I’ve written here before about Washington Post reporter, Jay Mathews, who calls himself “Mr. Homework.” In August, 2008, he did an about-face and called for an end to homework for elementary school students. A few days ago, he wrote a Washington Post column, “Is Homework Necessary,” where he wonders whether his faith in homework for middle and high schoolers is misplaced. He suggests that assignments be shorter and more carefully defined so as to get “the same sense of student understanding and not just to make sure the students and their parents don’t think the teacher is going soft.” Read the piece here.
After reading the piece, I sent Mr. Mathews the following email and posted it as a comment as well. I encourage you to post your own comments.
I read your recent piece in the Washington Post and, of course, I’m delighted you’re always rethinking homework.
I’m glad that the teachers you’re talking to are also thinking more about homework. One of the biggest issues missing from the homework debate, in my opinion, is the quality of the homework. If my memory is correct, you no longer have any children in high school, so maybe you haven’t had a chance to take a look at the kind of homework most kids are getting.
I do still have a child in high school, so I get to see, on a nightly basis, the homework that teachers give and that society still thinks is so important. And I’m pretty sure my daughter’s New York City public high school is typical of any large school.
I don’t think my daughter has yet had one homework assignment last year or this that was worth any time at all. Nevertheless, most of her teachers assign homework every night, and homework counts toward her grade. Most teachers provide no feedback on the homework whatsoever; they mainly spot check to make sure the students have complied with the requirements. None of it requires original thinking, there is very little writing or reading, and there are a lot of projects similar to the posters and “characters in a can” that she did in elementary school.
Whenever I’m on a talk show, there’s always someone who claims that homework is very important, as though students are being assigned interesting, challenging work that involves creative and analytic thinking. Neither in 9th grade, nor so far this year in 10th, has my daughter written an essay that was returned with any feedback. So the one skill that students really need, writing, isn’t being taught at all. It’s no wonder that when I taught writing to first year law students, I had to do so much remediation.
The real problem, in my opinion, is that education in general isn’t very good. Sure there’s a school here and there where students are involved in thrilling discoveries, sit in small seminars, have interesting and engaged teachers, and get a fantastic education. But the majority of kids sit in classes where teachers drone on and on from outdated textbooks and give the same tests they’ve been giving for as long as they’ve been teaching. (Have you read The Global Achievement Gap? The author takes “walking tours” of schools and explains what he sees going on in the classroom.)
As I stated at the outset, I’m glad to see you’re still thinking about homework and not taking it at face value. May I suggest that you take a look at the assignments the kids in your local public high schools are getting and see whether you think they’re worth spending any time on. (Or, if you’d like, I’d be happy to describe the work my daughter receives on a nightly basis.) I stand by my longstanding advice: Let students of all ages read, rather than inundate them with busywork. They’ll all end up more literate and able to think.
co-author, The Case Against Homework
founder, Stop Homework