Monday, April 23, 2012

Part of my old position paper from my 2002 attempt to run for school board -- relating to homework and US and exUSA school systems

[please note that this was written 10 years ago -- and my kids are now grown]

I am a mother of two elementary school children.  I am concerned that the massive homework load this district imposes on young children is depriving them of their childhoods, educating them improperly, and stressing struggling working families.
I have found, and other parents have told me the same, that the homework given to young children is depriving children of the opportunity to play on week days.  If there is play time, it is only after it is too dark to go outside and enjoy nature or associate with other children.  Teachers miscalculate how long homework will take, because they look at how long it would take when the children are well-rested, not when they are tired after school.  The district has put guidelines in place, which I understand to be maximum homework amounts, but many teachers interpret them as minimums and give a great deal more, sometimes three times as much in my experience. The so-called “challenge” programs serve as excuses to pile even more homework on struggling families.
In fact, I sometimes feel as if I were back in the 19th century and had been forced to send my children to work in a lace factory in order to save the family from starvation.  How many Americans nowadays would take jobs that would send home as much work as our schools send home to our small children?
What is the purpose of all this homework?  Early elementary teachers tell us that it is necessary in order for the children to pass the 4th grade state tests; but our superintendent informed us at a recent PTA meeting that studies do not show any academic benefit to elementary school homework.   In fact, for small children, homework may actually be counterproductive, making them so tired and oppositional that they cannot function in school the next day.  I have certainly found that with my children.  The superintendent told us that homework only gives an “impression of rigor.”  This is in contrast with studies on high school age children, which do show academic benefit from homework.
What do we lose, when our children cannot play?  From play, children learn the creativity and social skills that are necessary to make them successful as adults.  Studies are increasingly showing us that it is social skills (EQ) -- not factual knowledge or intellectual skills (IQ) -- that make people successful in life. Despite the myths that something is drastically wrong with our nation’s educational system, our nation has always been the economic and technological powerhouse of the world.  I would submit that our strength comes from our ability to be creative and entrepreneurial, to think outside the box.  
Whatever problems we have in our educational system have resided in poor rural and urban school systems.  The response to these problems seems to be to pile homework on children in wealthy suburban districts, rather than actually to try to help those struggling districts which cannot offer a real education.
If we cause our small children to spend their free time in drudgery, they will grow up being people who stupidly follow instructions, not people who think creatively.  In fact most elementary school homework is drudgery: memorizing spelling lists, filling out homework sheets, and so forth.  We are training our kids to be little bureaucrats. 
What happens to families, when there is so much homework?  Personally, I find it enormously stressful to have to deal with homework after work. Quite often the after school program has failed to get the kids to do all of it.  Trying to fit homework in during dinner and bedtime rituals also puts stress on my marriage.  Other families have told me that homework puts stress on their families too.
            In this recent PTA meeting, the speakers admitted that the homework often relates to lessons that are to occur the following day.  It feels like the district is asking us to teach the children what they are supposed to know, so that the teacher will be spared this task.  In effect, we are being asked to home school our children in our spare time.  If I had wanted to home school my children, why would I be sending them to school?
            My husband and I both have graduate degrees.  We are therefore competent to home school our children.  What of the single parent working class family where the single parent is working three jobs or the families where the parents do not speak English?  These families cannot home school their children.  They are relying on the public schools to do that for them.  The massive homework load is making their children fall farther and farther behind.
            Does homework teach children responsibility?  If the amount or difficulty of the homework means that a child cannot do the work independently, then the homework teaches the child the opposite of responsibility.  It teaches the child he or she cannot, and therefore should not try to complete assigned tasks.  Such homework also gives the child a pervasive sense of failure.
Are foreign school systems, which put more pressure on kids, better than US school systems?  After graduating from US high school, I did a year of high school in France, as an exchange student.  In France, I saw a system where many, if not most, students were made to repeat at least one year of school; where only a fraction of students were allowed to attend an academic high school; where only 40% of those passed the high school examination in my year (of which I was one); and where roughly half of those 40% were flunked out of the university.  All these failures certainly gave the French people an impression of rigor. What did France get for this “impression of rigor?”  They typically have unemployment rates that are at least twice those in the US.  I would submit that the emotional abuse of children and young people, by submitting them to excessive drudgery and failure is the cause of so many people being unable to work.
My experiences in France lead me to become frustrated when I see the test results of foreign high school students compared with those of US high school students.  Foreign countries only let the more academically competent students into high school, while we try to educate everyone.  If we compare our high school students to their high school students, we are comparing their better students with all of our students: apples and oranges.
I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin.  This was a progressive district, in an education-oriented, university community.  There was NO homework for elementary aged children in my district.  Homework began in seventh grade.  I went to Dartmouth College, where I graduated magna cum laude, and I attended Columbia Law School, where I was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar in my third year.  It was NEVER a problem that I had not done homework in elementary school.  I learned to do homework later.  And my home district has typically enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in the country: less than 1%.  I would submit that the fact that children in Madison are not burned out and given a sense of failure at a very early age contributes to their abilities to be successful working people as adults.
            Are American students competitive with foreign students?  My father was on the graduate admissions committee of the physics department of the University of Wisconsin, an excellent department, and he sponsored a very large number of Ph.D. candidates.  He told me that he found that the American students were always the best students.  I would submit that this was precisely because they were under less pressure as children, were given more opportunity to play, and therefore were more able to be creative and innovative as adults.  We cannot judge the ultimate ability of people to perform in real situations based on their performance on high school tests.

I realize that some parents want their children to have lots of homework, but that does not mean, given the lack of evidence of any educational benefit, that all parents should have to be subjected to this.  Parents should be able to opt out of the heavy homework load.  In addition, the real effect of homework on families and children needs to be monitored much more closely.

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