Busy Work
Two books accuse educators of burying children -- and their childhoods -- in homework.

Reviewed by Ben Wildavsky
Sunday, September 10, 2006


Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing

By Alfie Kohn

Da Capo. 250 pp. $24


How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and

What We Can Do About It

By Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Crown. 290 pp. $24.95

Do American school kids need to buckle down or loosen up? It's an old debate in education circles, argued and re-argued over everything from how children should learn math to how often -- if ever -- they ought to take standardized tests. Now, just in time for the back-to-school season, several writers emphatically rooted in the progressive camp are joining the fray with an assault on what they see as a growing menace to young minds: homework. Through tales of marred childhoods and family strife, sober research reviews and inspirational accounts of parents who have fought back against uptight educrats, they aim to demolish the notion that any good might come of asking students to take assignments home after the school bell rings.

Alfie Kohn, the author of numerous volumes attacking get-tough education reforms, sympathetically enumerates the most common complaints against homework, from the burden it places on parents to the stress it causes kids. Most damning, he writes in the opening chapter entitled "Missing Out on Their Childhoods," homework "may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity." Challenging the notion that homework may be a useful, if sometimes onerous, part of growing up, Kohn points out, correctly, that most research has found no association between homework and student learning in the elementary grades. And he is witheringly (albeit unconvincingly) critical of studies that indicate it is positively connected to academic achievement for middle- and high-school students. Nor does he believe homework leads to other desirable outcomes such as good study habits (one of the chief rationales cited by experts who believe it may be valuable in modest amounts for younger students). He proposes an assortment of reforms, the most striking of which would change the "default" position of schools to a no-homework policy unless the value of a given assignment can be clearly justified.

If Kohn is the would-be intellectual theoretician of a new war on homework, Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish have written a battlefield manual for parents. While their central claims are of a piece with Kohn's (they write that "homework overload is compromising our parenting choices, jeopardizing our children's health, and robbing us of precious family time"), this duo's approach is more practical. Employing the chatty, anecdote-driven style of women's magazines, they lay out their case (even claiming that the growing homework burden fuels childhood obesity), then spell out how to lobby schools to have it reduced or eliminated. "Homework overload is not a parenting problem. It's a school problem that has been dumped in our laps," write Bennett, a criminal defense appeals attorney, and Kalish, a former editor and columnist for such publications as Child and Redbook. In the grassroots revolt they envision, more parents will say "enough is enough."

There is no question that for some children and parents, at least some of the time, homework can be hell. Any mother or father who has ever struggled to the point of tears with a child made miserable by an inordinate workload or an inane assignment will surely identify with some of the unhappy kids and parents portrayed in these books. Consider the mother quoted by Kohn who complains that her young son, exhausted after a long school day, must continue with what amounts to "a double shift" once he arrives home. And of course there are those maddening school projects: One section in Bennett and Kalish's book is titled "Cardboard, Glue, and Pasta: The Homework Hall of Shame." These writers have convinced themselves -- and would have their readers believe -- that excessive homework is a veritable national crisis. But is it?

As it happens, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless took on this question in a 2003 report that persuasively refuted the notion that most American kids are academically overloaded. Reviewing an assortment of studies, he found that even in high school the typical American student spends less than one hour studying per day. While there has been a marked increase in homework among younger students in recent years, the average amounts are still modest -- about two hours per week for kids ages 6 to 8, and under four hours per week for those ages 9 to 12 -- and the rising average is largely driven by a decline in the proportion of kids who had no homework at all. What's more, studying is far outpaced by time playing sports, and is dwarfed by -- surprise -- hours devoted to watching television (13 and a half per week among 9- to 12-year-olds, for example).

All this seems hard to square with the melodramatic tales told by Bennett and Kalish of children left with no time for play, forced to drop beloved extracurricular activities, and doomed to obesity by sedentary hours spent toiling over school assignments. Neither do the high school numbers support Kohn's dark insinuation that unbearable workloads may lead teens to cope with homework stress in unspecified "troubling ways." Oh, and that wished-for parental rebellion? Inconveniently, polling shows that most parents are happy with their kids' homework load -- and of those who aren't, more say it is too light than too heavy.

Perhaps homework really is out of control in certain (generally affluent) schools and districts. But that would be a far narrower problem than the national epidemic these authors describe. Their books are best understood as part of a broader ideological struggle over the direction of American education. From his approving invocation of Noam Chomsky to his denunciation of testing and other accountability-based reforms, it's clear that Kohn sees homework as just one more instrument of social control. Even the valid points he makes (for instance, that the correlation between homework and academic achievement in some grades doesn't necessarily imply causation) are undercut by his tendentious approach. There's no small irony in a professional provocateur like Kohn accusing respected researchers of being "polemicists" who cherry-pick studies to buttress their preexisting views. Bennett and Kalish, though less overtly political, are just as apt to cast children in the role of an oppressed class.

It's a shame these volumes aren't more credible. Averages notwithstanding, some kids certainly do get buried in assignments of dubious worth -- and in those cases Bennett and Kalish's lobbying tips could prove useful. Similarly, Kohn's insistence that schools justify both the quantity and quality of the work they're assigning is perfectly reasonable. But in the absence of more persuasive evidence that American kids are plagued by excessive, rather than insufficient, academic rigor -- homework included -- parents and policymakers should look elsewhere for a nuanced and reliable guide to this eminently worthy subject. ยท

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and former education editor of U.S. News & World Report.

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