Wednesday, January 5, 2011

#2: The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Homework is hurting children?!!???! Ahh, bullshit. Kids whining because they have homework over winter break? Homework over summer? Well, in my day, we had to walk three miles to school in the snow both ways, doing Algebra I problems for that evil troll Dr. Cook who never gave us any fucking help on anything...

Wait one damn minute. Homework over Summer Vacation???? One poor bastard (a seventh grader) from Boston said he had to read "12 books over the summer and write a report on each of them." Granted, these were probably along the lines of the "Lightning Thief" and required the brain power of a dead toad, but 12 books? Even I, who teaches three AP courses, only assign one. One thing is for certain, however, and that is I never read one God Damn book over summer that I did not want to read. By God, that was Reagan' America.

The main point of the authors (and one I agree with) is that homework routinely becomes drudgery. You remember those mind-numbing worksheets, maps, vocab quizzes....and that was your 5th period history class with that jack ass who kept passing notes to you about that cute chick that sat in the front row and didn't know either of you existed. Well, multiply that by five and you have today's high school student. This point is well taken. Why do busy work? You get enough of that in college and graduate school. The authors take their starting point from a Stanford University study suggesting that there is no correlation between homework load and student achievement. Well, duh.

As Bennett and Kalish ask, "What is the point of that graphic plotting exercise that reveals the head of Abraham Lincoln?" There is no point besides petty tyranny of the teacher. That, and the ever present reliance upon testing to reveal who among us is worthy of ass kissing. In many ways, the authors miss a crucial point: the over reliance on testing in schools has led to a reliance on "homework" that teaches to the test. In other words, busy work intended to reinforce information and not produce independent thought. The litany of complaints over testing and No Child Left Behind is FAR too long to get into here; suffice it to say that the homework phenomenon of 2-3 hours per night for 8th graders is being fed by the standardized test beast. As the authors point out (and I can attest to this with experience) parents tend to do most of the work.

Our school is no different, and I have fielded complaints from parents that I do not assign enough homework. Perhaps I do not want to grade papers for 4 hours a night for $32,971. This is another problem, that most teachers do simply not have the time to grade all of these assignments. Let's say you have four sections of US History, each with 35 students. Will you:

A. Assign an essay asking the students to discern the differences in domestic policy between Carter and Reagan

B. Assign a test that reads
Jimmy Carter
A. is a toothy Flake
B. is a peanut Farmer who was elected President
C.  is married to Linda, better known as Wonder Woman
D. is a much better ex-president than a president
E. lost to Ronald "I Don't Recall" Reagan in UFC 66

You'll give the multiple choice test for laughs and to keep from reading 140 essays. That is our problem, and why most homework is mindless drudgery. Teachers do not have time. And, time is really the question. For a student who is out of school at 2:30 and has one of those things called, let me see, a "job" until 7:00 PM, the prospect of mentally masturbating over problems 2-32 even in the math text sucks. Forget eating with the family (the authors are guilty of a pollyanna-ish view of family life) or having quality time with friends. Homework rules.

The best part of this text is the end, which provide sound strategies for negotiating with teachers and schools to provide balance. It was gratifying to read "Don't go straight to the principal, go to the teacher." For those readers who have school age kids (all one of them) this advice is worth the cost of the book. Teachers work best with a positive, constructive relationship with parents. Kids work best in an atmosphere in which they feel safe to be themselves. School should be about exploration, not about how many grades one can cram into a semester. Bennett and Kalish provide several concrete examples of districts who have worked with parents to address the explosion of time spent on homework, and address how teachers can work with parents to find a happy medium. As a teacher, this book is excellent. I would think that as a parent, it would be indispensable.

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