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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2001/ 30 Shevat, 5761

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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In defense of homework -- JUST when you thought education theorists were too busy receiving accolades for dropping test scores to develop yet another harebrained notion, they chart new territory in warm puppy dogma. Dr. Etta Kralovec (Columbia PhD) and Dr. John Buell (author of Democracy by Other Means:The Politics of Work, Leisure and Environment) have the cure for depression, divorce, drug use and the San Andreas Fault in their new book, The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning. Colons in book titles mean trouble.

What a tale. It is indeed a tale for Drs. Kralovec and Buell faced studies overwhelmingly supportive of homework and so were forced to diss the scientific method. This research, they assert, does not reflect "the richness of the thinking and debate on homework" and "is plagued by a number of conditions that further complicate matters." Translation: we don't care about facts and data; we got us a new theory here.

This book is a tribute to postmodern thought, slothfulness, self-absorption and lack of accountability. It is 114 pages of solid rationalization with the tone of kindergarten teacher addicted to passive voice. Some examples of the kind of reasoning that has kept the education establishment living in denial about substandard education:

  • Teachers take so long to grade homework that students cannot learn from it. The authors hedge, lest the NEA protest, "This is not meant to imply that teachers should spend all their evenings grading papers rather than being with families and friends."

  • Children have after-school activities and homework interferes with the little dears' karate lessons. The authors plead, "Are students in training for a life that is not their own?"

  • Homework produces a society "deeply committed to long-hour jobs" and "a work force that is psychologically prepared for and fully accepting of those requirements."

  • The closing paragraph, "As we were working on this book, Etta was interviewed on public radio." (I'll bet - following an NPR segment on biking the Sequoias with flutophones.) "She commented that baking cookies at night with her son might just be more important than fighting with him over his unfinished math homework."

  • The final sentence, "We inhabit the same space without knowing each other."

Ah, homework, the root of all evil. At $14 a pop, this book is class-action fraud. When in educational doctoral programs are they taught thought without logic and conclusion without fact? Children need homework. Multiplication doesn't come by osmosis, spelling requires rote work and reading comes with practice. Teachers can't provide the one-on-one children need.

Four children have trotted through their school years and more in this household with homework each night. I can list 100 things that involve ripped flesh that I would rather do than check homework, help with poem memorizations and be read to by someone who hasn't quite caught the effect of periods at the end of sentences. My husband lists prostate exams as one of his preferences over help with homework.

But homework beats cookie baking for shaping young lives and minds. Parents get the opportunity to walk a child through what seems to them insurmountable. They conquer that "oa" concept in spelling, that regrouping in addition and their spirits soar. Children need challenge and discipline and parents should buck up. Homework is one of the last great holdouts in a society that excuses far too much and demands far too little.

Not all homework is beneficial. Real homework hones. But busy work assigned as homework is, well, just busy work. There is a certain breed of teacher unaware of Bill Gates' PowerPoint and who insists on posters, presentations and panoramas as homework based on the odd belief that children learn from such inane tasks.

My oldest and I spent her eighth grade year running to the party store looking for figurines and props for her American history class projects. It is her weakest knowledge area because there were no tests - just crafts.

When we walked the Freedom Trail in Boston following her eighth grade year of American history via poster board she asked, "Now what war was this?" When we walked to Ford Theater while visiting D.C., dangerous vagrants surrounded us and she asked why we were there. I explained that we were going to see where Lincoln was shot. She replied, clueless on even U.S. History time frames, "Well, no wonder he was shot. Look at this neighborhood."

Pray for a teacher who piles on rigorous homework. Your child will not only learn the discipline of completing tasks, he will be grateful that you care enough to spend your time with them on something awful. Homework, each night, all the time: The Cure for What Ails the Youth of America.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings