Homework hooey

A.A. Milne had it right: The greatest joy of childhood is the freedom to do nothing. But one can't do nothing forever, as Christopher Robin reminded Pooh in the last of Milne's classic children's stories.

"I'm not going to do nothing no more," Christopher Robin said.

"Never again?" asked Pooh.

"Well, not so much. They don't let you."

"They" are the adults, whose world Christopher Robin is about to enter, presumably as a student. But some adults believe--at least in the realm of homework--that nothing is exactly what children should be doing.

That's Alfie Kohn's solution. Author of The Homework Myth and prosecutor of all that smacks of excellence or rigor in the American classroom, he claims that the evidence that homework boosts academic achievement is "dubious." Worse, he thinks homework damages kids' emotional development by working them into the ground after the school bell rings.

Hear hear, Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, authors of The Case against Homework and militant moms on the path to reclaim childhood for children everywhere, would say. Armed mainly with circumstantial evidence and anecdotes, Bennett (a defense attorney) and Kalish push the no-homework argument to the extreme. Not only is it ineffective in improving academic performance, they say, but it's literally killing our children and destroying the time they have to spend with their families.

Just as some educators like to blame the No Child Left Behind Act for the decline of recess, Bennett and Kalish blame everything--childhood obesity, the surge in childhood diabetes, depression, the collapse of the family dinner hour--on homework. Kohn is more reserved, but equally convinced that homework is taking away childhood and replacing it with stress and tears.

But are kids doing too much? Surely, some students are weighted down, by their 87 pound backpacks carrying huge textbooks, if not by actual academic learning. But not most kids, or even all that many. And those who are tend to be from economically stable families in high-intensity programs. Kohn even admits as much. He cites a 1995 study showing American students spend on average just 1.7 hours a night on homework, compared with 2.7 hours for students in other nations. "On the other hand," he continues, "U.S. 12th graders who took advanced math and science" reported having homework more often than their international peers.

According to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, roughly 5 percent of American schoolchildren have more than two hours of homework per night. "Those horror stories," he said in 2003, "they're true. . . . But the question is whether or not they are typical. And they are not." The Washington Post's Jay Mathews agrees.

Bennett and Kalish have persuaded themselves that the horror stories are typical, and they have the anecdotes--but little else--to "prove" it. The stories are wrenching. But is homework to blame for kids' sedentary lifestyles? "Many things contribute to childhood obesity," they write, "but we believe [emphasis added] that homework overload is a big factor that's . . . ignored."

Again, Loveless: Not only are kids not generally overwhelmed by homework, but it "is not a priority" for them. Part-time work, for example, is more important to most high school students than schoolwork. So, too, are socializing and television. Moreover, almost half of high school students know they should do homework, but don't.

The real problem with both books is that nowhere in their litanies of "so-and-so said" is voice given to schools that value homework as a key to academic success. The KIPP Academies, for example, a nation-wide network of high-performing charter schools, mostly middle schools, require not only longer days and school years (students attend mandatory  summer sessions of 3 to 4 weeks), but students also grapple with two to three hours of homework each night.

And KIPP's record of success speaks for itself. Last year, for example, 100 percent of KIPP's Gaston, N.C., eighth-grade class received above-grade-level scores in reading and math; 79 percent of all KIPP alumni nationwide go on to college, and KIPP Washington, D.C., is the highest performing middle school in the nation's capital. And these are not anomalies.

Homework works. Just as a musician can't learn an instrument only by attending class and never practicing, nor can an athlete master a sport simply by watching others play it, students can't master math, reading and history without extensive practice.

So why admit that the evidence against homework's effectiveness is inconclusive (as Kohn does), yet still support its demise? Why rest on hunches (as Bennett and Kalish do) and argue that homework leads to obesity, depression, and family dysfunction?

Because it's hard to say good-bye to childhood. But say good-bye we all must. And homework is one sturdy bridge that helps lead our children safely to the other side.

This appeared in slightly different form in the August 27 New York Post.

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