November 14, 2007
The Strange War on HomeworkBy Charles J. Sykes
American students continue to fall behind much of the rest of the world in math and science and recent surveys of their literacy and knowledge of history, civics and geography hover between embarrassing and "Oh my God."
But one of the hottest issues in American education today is the crusade to cut down on "excessive" homework; and the war is being waged not by educrats, but by parents.
"I hate school," declared a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who complained that homework was destroying his son's life and his family and legions of anguished parents worried about the stress and self-esteem destroying effects of homework have joined his cry. After his assault on homework, Columnist Jeff Opdyke says, he received more than a thousand emails from fretting "parents, teachers, principals and guidance counselors," who spoke of "crying, fits, angry outbursts, frustration. And worse."
"Worse," included stories about parents who felt the need to medicate their children. A California mom wrote that the stress of homework was so great that "I was sent twice to see a psychiatrist to put [them] on pills."
"Is there something we can do as parents," she asked, "to stop this insanity?" The insanity, presumably, was the homework, not pushing drugs on her kids.
Several years ago I wrote about the widespread opposition to so-called "high stakes" testing among the minivan set. As educational reformers discovered to their chagrin, many suburban parents thought that high standards were quite all right when they were applied to someone else's child.
But the assault on the tests was a mild affair compared with the uprising against homework.
"If this is the price of excellence," one anti-homework parent complained on a recent radio call-in show, "I'll take mediocrity." He seems to echo educationist guru Alfie Kohn, who also inveighs against effects of standardized tests, grades, and musical chairs, but who seems to reserve a special animus for homework, which he blames for an epidemic of "stress and conflict, frustration and exhaustion."
Following his lead, school districts across the country are scrambling to put lids on assignments; capping the time children spend on homework. In Needham Massachusetts, the high school has gone even further to protect the fragile psyches of its young. "Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress," read a headline in The New York Times about Needham High School. All of this, the Times explained places the school in the "vanguard of a movement," among affluent schools that includes the formation of a group known as S.O.S. - "Stressed Out Students."
This is a genuinely strange crusade.
A generation of hyper-parents has larded their children's days with band practice, piano lessons, soccer practice, volleyball, martial arts, dance recitals, and swim classes. For their part, teens find time to spend something like 6 hours a day using various forms of media; Xbox 360 sales do not seem to be suffering because kids are too busy to play video games and the malls have not been emptied of teens.
And yet the cry goes up that it is Mrs. Grundy's history homework assignments that are destroying the innocence of childhood and wrecking the American family.
Of course, as any parent who has spent hours working on pointless dioramas and time-wasting cardboard volcanoes can testify, some of the complaints are not without some merit. But while some children undoubtedly do have too much homework, reports of a national homework crisis are highly exaggerated. In 2003, a study by the Brookings Institution found that the great majority of students at all grade levels now spend less than an hour a day studying, or about a quarter of the time they spend text messaging things like "NMHJC" (Not Much Here, Just Chilling) to one another.
The hand-wringing over homework also seems to miss the point because the overriding problem of Generation Me is not their excessive work-ethic. Universities and employers are not complaining that they are inundated with overstressed, burned out workaholic over-achievers. Rather the contrary. For every academic Stakhonovite who shows up at college or the office, there are legions of smug, entitled, graduates stuffed with self-esteem and great expectations but utterly unprepared for the rigors of college, work, or life.
This, of course brings us back to the parents, those obsessively involved, overprotective, indulgent moms and dads who have bubble-wrapped their children on the assumption that they are so frail and easily bruised that they must at all costs be protected against the symptoms of life, including, apparently, homework.
One suspects that much of this anxiety is less about the kids, than about the angst of the grownups, many of whom seem genuinely afraid to do anything that might make them unpopular with their children, whose amusement and approval they crave so slavishly. That may also explain the endless parade of gold stars, happy faces, and participation trophies that mark the progress of modern childhood.
But for many children raised in bubble-wrap, life is turning out to be both overwhelming and disappointing, especially when they find out that the rest of world does not care as much about their self-esteem as mommy or daddy did.
Of course it is true that middle school is often an ordeal and getting into college has become daunting rite of passage.
But at some point grownups need to realize that life in general is full of switchbacks and speed-bumps -- most of which are a lot more stressful than an hour or two of science homework at the kitchen table.