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Give Me a Break!

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It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the H-word was rarely heard in the U.S. Then in 1957 the Russians sent up Sputnik, and American educators went into orbit themselves, making “homework” a household word. Kids have been moaning about it ever since. Lately some adults have begun to listen. This year a school board in Piscataway, N.J., set limits on the amount of homework assigned each night. Now, in their controversial The End of Homework, authors Etta Kralovec and John Buell argue that it disrupts families, stresses children and limits learning.

For Kralovec, 52, a former high school teacher, homework isn’t a purely professional issue. The mother of two children (daughter Chelsea, 23, a lab technician, and son Bryn, 21, a senior at Bennington College) struggled with her son over math homework during his middle school years. “That time became almost unbearable for our family,” says Kralovec. At the time, she was studying dropouts for the state of Maine, where kids cited troubles with homework as a major reason for quitting school. Kralovec, vice president for learning with Training and Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that provides Job Corps services, lives with her husband, contractor Frank Davis, 48, in Orland, Maine. Kralovec spoke recently with contributor Tom Duffy.

What’s wrong with homework?

The problem isn’t homework per se, it’s that homework is unfair. It plays on social inequities. Consider the differences between families: One kid goes home to two well-educated parents, a home library and computer access to massive databases. Another kid goes home to parents who work at night, have no computer and no books. Which kid is going to handle homework better and do better in school?

Haven’t affluent kids always had advantages?

Yes, but homework is a greater burden than ever for today’s families. For the first time, most mothers are working, and there are many more single-parent families. Kids no longer come home from school, have a snack and do their homework with some supervision before helping get dinner ready. Now families come home at dinnertime, and homework is stressing them out.

How does it encroach on family life?

Homework is getting in the way of parents who have things they want to teach their kids—their own religion, culture, family history. Even the most impoverished and dysfunctional parents have educational agendas. But now there’s no time at home.

Doesn’t homework teach good study habits?

There’s no reason to believe that having kids go home after sports and activities and sit down at 8 p.m.—after 13 hours of school—teaches good study habits. Good study habits are taught by teachers who can help kids learn how to structure their time.

But without homework, won’t kids just watch TV or play video games?

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. If kids had more after-school programs and more time to take advantage of them, they might spend their time differently. One reason there aren’t more opportunities for kids is homework consumes so much of their time. Actually, statistics show that kids watch less TV in the summer.

If it’s so bad, why is homework so prevalent?

It’s school reform on the cheap. It doesn’t cost anything for educators and politicians seeking to please parents to say, “Let’s raise academic standards by increasing the amount of homework.” Many parents believe the more homework a school gives, the better it must be.

Haven’t homework assignments improved?

There has been a real movement in the last 10 years for “good”—meaning creative—homework that requires critical thinking and is inquiry-based. But a lot of homework is promoted as a way to involve parents in kids’ educations.

What’s wrong with that?

Ironically, the fact that schools are giving kids “better”—or more demanding—homework means parents need to be more involved in the process, because the homework is more complicated. It ends up putting even more stress on families.

Would kids learn more by studying in school?

Yes. According to current educational theory, studying is an activity best done in groups where kids have access to peer tutoring. Work should be done in school so a kid can go up to the teacher and say, “What did you mean by this question?” It’s obvious that more time on a task is better, but not if it’s done in front of TV, over dinner or by parents.

What do you recommend?

The end of homework as we know it. The school day needs to be restructured, probably lengthened, so homework can be done at school, under the direction of professionals, where students have equal access to educational resources. What is currently called homework would not be done at home at all.