When Is Homework Too Much? When It Cuts TV Time?

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dear Extra Credit readers:

There has been a lot of talk lately about homework, much of it generated by two books, "The Homework Myth" by Alfie Kohn and "The Case Against Homework" by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. Both say our elementary school kids are being crushed under a heavier load of homework than ever. But inspect the footnotes in Kohn's book (Bennett and Kalish don't reveal this) and discover they are talking about an increase from eight minutes a day in 1981 to 22 minutes a day in 2003 for 6- to 8-year-olds.

You may think 22 minutes, less time than a single episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants," is still too much. That is your call. What interested me about the Bennett-Kalish book was their view, the first I have ever seen expressed so baldly, that watching television is, in some cases, at least as good as schoolwork. Kohn doesn't write this in his book, but I heard him on the radio defending TV-watching as something that adults do in the evening to relax, so why not kids?

Here is what Bennett and Kalish say:

"Sometimes all we want is to cuddle on the couch and enjoy some TV together. One college professor told us, 'It's very pleasant to relax with your kid watching something stupid like "Wheel of Fortune." But I feel like the school is prepared to scold me for that.' [Child psychologist Dan] Kindlon agrees: 'Schools shouldn't make the assumption that they are the only ones who can make a decent person and decent society, that parents are clueless. When you watch TV with your kids, you form a bond over that. You can talk about the characters on "Lost." It gives you a common language that can bring you closer, make the kids feel like you really understand and connect with them.' "

I remember the pleasure of watching "Dawson's Creek" with my daughter, but I don't think either of us would consider that a useful substitute for practicing Spanish or reading about the rise of organized labor in 19th-century America, which is the kind of homework she was doing during the "Dawson" years. I have been telling friends, with a sneering tone, that Bennett and Kalish ought to explore starting a movement to embrace the tube, and get all the major networks to promote their book.

Maybe I am being unfair. I certainly watch a fair amount of television, at least an hour or two each night. I would love letters from readers addressing this point because my children are grown, and I may have missed a significant shift in the zeitgeist. Is TV-watching better for children than I think? Should I not assume that we would be much better if the average amount of weekday time spent by high schoolers on homework, about 50 minutes, were the amount of time they watched TV, and the TV time for teens, about two hours, became homework time?

My principal objection to the movement to debunk homework is that it does not fit my own memories of school -- classes were much more valuable to me when I did my homework -- and it does not fit my experiences as an education reporter. For two decades I have been writing about inner-city schools that have significantly increased student achievement. I have yet to encounter such programs that did not insist that schoolwork extend significantly beyond the normal school day.

When I asked one of my favorite inner-city educators, Deborah Meier, about this, she told me that at Central Park East High School, in New York City's East Harlem, her first successful school for low-income students, she had a policy of respecting family activities -- watching TV, I think, would fit her definition. This is what she said: "We told kids at our secondary school [grades 7 to 12] that the school's explicit work probably required a 40-hour week.

"The school's official day was about . . . 30 a week. We assumed that everyone had more to read than could be done while at school -- surely five-plus hours a week. And probably another five for exploring and preparing and revising work done during school hours. We said we'd keep the school doors open another 10 hours a week for those who found it most useful to do that extra work in school. We'd open an hour earlier at least, stay open an hour later, and be open Saturday mornings. 'Open' meant the library, which had books, computers and always at least one adult who could be helpful.

"The assignments were not explicitly 'homework.' Homework I insisted was the stuff you did at home for home -- the work your family and you needed to get done; and then there was reading and exploring on matters of your own personal agenda. And then there was the school work that couldn't be crammed into classroom time both because there wasn't enough time to do it all, and or because we each had our own agenda, ways of working and times and places to get things done."

Meier explained that what students learned at home, such as how to cook and repair furniture and care for children, might enrich their lives as much as history and math. I suppose the same could be said for sitting with their parents and watching the History Channel, or PBS, or even a prime time network show such as "The West Wing." So am I, and the parents who agree with me, too anti-TV? Let me know, and I will publish some of your responses.

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