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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


Instilling a lifelong hatred of school

Alfie Kohn
THE HOMEWORK MYTH: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing
Da Capo Press, 2006
250 pages, $24


ONE OF the most harmful consequences of No Child Left Behind’s punitive approach to childhood education is the dominant consensus among school administrators that more homework fosters more learning during after-school hours. This is the stated justification for burdening very young children with homework by the time they reach kindergarten and steadily increasing that burden with each passing year. By the time they reach middle school, they are often saddled with a nightly homework regimen once reserved for high school seniors.

To be sure, No Child Left Behind did not start this trend, which has been decades in the making. Perhaps for this reason, many parents accept the notion that homework is universally beneficial to children of all ages. In The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn shows that such a generalization is patently false, especially for very young children. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the performance of fourth graders in the 2000 standardized math exam showed that those who did no homework scored roughly the same as those who did thirty minutes of homework a night—and those who did forty-five minutes of homework or more per night achieved lower scores than those who did none at all!

Kohn also makes a convincing case that, contrary to current popular wisdom, rising amounts of homework are not limited to white middle-class school districts, but also fall heavily on poor Black and Latino communities. His research showed, for example, that although Black and Latino middle school students in Chicago were assigned less homework than suburban white students, the white students were given more time to complete their homework during school hours. Both groups spent equal amounts of time doing homework at home.

In a survey of 150 schools in three states, kindergarten and first-grade teachers were found to “assign more homework in schools that had a high proportion of low-income students, students of color, and students performing below grade level.”

Kohn also shows anecdotal evidence that the quality of homework varies by race and class. The survey above also showed that homework assigned in low-income schools tended to be more “scripted and didactic,” while higher income schools gave assignments that “focused on problem-solving and understanding.”

The current approach to homework is not geared to cultivating a lifelong love of learning or fostering creativity in children. The dreaded nightly ritual tends to stifle children’s natural curiosity and eagerness to open a book for the sheer enjoyment of reading or to start up a project to satisfy intellectual curiosity. As middle school language arts teacher Jim DeLuca told Kohn, “The best way to make students hate reading is to make them prove to you that they have read.”

Most work that today’s generation of children takes home is geared to standardized test performance, which makes it boring, tedious, and pointless. But this stultifying approach carries over into every school subject. My sixth-grade son, for example, recently spent a good part of an evening drilling for a Phys Ed test on the rules of lacrosse—a game that he is unlikely to ever play or even watch from the stands.
But additional homework is just as harmful to the adults in children’s lives. Teachers who are already overworked and underpaid face many additional (and unpaid) hours grading endless pages of homework. Parents who are already struggling to find time for relaxation with their kids after school and work face a nightly ritual that often introduces new sources of family conflict between stressed-out parents anxious to get homework finished and children reluctant to even start it.

Kohn has started a much-needed conversation against the assumptions behind No Child Left Behind. The next challenge is creating a strategy that unites parents, teachers and students in fighting back against the punitive approach that currently dominates public education.

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