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Hit the Books

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By Jay Mathews
Sunday, August 5, 2007

MY MOST VIVID HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT MEMORY is the log cabin my fourth-grade daughter made out of Tootsie Rolls.

Okay, okay. I hear you other parents snorting in disbelief. She didn't make the log cabin. All those tears and recriminations and toothpicks broken trying to hold the cursed thing together were mine, not hers. I made the log cabin. At least, I tried.

I remember many elementary school assignments. There was the bird cage fashioned out of Pop-sicle sticks, and the incomprehensible collages of magazine clippings, and the map-coloring, book-reporting, spelling-list-memorizing and other things I have repressed.

Please don't misunderstand me. I like homework. Among education columnists, I am Mr. Homework. I never pass up an opportunity to skewer anti-homework books and commentators. In middle schools, and particularly high schools, I think students should do more homework. The national homework average in 2003 was 50 minutes a day for 15- to 17-year-olds, leaving plenty of time for the two hours and eight minutes each day they watched TV, according to time diaries collected by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

I think homework's long losing battle against television is one of the reasons we have seen no significant increase in high school reading or math achievement in the past three decades.

But here I am talking about homework for elementary school children, not high-schoolers. What most people don't know about elementary school homework is that the research strongly suggests that it is a waste of time, something I began to suspect after my daughter's eighth or ninth collage. Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers who do their homework do better in school than those who don't. But Duke psychologist Harris M. Cooper, a leading expert on homework, has conducted reviews of homework research that conclude that, for elementary school students, the correlation between time spent on homework and achievement is almost zero.

(A few small studies do show a link between studying at home for elementary school tests and better scores on those tests.)

So, let's get rid of elementary school homework. Toss those 50 addition problems in the trash. Stop cutting up your magazines. Forget about flashcards.

Instead, let's have children that age sit in a nice comfortable chair, with the television off, and read something they choose for 30

to 60 minutes a day. It can be a classic novel, such as Charlotte's Web. It can be a comic book. It can even be -- forgive me for sounding so desperate -- this newspaper.

If they need help with their reading, a parent can sit with them. But we ought to make reading a fun habit, like feeding the ducks or playing Monopoly or having pancakes on Sunday morning.

I was going to suggest that teachers do a spot-check by asking a couple of kids every day what they are reading, to make sure they are not using that time to beat their Game Boy records. But author Alfie Kohn, whose book The Homework Myth is coming out in paperback this month, convinced me that this would make it too much of a chore. The goal, he says, should be "to help kids fall in love with the written word."


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