America’s childhood-killing, learning-blocking homework insanity

Decades ago, when Japan was starting to dominate the economy while the United States was retreating, pundits and politicians tried to figure out how we could close our “education gap.”  The solution, pundits and politicians agreed, was to toughen up.

In the end, the United States launched a weak, rather flawed version of every other nation’s standardized testing, and a macho combination of longer school hours, extra homework, rigorous curricula, and tougher grading.

school (homework)

Thus, in many towns, we send our students to long hours of school, followed by longer hours of homework, teaching them reams of trivia that they will (and probably should) forget in a year or two. Yet, we still come in well behind countries like Estonia and Belgium in educational achievement (#14 on one list, as nicely illustrated in this Guardian article).

Our longer school hours, absurd homework loads, and high spending haven’t helped us break into the global Top Ten.

Perhaps it’s time to stop and think about what we’re doing? It’s not the American way, but stay with me for a moment.

Research shows that moderate homework increases achievement. Adding more homework doesn’t add more achievement! We hit diminishing returns, and end up robbing people of their childhood, fatiguing them, and burning them out at an early age.

Thanks to research on training for adults, we know that:

  • People have the best long-term learning when they are not highly stressed
  • Cooperative learning environments work better than competitions
  • Quickly applying knowledge helps keep it in long-term memory

According to a U.S. News report, high school students typically get over three of homework per week, per teacher — 17.5 hours per week for students with five subjects. That’s just a typical number; at many schools, it’s much higher. Even in middle school, kids face similar workloads, according to the report. Oh, and that doesn’t include studying for tests.

What happens when you dump four to six hours of  homework on students every night — as a surprising number of schools do? For one thing, you ratchet the stress level up to the point that kids are breaking down at record rates. There’s a problem when hospitals are getting high school kids coming in with neurotic paralysis. In addition to the high human cost, though, there’s the fact that such stress blocks long-term learning. What’s the point of school, to pass the next test or to teach for life?

Why aren’t our students learning as much as the far more relaxed European students, who still beat Americans on every measure? One reason is because people have the best long-term learning when they are not highly stressed.

What if you get sick or have a family emergency? You’re expected to somehow do six hours of homework a night and get better and make up the work you missed. Good luck!

It’s become normal now for high school students to go to bed after their parents. At my son’s school, the teachers and parents’ association are proud of it. “Oh, we make sure our daughter goes to bed by 2 am. We don’t like having kids doing homework until 3.” (Visualize this being said in a smug way, in the same vein as “I hate it when people stare at my Rolls-Royce.”) This is not healthy; this should not be normal; this should not be tolerated.

On holidays, high school students are doing homework full time, because you wouldn’t want kids to have days off. No, it’s important, especially on religious holidays, to assign extra homework. Does the school have a rule against that? No problem, just schedule it for the day after they return. Problem solved. Did the school ban having more than three tests a day per student? Just rename the test to being a “quiz,” … with the same material and the same grade weight.

There are reams of summer homework — weeks of full time work, rather than a few practice problems spaced out over the months to make sure math skills don’t disappear (easy enough to do with the web).

Why are we allowing this?

Why is the homework load so intense? What is the point of it?

There is no research that shows this is good. The research shows that a little homework is good — maybe an hour or two a day. No more than that. Then you get into learn-blocking anxiety and exhaustion and fatigue, and a precious time of life wasted away in busywork.

To me, that’s a crime.


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