No, students are not doing homework {"Homework Message Fails to Hit Home, front page, Nov. 13}. I saw it firsthand when I tried to teach Faulkner and Shakespeare to honors classes at a Washington-area high school, where the students clearly did not really expect to have to read the material before class discussions.

The thrust of the article seemed to be that vigilant, demanding parents are the solution to this problem. What about vigilant, demanding schools? If not doing your homework carried real consequences -- like significantly lowered grades -- it seems to me that most parents would wake up fast and give beleaguered teachers the help they need. But teachers and administrators today seem to have lost the will to hold their students to real consequences.

That homework has "powerful effects on learning" is, I would think, beyond debate. My recent teaching experiences provides a good illustration. My Faulkner class was quite successful, because the regular teacher allowed me to hold an unaccustomed stick over the students' heads -- a daily quiz to see if they'd read the assignment. By the end of the sessions on the novel, almost everyone, after some resistance, was coming to class having wrestled with the text, ready to question and argue and share ideas -- in other words, ready to learn and have fun doing it.

In the Shakespeare classes, however, no such toughness was allowed. Most of the students came to class unprepared, and I could not hope for an informed discussion. Most of the students were quite intelligent and were good at quick -- if off-the-wall -- conjectures after hearing a passage read. They liked to express themselves in ways that had little, if anything, to do with the text. Needless to say, they didn't learn much.

Quizzes have to be graded, of course, and both teachers in question had the impossible task of teaching English to approximately 125 students a day. It is, therefore, understandable that they didn't want to give themselves more work. They also know that most of their students have jobs after school that leave them no time for homework (most of these jobs are for the purpose of buying luxury items -- not because of hardship), so the teachers have stopped insisting on it.

To get students to do the homework necessary for real learning, we have to toughen up. Nobody's going to do homework unless he or she has to. Instead of hoping for a miracle from parents, we must give teachers smaller classes, strictly limit the time a student can work after school and then stiffen the backbones of teachers and administrators.

Then, if it hasn't already occurred to the students themselves, the parents will certainly wake up and make sure that those books are cracked out of school.


The article concerning the amount of time U.S. high school students spend on homework pointed up our need to start in the first grade with improved methodology, excellent texts and meaningful homework. The article stated that Japanese elementary school students devote eight hours a week to homework and that serious schoolwork involving homework as a learning reinforcement device is part of most European elementary school programs as well.

Most districts in the Washington area apparently give teachers complete discretion in deciding the amount of homework to assign. Should we trust individual teachers to decide how to train students for future academic work? Since we often do, many American texts are on a low level compared to European texts, and schools can never be sure of what has been learned in earlier grades.

A child's education cannot be left to chance encounters with good or poor teachers and good or poor districts. Rigorous programs must be in place everywhere from the first grade on.