the central themes raised in its discussions, the committee went about the task of setting time limits for homework in each grade while stressing the need for equity, coordination, and support for individual differences.
Probably no one was really surprised that the homework time recommendations forwarded to the school board in April 1995 were exactly the same as those put forth in the previous homework policy, adopted in January 1987. Although the new policy was more complete in the sense that it made explicit the concerns raised by the committee, its substance remained unchanged, prescribing so many minutes of homework a night, increasing to one hour by middle school.
According to Blue Hill principal Phillips, homework debates are framed by two often competing American beliefs, the twin demands for excellence and equity in education. Because schools cannot control the home environment, homework raises the profoundly difficult question of how to achieve a level playing field.
Phillips also reflected that the very topic of homework blurred the lines between education and social services. For him, the "homework problem" comprised issues that cast the school in the role of a social service agency, a role he did not feel it should play.
The work of his committee raised the question of the limits of the school's authority and mission, and tested the boundary between the home and the school. While the school's philosophy is based on a belief in the importance of educating the whole child, the committee's work asked, in effect, how we can raise "whole children" when they have little time to do anything other than schoolwork. As Phillips put it, "How can you become a whole person, a sane person? We need to reconsider our time priorities." And yet the new-old policy provided no relief for Janet and Rosalie or their children.
In other communities, the debate has been less restrained than the exchange in Blue Hill. Even as Blue Hill worked through its homework debates, the coastal community of Half Moon Bay, California, was grappling with the same issues. When a school board member there called for an end to homework, Half Moon Bay got its fifteen minutes of fame: the board member appeared on national television, and the news story was picked up around the world. Headlines on the front page of the Los Angeles Times read "Kicking Homework Out of School: Half Moon Bay Considers Abolishing an Educational Icon. Proposal Ignites a Global Storm and Refuels Debate over Whether Such Assignments Really Help."
HOMEWORK AND THE CONTEMPORARY FAMILY
Why write a book about homework? Like mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage, homework seems to be a fact of life. Whether we live in a city, in a small town, on a farm, or in a housing development, when our kids get into school, the homework begins to come home. Parents did their homework in their own dayor didn't do it, but don't tell their children that. We have generally accepted, or at least resigned ourselves to, our kids' having the same obligations.
One reason we have written this book is that the subject of homework is once again on the political agenda in Washington. President Clinton has emphasized the importance of parents' spending more time helping their children with homework. Nonetheless, even as the President and Congress urge us to hit the books with our kids, homework is not always treated with the reverence it was once accorded. In magazines and on TV talk shows and news specials, the common wisdom that more is always better with regard to homework is beginning to be questioned. And if the debates in towns such as Blue Hill and Half Moon Bay are any indication, local school boards are likely to face this issue with increasing frequency in the next few years.
We have found that questioning homework's value nearly always evokes an impassioned response. Challenging the practice requires us to "think outside the box," to use business parlance. And thinking outside the box has never been popular in the world of education. Experimentalism is fine for science and business, the feeling seems to be, but when it comes to the education of our kids, give us the tried and true. Parents survived their own childhood homework experiences and worry if their children aren't exposed to the same demands.
Parents have high aspirations for their children, and homework is one way they believe they can help them get ahead. Teachers have structured their classroom life around homework, and revising the practice would mean changing the very way school operates. Politicians and policy elites have focused public attention on getting students to work harder, rather than on doing something about the deteriorating state of public schooling in America. All of these factors have the effect of closing out the possibility of even discussing the topic.
In order to read this book, you, the reader, must suspend your belief that homework is the sure road to lifetime achievement, and that by helping your child with his or her homework, you are being a responsible parent. This book asks you to examine the effect of homework on the quality of life in your home, especially in your relationships with your children. We are asking that you reflect on the experiences you and your children must forgo to complete homework assignments. We hope that while reading this book, you will open up a dialogue with your children, solicit their views on homework, and listen to their concerns. We also recommend that you talk to your friends about the ideas that are presented here.
We all have a sense that things are going terribly wrong in our society. In opening our minds to the possibility that central social practices could be different, we are taking the first step toward change. Maybe the social and economic order we accept as an article of faith makes unreasonable demands of both children and parents. Perhaps children would thrive and even learn better, not only in the long run but even on a day-to-day basis, if they had a little more space for a world of play and fantasy, if their lives were not fully colonized by the demands of schools or parents. It is our conviction that, at the very least, we would all benefit from a sustained consideration of these alternatives. If the case for homework is as solid as its proponents claim, it can stand a little exploratory critique.
HOMEWORK, LEISURE TIME, AND ECONOMICS
Simply put, American parents no longer have the time to give their children the help they need with their homework. The demands made on full-time workers have increased dramatically in the last quarter century, reflecting the ability of corporations to require longer hours; the desperation of employees who are, or who fear, slipping down the economic pyramid; and the decline of organized labor as an effective influence in protecting the rights of workers. Economist Barry Bluestone reports that in the last two decades the average two-earner couple has taken on an additional four months of full-time work outside the home, but has seen only an 18 percent gain in total wages over that same span. The increased transportation, clothing, and child care costs incurred by two-income families mean that most have been barely able to maintain the status quo. And only in the most educated segment of the workforce do two-income families manage to keep pace with inflation.
But if time pressures are primarily economic, they also reflect equally broad cultural trends. The two-decade explosion in the rate of divorce and the consequent number of families in which one parentusually the fatheris absent mean that economic, educational, and household responsibilities all fall on the other parent, typically a single mother. Then, too, the kind of community in which that single mother must meet her obligations has itself changed dramatically. The extended family, or even the kind of community in which one knows and trusts one's neighbors, is disappearing. Women who used to be mainstays of their middle-class neighborhoods now work outside the home.
As the old saying goes, the rich have gotten richer. Over the last two decades, the middle class has shrunk. Shifts in the tax burden to the working class, the erosion of tax breaks for families, massive cuts in federal assistance for college, and a new class of the permanently unemployed, characterize contemporary American life. Whereas schools in middle- and upper-middle-class communities may boast computer labs, indoor swimming pools, or state-of-the-art facilities, schools in poor communities may be closed for good due to asbestos contamination. The face they show to the community is boarded-up windows, metal detectors, and chain-link fences. Jonathan Kozol, in his work Savage Inequalities, reminds us that differences in income and job security among communities translate into disparities in educational funding and thus into severely unequal educational opportunities.
In the most practical terms, calls for teachers to assign more homework and for parents to provide a quiet, well-lit place for the child to study must always be considered in the context of those parents' education, income, available time, and job security. For many of our fellow citizens, jobs have become less secure and less well paid over the course of the last two decades.
Political or popular reluctance to fund the public schools further exacerbates this situation. As quality and morale deteriorate, parents' dissatisfaction increases, and vouchers and private education become the preferred escape for some. In such a context, policy elites can still insist that schools perform up to standards and that students work as hard as possible both in and out of school. Yet there are reasons to believe that such a strategy will inevitably fail.
Those who demand that our schools employ tougher standards and testing to ensure that American students will measure up to the purported global norm often forget that education is far better supported in other highly industrialized countries. Moreover, these critics are engaged in a kind of apples-to-oranges comparison. In many cases, the foreign students who do best represent a much smaller segment of their nation's population, or are older when they take the tests.
We would argue that homework is likely to become one of the signature issues of the next decade. It is a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. The belief of many corporate and business leaders is that the problems of poverty and joblessness can be solved if only our students will study harder and perform better in the workplace. Failing such a miracle cure, these leaders hope to convince a large majority of America that such a course is the only appropriate one in any case, that hard work is the American way, and that it always pays off.
Fortunately or unfortunately, those being asked to shoulder this burden at home, parents and students, simply cannot rise to the challenge. The time and the cultural and educational resources required are just not there.
We would like to suggest that the inability to meet the challenge of working longer and harder at home may be an opportunity rather than a tragedy. Our own backgrounds in education and political economy have led us to take a longer-term look at the role homework has played in our educational and economic history, at the research on which faith in homework is based, and at the place that homework actually occupies in families embedded within different cultural and economic strata within our society.
Our hope is that by asking readers to contemplate the connections between such seemingly disparate topics as hours at work, the global economy, homework, and the quality of family life, we may initiate a broadly democratic discussion of some of our most fundamental practices and the ways in which they do or do not serve our best interests. If there is one thing we are sure about, it is this: homework has not always played the same role in American life, and the demands we make of our children often reflect the worst as well as the best in ourselves.
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