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September 4, 2015

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How much homework do our children need?

Pop quiz: Did you know California once banned homework in schools? True. Following a campaign by the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal — which argued that the practice was not, in fact, good for kids — the state briefly halted it in 1901.

Now, most students, some parents, not a few teachers and members of the homework-reform movement will immediately become wistful for such an era (just as I’m wistful for a time when a print magazine could throw its weight around like that).

For years there’s been a persistent, intermittently noisy movement to eliminate homework: Kids are overburdened, parents are fed up, and you know all those countries whose students test better than ours? They don’t assign homework at all!

Thomas Loveless, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, gave a talk last week at UNLV titled “Do Students Have Too Much Homework?” As a scholar, Loveless can bring the data. Bar graphs. Pie charts. Numbers arranged in columnar fashion. All of it meant to scotch this idea that kids are being flattened under excess homework.

Let me nutshell his research for you: The typical student does less than an hour a day of homework, a figure that hasn’t changed much in several decades; most parents think that’s about right. Loveless endorses the PTA standard: about 10 minutes a night per grade level. If there are individual problems, they should be worked out by parents and educators, not women’s magazines and legislatures.

I’ll cite just one study he used: For years, researchers have asked college freshmen about the amount of homework they did in their senior year of high school. The latest figures? Sixty-three percent said they did less than five hours a week. “That’s the lowest ever in 44 years,” Loveless said.

OK. Let us now leave the data and go into un-pie-charted territory.

Pop quiz: Would you rather your child be an A student with very few friends or a C student with a lot of friends? The answer is obvious, of course; you want an A student with ...

“Americans always pick the C,” Loveless said. This came late in the talk, when questioners had steered the discussion toward the rest of the world’s students and their homework.

That factoid quickly backlit the issue in an interesting way — Americans’ vastly different conception of childhood, as compared to other societies. Loveless said that in Asia, for example, childhood is viewed as preparation for adulthood, so it is the realm of parents, not teachers, to give their children homework. “Parents are working with their kids at the kitchen table,” Loveless said. “But it’s not (school-assigned) homework. It’s academic work provided by the parents.”

Likewise, teens rarely work; school is their job. “If you ask them, ‘How many of your kids work,’ they look at you like (makes universal facial sign for “You must be crazy”). There’s a stigma to it.”

On the other hand, Americans think of childhood as its own specific phase of life, complete with its own logic and its own rounding-out qualities. Play. A lot of socializing. Learning to get along. Then it ends and we move on to young adulthood. We think of them as discrete phases.

In that context, it’s no wonder an hour a night sounds excessive to students and just about right to parents — homework and scholastic achievement are just elements of the amorphous, multifaceted, ever-shifting process of growing up here. There’s so much else we want our kids to pack in.

Anyway, children aren’t stupid. Just from watching adults, they figure out that life eventually sorts out the knowledge you need from the knowledge you don’t. I realized long before I graduated high school that I wouldn’t lead the sort of life that would require me to conjugate fractions, or whatever you do with ’em. So I put in exactly the amount of effort required to squeak by. Hasn’t hurt me in the long run.

Which just makes me American, I guess — when you rank global education, the greatest nation in the world is pretty much in the middle of the pack. (Contrary to beloved myth, we’ve always lagged there; there was never a golden era when American learning led the world, Loveless said.)

“We like to think of ourselves as educated,” he observed, “but we’re not going to work too hard at it.”

Maybe if they called it something besides homework.

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