The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Work is life, you know, and without it, there's nothing but fear and insecurity." ...  ... John Lennon.

Commentary of the Day - October 18, 2005:  The Virtues of Work.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Work's been out of style for almost forty years.  The change took place at about the same time that I checked into my freshman dorm.  That's when we decided that the "work ethic" was passé.

It's true that laying up material treasures isn't the point of existence, which is why sages and poets wiser and older than the sociology major down the hall have been saying it for centuries.  But in this life if you don't work, you're not likely to have that much to show for it, unless, of course, somebody else does the work for you.

There's nothing new about suckers in search of a deal or the easy way out.  P.T. Barnum was right.  More than enough of us down through the ages have been born every minute.  But today we seem especially susceptible to come-ons that promise something for nothing.  Regrettably, three twenty minute Bowflex sessions a week won't transform you into the bulging muscle man in the commercial.  No painless miracle diet will leave your belly both full and flat as a pancake.  And you can't trust a millionaire posing in front a mansion, peddling naked lies like, "This wasn't a get rich quick scheme.  But guess what -- I did." The screened disclaimer informs us that the new tycoon is just an actor, and that the house, car, clothes, and boat aren't really his.  But we log on to the web site anyway.

The same something-for-nothing nonsense infects public policy.  When it comes to education reform, we hear nonstop about raising standards and preparing students for the twenty-first century.  Meanwhile, many reformers want kids to succeed without breaking a sweat.  They've mounted a campaign against homework.  Their crusade has been headlined  in Time, and even People magazine chimed in with a glossy exposé entitled "Overbooked."

The End of Homework, a popular source, depicts homework as an obstacle to "taking back our home lives" because it "sets parent against child," presumably when kids don't feel like doing it.  Homework opponents propose bizarrely that we "raise whole children" and "preserve family time" by "extending school hours."  They also call for a ban on homework on the equally mind-boggling grounds that it's unfair to students who don't do it.

When the National Education Association's monthly magazine hosted a homework debate, one cited teacher urged "doing away with homework" because when some students don't do it, part of the class isn't ready for the next day's lesson.  Of course, if you don't assign any homework, and nobody does it, then everybody isn't ready for the next day's lesson.  Unless, that is, the teacher slows the whole course down and teaches less.  Believe it or not, advocates justify this position with the dubious claim that it promotes education equity, meaning presumably that everybody's equally behind.

Another critic characterizes most homework as "drill and kill" activities.  This instructional disdain for practice explains a lot about why many kids never master fundamental skills.

Despite reported sightings of eight-year-olds chained to their desks, a Brookings Institution study found that "almost everything in this story [of overworked students] is wrong."  The average American student spends just "nineteen to twenty-seven minutes on homework" a day.  According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, "two thirds of seventeen year olds did less than an hour of homework on a typical night," while "forty percent did no homework at all."  Compound those alarming numbers with the burgeoning hours diverted to the "nonacademic matters" that increasingly consume the school day, and you have a recipe for the low achievement that dogs us.

It's absurd to argue that homework doesn't offer significant benefits.  It provides a chance to work independently, an essential skill for the "lifelong learners" reformers say we need to be creating.  It prepares kids for the next day's work so teachers can move beyond the basics that often contribute to classroom tedium.  And it allows students a chance to -- here's that dirty word again -- practice the skills everybody agrees they aren't mastering.

No, first graders shouldn't be lugging home heaps of books and hours of nightly assignments.  A little homework, though, helps younger students develop the organizational skills and responsibility they will later need to bring assignments home, complete them, and return them safely to class the next day.

By middle school homework is the key to both practice and preparation for class so the enriching discussions we're supposed to be having rest on something besides ignorance and speculation.  Anti-homework reformers condemn lecturing, but they somehow also don't want kids to read on their own time.  The only alternative, giving them time to practice and prepare during class, means I wind up with less time to teach them, unless, of course, we keep them in school longer, which is what many reformers recommend.

Memo to reformers: If you want to keep kids in school for more hours everyday, you can't simultaneously preach that homework is destroying families.  At least kids are home when they're doing homework.

One California administrator urges relieving homework "stress" because "these kids are people.  They're not just these little academic machines."

The "little" kids he's talking about are high school students.

His opinion is seconded by Denise Pope, a lecturer at Stanford University's school of education.  She finds the stress situation "very scary."  So, apparently does the San Jose high school where students "attend only half their classes Tuesdays and Wednesdays."  That's in addition to the "annual stress free week" where they "jump on trampolines and blow soap bubbles."

Some schools have instituted official "homework breaks," but Ms. Pope complains that teachers "cheat" and assign the same amount of homework anyway.  She charges that as a result we're "creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, miseducated students," which sounds an awful lot like what I used to hear back in my dorm.

It isn't cheating when I assign homework that helps kids learn and practice what Im trying to teach them.  And it isn't materialistic to acquire knowledge and skills.  It's the failure to acquire them, not the hard work involved, that's creating a generation of miseducated students.

©2005 Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  There may well be something to the idea that K-12 school children are over stressed.  However, the IP doubts that the source of the stress is excessively burdensome homework assignments.  A good part of the problem can be traced to the fact that their after school time, which used to be largely unstructured and spontaneous, has been transformed into a series of parent-dominated, cut-throat competitions in which the child or teenager is expected to excel.  Part of this is driven by the admission requirements of some of the more exclusive colleges and universities.  These institutions want to see a "well rounded" résumé from their applicants.

The IP also notes that many of Denise Pope's conclusions came from a study in which she followed five high-school students for a year -- not exactly a statistically significant sample from which to draw such sweeping conclusions.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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