educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The Homework Club

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I’m surprised by how many kids, sometimes little kids, have told me some version of this: “My school is great. They give us lots of homework. It’s really challenging.” I’ve been amazed by how darn enthusiastic they appear that their teachers assign them a large volume of homework.

Of course, this may be my own particular little problem because I’m so vocal about our local public schools. Perhaps parents who’ve sent their kids elsewhere in my little community, aware of my views about public ed, may coach their now private school kids about how to talk to “bad, crazy old Mr. Warnock, the guy who writes this terrible and seldom-read blog.”

Because no way a little kid walks around crowing about homework – almost carrying the weight as a badge of honor — without some parental coaxing. In seeking to justify high-priced educational expenditures, people will do almost anything in the absence of tangible outcomes (remember, make sure you adjust those test scores to account for family income) to show they’ve made the right choice. So lots of homework it is: That’s something we can measure, even if we have to do so in cubic feet or pounds!

It’s kind of like saying someone is a good coach simply because her players do more push-ups or lunges or something. “How was practice, junior?” says dad. Junior, hobbling, bleeding podiatrically, says, “Coach made us run 25 miles.” Dad, beaming: “Ah, now that’s what I like to hear.”

I love the little K-8 school my kids attend, Riverton. I’m also on the school board. The school has a highly competitive academic culture. The school appears to encourage inquisitiveness. The teachers and administration are committed to helping children learn in creative, supportive ways. I am around the kids in that school a lot. I talk to them. They’re smart. For those who aren’t satisfied with this touchy-feely stuff, I must mention that our test scores tend to be among the highest in the area every year.

So you get the context: It’s a good school. Yet (is “yet” even the correct word here?), over and over again at parent-teacher and back-to-school nights, the teachers have said something like this to us parents: “I’m not going to give a lot of homework.” One of my favorite lines: “I don’t require a ton of homework. I’ve graded enough of the volcanoes you’ve made.” The children work hard for 7+ hours with skilled professional educators and get a little reinforcing material in the evenings. They get to play (!) after school and go to bed at a decent hour. It works extremely well.

In a recent Atlantic article (I’ve been stalking the Atlantic even more than normal lately), writer Karl Taro Greenfeld describes a week of doing his daughter’s homework. He’s blown away by how much she does, although it seems like it’s one of those type of schools, based on his description of the school and some of its parents. He’s more stunned by how useless so much of the homework is. His daughter, of course, has figured it all out, and coaches him through with the mantra “memorization, not rationalization.”

Lots of factors are likely driving this spike in gross homework hours. Standardized testing is a culprit, no surprise. But parents who crow about a school’s value based on volume of work are to blame too. I’m happy as can be about Riverton, because I realize there is no consistent correlation between lots of homework and a good learning experience. Some difficult courses may require significant supplementary work, but you don’t automatically increase a course’s challenge/intellectual reward/value/difficulty simply by assigning another chapter in the textbook each week.

In Greenfeld’s article, some parents like the homework deluge. Maybe seeing their kids being beaten by The Homework Club helps them sleep at night when they start to contemplate their school choices. If we buy into the lots-of-homework mindset, we deserve to spend every morning fighting with exhausted, teary kids.

We are not lagging behind some countries academically (all measured by tests, by the way) because our kids don’t do enough homework. If we’re all scared about that, then our insecurities will let us to continue to beat our kids with The Homework Club. With every stroke of the maul, we’ll be salving our own educational insecurities.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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6 Responses to “The Homework Club”

  1. Great post Scott.

    Comes down to what we (parents/consumers) ‘hire’ schools to do. It’s isn’t “teach our kids”, at least primarily. “Give us peace of mind while we’re at work” is a better answer, if not complete. And it plays into the homework braggadocio.

  2. So interesting Scott. I can honestly say that last year was the longest year of my academic life combined with my kids. They had so MUCH homework, they were literally bludgeoned with that club! Each teacher in their 6th grade middle school curriculum felt the need to be the one piling on the most. After a spring break that included 13 assignments each, they meticulously counted the days until their final moments in their school. So sad that I was wishing away months of their lives until my shiny happy people returned in summer. Now that they are in 7th grade in a new building, life is a little more flexible around here with some time to cook together, practice sports without as much time pressure and squeeze in some family stuff without 75lbs of backpack! I can only hope that their path continues in the less is more direction…

  3. Perhaps the Emperor should decree an end to homework.

  4. My parents said “No tv on a school night till your homework’s finished.” So:

    That tiny bedroom, maybe ten by twelve,
    is not just where I slept, but where my desk
    and chair under the built-in bookcase sat.
    I had a dictionary and a lamp –
    harsh fluorescent white – a can of pencils,
    pens, and a compass on my right, the window
    also on my right but behind my back.
    There I’d perch on weekday nights for six years,
    when I would stay at school and walk home late
    just in time for dinner, then climb upstairs
    while the rest of the family watched TV.
    Three closed doors kept most of the laughter out
    of my ears. My consciousness was an ant
    that slowly would meander across the page.

  5. Oh man, Don, that is just not right!

    I don’t remember EVER doing homework. I’m sure I had homework at some point in my life. The schools I went to, though, were so execrable academically, that when my teachers found out I could actually READ they left me alone. I really had almost no formal education from the fourth grade until I went away to college. Still, I think I turned out pretty well, even without having done any homework.

    Most of the learning children do is done quite independently of school. The reason we’re behind the rest of the world (or at least of the economically developed world) is that we’re so anti-intellectual. The level of public discourse in this country is simply a joke. That’s what kids listen to and it corrodes their poor young minds.

  6. I am not sure where our school district ranks in the great state of Indiana, but I’m pleased with my kids’ public school education, and they rarely have homework beyond a short review and perhaps a little reading.

    I would never accept giving up our afternoon walks to the river, playing sports in the street, eating long family dinners together, and reasonable bedtimes for home “work”.

    Glad to hear other loving, educated parents agree.

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