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Don’t Junk Homework

from the magazine

Don’t Junk Homework

The new anti-homework crusade deserves an F. Winter 2001
Education

To most of us, the idea of students toiling over homework at the kitchen table seems as American as apple pie. But educational faddists are pushing hard to reduce or even eliminate homework from grammar and secondary schools.


In a recent op-ed, John Buell, co-author with Etta Kralovec of an influential new book, The End of Homework, says that when kids hit the books after school, what's lost is the "virtue of free time, which plays a key role in fostering creativity, independence, and emotional development." Thanks to tough new academic standards, he argues, educators are "ratcheting up" homework, stressing everybody out. Time to chill out.


Trendy educators agree. A superintendent of a Piscataway, New Jersey, school district, for example, has sharply limited the amount of homework that teachers can assign. And a sympathetic liberal press—including the New York Times—has echoed the anti-homework position, casting itself as a Dickensian crusader against child labor.


In fact, the "ratcheting up" of homework that Buell laments is mostly a myth. Since 1981, a University of Michigan study notes, the amount of homework assigned to kids aged nine to 11 has only climbed from 2.75 to 3.5 hours a week—from 33 to 42 minutes a night.


Moreover, restricting or doing away with homework is unlikely to produce the bursts of creativity and independence that Buell, a former editor of The Progressive, envisions. The great devourer of kids' time today is television. Children watch an average of 2.75 hours of TV every weeknight, nearly four times what they spend on homework. Less homework may just mean more boob tube.


We know that homework works. Detailed studies over 15 years by Harris Cooper, a University of Missouri professor, show that it boosts academic performance, particularly in middle and high school students. It also teaches important lessons that kids don't learn in class, like budgeting time or how to study without a teacher looking over your shoulder, says education scholar Chester Finn.

Doubtless some teachers assign homework improperly, using it to accomplish work they should have done in class. But these are problems that smart principals should handle on a case-by-case basis without rejecting homework outright. Let's not allow the latest educational folly to produce sweeping changes that we'll all soon regret.

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