Then I went back to school. While continuing my full-time job I spent four arduous years doing night school to finally complete a master degree. During those four years, two additional children were born. But during those years, my ability to spend time reading to my children evaporated as well. Before long, my older sons were doing recreational reading on their own. They didn’t need me to read to them. I was busy every night, so I never spent time reading to my little boys like I had read to their older brothers.
Moreover, by the time I finished school, a couple of new elements had entered our lives to reduce available time. My older boys were involved in sports and music lessons. But they had homework every night as well. Usually my wife or I had to help them with their homework when they were in the first half of elementary school. But it wasn’t anything like reading to them had been. It was not a cherished experience and there was nothing cozy about it. Instead, it was often like a battle.
That pattern continues, but now I have a 4th grader and a 1st grader that also have homework. In a couple of years, their little sister will join them in the drudgery of homework. I have often wondered as I have struggled to help a child with a homework assignment precisely how useful that particular assignment is in reality. But year after year, day after day we struggle on because it’s in the child’s best interest, right?
Well, no. Award winning author Orson Scott Card, says in these two articles (part 1, part 2) that homework advocates are all wet on this. And he has research to back him up, something he specifically notes that homework advocates do not have for their position. Card has some pretty harsh words about homework, especially for elementary school children.
Card tries to help us understand homework from a child’s perspective, likening school to a job, where you commute each way, spend seven hours doing exactly what you are told to do, being where you are told to be, and eating, drinking, and using the restroom only under very strict parameters. Then you go home and spend another hour or three doing the same work under the control of a live-in supervisor. If you are ever ill, you have to make up the work you missed. And the law prohibits you from quitting this lousy job. To top it off, most of the after-hours work is nearly or completely meaningless.
“Now, hold on just a moment,” I can hear the homework champions saying. “Homework is useful in lots of ways.” Sure it is. If you hold to that theory, go read Card’s articles. He takes every single argument that favors homework and pounds it with a sledgehammer.
Two of Card’s points especially hit home with me. He notes that effective learning and effective working requires downtime. We require downtime for many high-intensity jobs, and most of us know that we need time away from our jobs to refresh ourselves and do those jobs better, but we prevent kids from having downtime away from the grind of school. “[W]e require them to focus intensely on six or seven different subjects during the school day... and then cycle through half of them again for hours each night! And we keep the pressure up on weekends, holidays, vacations.”
In addition to this point, I might add that assigning homework by definition means that it is more important than any other activity in which the child could be involved. That is a pretty arrogant position to take. Academic skills are not the only type of education our children need. What about the education one can get from a part-time job? What about the education one can get from pick-up sports events with the neighborhood kids, or looking at bugs on the sidewalk, or any number of other things a kid might do besides schoolwork at home?
Card asks what right schools have to in effect assign parents to do homework with their children. If parents are needed to help with their kids’ homework, he argues, the teachers aren’t doing their jobs. If the parents aren’t needed, then the argument that homework helps parents be involved in their kids’ educations is moot. Card argues that the parents that help their kids with their homework would be involved in their kids’ education anyway. The other parents won’t get involved either way.
Card refers to research that shows that homework is completely useless for elementary school kids, and only begins to gain utility as kids get older. But even for high school seniors, homework only makes a 4% difference in standardized tests and college entrance exams. “But I had to do it as a kid,” you say. So what? Is this just the wicked traditions of the fathers being passed down? What’s the point of doing something useless?
Card also brings up the specter of childhood obesity. Homework certainly doesn’t help that situation. He also says that homework does not teach responsibility, as some claim, but teaches compliance and obedience.
Card argues that homework should be rare. And in those rare instances where it is assigned, it must be meaningful and in truth useful to learning the subject matter at hand. It has to be worthwhile. Part of the reason kids do homework half-heartedly is because they know many assignments are meaningless. Card also thinks that homework should only be something that cannot be done at school. Otherwise it should be done at school.
I wouldn’t say that my kids’ homework has been totally useless. My involvement has occasionally made me realize, “So this is the crap they are teaching my kid at school.” It has given me the opportunity to correct misinformation. But homework has also stolen many precious hours that could have been employed in more worthwhile pursuits.
Card provides a list of homework rules that I’m sure would quickly be rejected by the homework Nazis. But some of them make good sense. And I daresay that some teachers would welcome this set of rules as well, a point Card makes as well. For the homework Nazis, Card states a guiding principle that they must be made to understand.
“You don't try to force them to do things your way at school. They shouldn't try to force you to do things their way at home. Each of you should be master of your own domain. They only get to assign homework — work done by your children in your home — with your consent.
“Few teachers and fewer school districts ever really think of it that way. That's all we need to do — remind them that their legal and moral authority over our children ends with the final bell and the children's safe departure from school premises.
“After that, we're responsible.
“We're not employees of the school district. They're not our bosses. We don't have to do their bidding.
“And no matter how much they love our kids, we love them more. They were our kids before they went to school, and they'll be our kids when they get out again. They're still our kids during all the years and days and hours in between.”