October 23, 2020

Flip This!

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this article. I realized I had already published it one year ago. Senseless Acts of Homework in The Huffington Post describes my contempt for the loathsome practice of summer homework.

However, this summer, my nephew’s high school cranked the stupid dial up to 11.

I am against homework for lots of reasons.

  • The public equates it with education
  • Kids hate it
  • It encroaches on a student’s private life
  • It is coercive
  • It is too often busy-work provided by a textbook company who knows nothing about the learner
  • It wastes class time when kids swap papers and grade homework; a tedious process that leads to zero benefit for learners

In the face of a glaring absence of evidence, teachers argue that homework is used for practice or reinforcement. (I’ll save how this is a misinterpretation of “practice” for anther day) If homework is for skill development then every student should have different homework each night, right?

Nah, one-size-fits-all kids!

If there was a shred of evidence that homework was good for kids or had anything to do with learning, I would be sympathetic. However, the crazy train has now gone one station beyond forcing kids to do something they hate, that makes them hate school and that robs them of free time.

If homework is intended for reinforcement, how does one possibly justify assigning homework to students during the summer before they set foot in your class? Let me say that again. Schools are giving homework to kids before they start a course!

This is personal

Homework at the steps to the Acropolis

Three years ago, my nephew became fascinated by genealogy and has spent a great deal of time since researching our family history. He has done a remarkable job with the Ancestry.com account I pay $30/month for, has reached out to experts and fellow researchers across the globe in grammatically perfect email messages and has developed sophisticated habits of mind. I’ve long since given up hope that schools (and teachers) at most schools (The Big Picture Schools are an exception) will take notice of student interests, connect with them and provide the intellectual support to go farther than they could have gone on their own.

Kids don’t receive credit for what they are passionate about and school rarely values outside activities, except for assigned homework. I would love for my nephew’s teachers to respect his genealogical research, but it would be even better if they helped him learn what he needs to know in order to be a better historian.

My nephew’s school district does just about everything wrong – endless test prep, tracking, “honors” classes and mountains of homework.

When I realized how serious the kid was about genealogy, I promised to take him to places he learns our family is from. So, I am writing from a hotel lobby in L’Viv, Ukraine. We spent the day touring Zboriv, Ternopil and Zolochow, the villages where the learned that 3/4 of my ancestors came from. My nephew’s clue that that my great great great grandfather owned a mill in Zboriv led us to a small museum where an old historian said that there was a large mill that provided flour for the Austria-Hungarian empire down along the Strypa River. Our guide was our translator and took us to stand on the spot where my ancestors worked and fire killed their young daughter. We walked through the remaining disheveled Jewish cemeteries, visited too many monuments marking the sites of  World War II exterminations, ate Ukranian food and learned about the Zboriv battle of 1649. We discussed Eastern European politics, Soviet occupation and US politics. Our guide and driver was Alex Dunai, one of the world’s experts on Jewish life in Galicia and invaluable researcher for Daniel Mendelsohn’s magnificent book. “The Lost – A Search for Six of Six Million.”

Tomorrow night we head to Krakow and Auschwitz, followed by Vilnius, Lithuania before we rush back to the USA so the kid won’t miss a day of school. Prior to this, we spent two days in London, where we saw pieces of the Parthenon at the British Museum, and five in Athens where we went to the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum and Temple of Poseidon. The kid spent a bit of time hanging out at the Constructionism Conference where I presented a paper. My nephew not only had the opportunity to attend a SNAP! programming workshop led by Dr. Brian Harvey, but had dinner with linguists, mathematicians, computer scientists, master educators and with friends of mine who worked with Jean Piaget, Paolo Friere and Seymour Papert. He got to see his uncle speak, watch really smart people argue passionately in a civil fashion and share his work with interested adults.

Sounds good, right? The only problem is the kid has been in a hotel room trying to guess how to respond to open-ended homework prompts from teachers he hasn’t met? Did the teachers spend their summer working an unpaid second shift like my nephew did? Why did we have to schlepp a backpack full of school shit (the technical term) half-way around the world?

Before anyone says, “not every kid has an uncle who does such cool things with his nephew,” I’ll respond by saying that I would rather a kid play basketball, take a trumpet lesson, swim, go to summer camp, read for pleasure or just watch television then memorize a chapter in a science textbook before any science occurs.

I don’t know any nicer way of saying this, but preemptive summer homework seems a lot like a clear case of an abuse victim battering an even less powerful subordinate. This cycle of insanity has to end.

Defend preemptive summer homework! C’mon! I dare you!

Here is the article I published last year…

Senseless Acts of Homework – August 25, 2011

I’m a big fan of summer. I still have the same “back-to-school” nightmares I experienced as a kid as the days get shorter each August. I think that “Back-to-School” sales before Independence Day are a form of child abuse. I believe that casual neighborhood play, family vacations, scouting and organized camps produce powerful learning experiences unrivaled by school.

When I hire new teachers, I look for people who worked at a summer camp. These are teachers who love kids and know how to engage them in meaningful (and fun) activities without coercion or a scripted curriculum. In 2007, I took issue with then Senator Clinton’s call for more tutoring and suggested that the federal money allocated for tutoring children in “underperforming schools” be spent on summer camp (My Plan to Fix NCLB). The richest nation in the world can afford high-quality summer activities for even its poorest children.

Also in 2007, I published When the Jumbotron says, “Read,” You Read! That article addressed the folly of forced summer reading assigned by schools, the outlandish claims made on behalf of the practice and the punishments meted out for non-compliance. I marveled at the quality of books assigned as summer reading when compared with the standardized drivel “read” during the school year and mourned the absence of meaningful discussion accompanying the reading.

When I was a kid, the only time you heard the combination of the words, “summer” and “school” was if you misbehaved or failed a course during the school year. How I long for the good ol’ days.

Just when I think that schooling can not get any more punitive or heavy-handed, things get worse. Schools no longer feel constrained by the impulse to ask kids to read Homer Price, Holes or Because of Winn-Dixie for pleasure under a tree on a balmy summer day. Now, school leaders view children as their serfs and every waking minute of a child’s life as their property. Such megalomania may be rooted in the paranoia created by the testing uber-alles policies of NCLB and Race To The Top. Whatever the motivation, robbing children of summer is irresponsible, ineffective and malicious.

Wow! Those are strong words, Dr. Stager. What are you talking about?

My “niece,” let’s call her “Miss Summer,” just completed eighth grade in a Northern New Jersey public school district. Miss Summer is an excellent student with perfect attendance and a great many interests she looks forward to pursuing during the summer. They include swimming, playing with her brother, developing friendships, practicing the trumpet, fishing, genealogy, reading and doing nothing at all but staying in her pajamas on rainy days and watching cartoons. When I was a kid, our society valued those activities and embraced childhood. That is no longer the case.

At the end of eighth grade, Miss Summer received a substantial packet of work to be completed before she sets foot in her new high school. The transition from primary to secondary school is stressful enough, but now a mountain of homework hung over a carefree summer like a rain cloud ruining your beach vacation. Miss Summer’s school district is no longer content with suggested summer reading for parents interested in supplementing a child’s education. Hell no!

Miss Summer has assignments in nearly every subject, is expected to read Dickens’ Great Expectations alone and without teacher support, write a thesis or two and submit the work by assigned due dates via a Web-based plagiarism site, Turnitin.com.

This mountain of homework is not only cruel, it is irresponsible, miseducative and profoundly unfair for the following reasons.

  • Miss Summer has not met any of the teachers this work is being submitted to. She neither knows their personalities, values or expectations.
  • Great Expectations is pretty heavy for a fourteen year-old without teacher assistance or classroom discussion. Will it inspire or hinder a greater interest in English literature?
  • Thesis writing has not yet been taught and is unnecessarily anxiety producing for a kid who has yet to enter your school for the first time.
  • Three is an assumption made by the school district that every student knows how to use the specialized web site and has sufficient computer access to complete and submit assignments.
  • Due dates assume that children have no plans for the summer. Should camp or family vacations be ruined by these deadlines? Should a student take a laptop and satellite modem on a hike?
  • The same impulses to assign massive amounts of homework to students you’ve never met predicts that there will be little follow-up of that work when students return to school.
  • These practices are coercive, intrude upon families and seek to overrule parental decisions.
  • You are ruining kids’ summer!

I do everything I can to combat to the misguided federal education policies turning schools into joyless test-prep factories. I’ll march. I’ll write. I’ll speak out. I’ll organize. I’ll donate. I’ll provide educators with alternative strategies and help them improve their practice. I will challenge the plutocrats who threaten teachers and children.

What I will not do is defend educators who transfer their misery to innocent children. It is unconscionable for teachers to outsource their corpulent curriculum to children. You have no right to surveillance when a child is at home. If kids cannot count on you to stand between them and madness, who will protect them?

For more arguments against homework, read Alfie Kohn’s book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing or watch his DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

10 thoughts on “Flip This!

  1. A hearty AMEN from this mama!
    How I hate summer homework! I hate assigning it, I hate watching my children do it, and I really hate the mindset that causes it.

    And to you, Gary, I must introduce you to my friend Valya – she has strong Ukrainian roots and is a fantastic writer, creator, mother, and maker of stuff. You would hit it off, I am sure!

  2. I half-heartedly agree. As a parent of two who has experienced the onslaught of the summer work, but most of it here is just reading. My son, the consummate bookworm, finished his summer reading half-way through June. My daughter put off hers until, well, now. I agree that extensive written work should wait for school, but I think that a summer reading list is a great idea. It provides a ready response to the “I’m bored” syndrome which crops up in early July. So, to this article I give a hearty bravo for the abolition of summer busy work with the caveat that moderate summer reading is a good idea…and for children like my son, extra reading is not a bad idea.

    I also offer the author of this missive a rebuke for not proof-reading the article. There are sentences here and there which were obviously half-revised “on the fly” but the revisions not fully completed, leaving the thoughts uncompleted and occasionally indecipherable. A well-made point about education or the missteps of educators is difficult to defend when replete with errors of syntax. Must have been written during the summer….Point well taken though.

  3. Though I should practice what I preach. The first two sentences were intended to be one with proper punctuation, but I have no idea how to edit on here….I submit now my preemptive “touché.”

  4. Dave,

    I am indeed on the fly – writing when I have Wifi and can steal a few minutes time. I fixed a couple of bugs. If you have specifics for me, please share.

    Your argument seems weak to me. Bored kids eventually find something to do, especially if there ARE things to do. School is not responsible for curing boredom or running your household. Just because one of your kids drank the poison faster, doesn’t make the case for feeding kids poison.

  5. While I agree with many of the points made here, I must say that for the student who is college-bound, it is imperative that he or she learn how to do mountains of self-directed research and writing projects and learn to be self-disciplined enough to manage the time required to produce competitive work by the due date. Frequently, college students are required to have papers written before the first class even meets. Despite the current amount of homework, colleges still claim that students are ill prepared for the rigor of college courses.

  6. It amazes me how self-proclaimed critics of “organized” education must write such lengthy articles to proclaim their positions! Talk about “boring” the student! Why must they go on and on? Are they attempting to show how intelligent and above others they are because they carry on and on? Just make your point and move on! There are many views on this subject, but since you know it alls have it alkl figured out–this article was not necessary. Just do your thing and let others do as they see fit!

  7. Stacy,

    I appreciate you taking the time to read my work and for responding.

    Are you REALLY defending homework before a course begins? How does one know the expectations of the teacher? What sort of learning is really taking place.

    You seem to be arguing what Alfie Kohn calls BGUTI – better get used to it. The justification for doing miseducative things to kids because someone else might do so eventually.

    I can assure you, not only was I college-prep AND went on to earn a Ph.D., but I never had mountains of homework – especially in college. I certainly didn’t get homework before I ever set forth in a class.

    The “not prepared” for college issue is complex and more than a bit propagandistic. I just don’t buy it in this case.

    Oh, and by the way, we wouldn’t need school if kids could just “do” textbook science over the summer.

    What gives school the right to infringe on non-school time for a practice (homework) for which there is no research demonstrating its value?

  8. I can still remember the looks I got as a Primary teacher (and Headteacher) in England for suggesting that the best homework would be for a parent to cuddle up with their child and share a good book that interests them. Funny enough it was the more middle class parents who looked askance at me. Needless to say, the authorities said “Yes, but…”
    Some schools (and most politicians) seem believe that if they are seen to make pupils ‘work hard’ then they are doing their job. Quantity as opposed to quality.

  9. As a lowly 5th-6th grade teacher-librarian, in your nephews school district, I totally agree that the amount of summer homework that these “advanced” HS students get is ridiculous! My primary complaint is the emphasis on product rather than process. Who’s guiding them through the learning process? Who’s available to assist when frustration takes over and the student loses his ability to perservere? Who’s there to encourage questioning and authentic inquiry? Who’s there to tell the student that he’s doing a great job and has interesting ideas that deserve to be shared. Who’s there to foster positive learning dispositions? Who’s there to direct the student in a different direction if needed? Where are the tools needed for collaboration?
    I’m doing my very best to create change where I can. I share my opinion with supported evidence whenever possible. I’m afraid this district, which is tirelessly working to succeed, has the wrong picture of how success is defined: aka passing tests. Another example of testing supporting the continuous cycle of creating dispassioned students in low achieving districts.
    PS-So glad that you shared this experience with your nephew! They are exceptional boys, despite their schooling!

  10. I too am so frustrated! My girls attend the same district and grade level as your nephews. They are on very similar tracks of study…

    I was startled (concerned actually) to see my daughter at the kitchen table at 7:30am the morning AFTER her 8th grade graduation to “…get a jump start on her summer homework.” (She was taking 3 honors courses her upcoming freshman year.) The work never seemed to end. This self motivated young lady worked endlessly on ridiculous amounts of “busy work” for teachers whom none the students had met, had never sat in class with and whose computer interactions were vague at best. To then only be crushed by less then hoped for grades that are immediately counted as permanent grades for the upcoming quarter and that barely tied into the courses’ syllabi. This seemed absurd and unfair to me. But few other parents seemed to think this was a problem, “…that’s just the way it is…” I am so tired of parents fear of advocating for their children.

    Here is another example of absurdity in our district. Extreme hours applied to sports and extracurricular activities. My daughter is also involved in marching band. There was a day last year when in one day the band director expected the kids to not only practice, but to perform at a football game and then hustle to a band competition! My letter to the band director questioning the practice of validating this culture of chaos for our childen was not meet with receptively…

    From the amount of hours our children are expected to devote to “Honors” program summer work, to the amount of re-teaching we have to do at home, to the questionable literature they are required and or encouraged to read because it is labeled “young adult literature”, to fighting for world language programs that our children are vested in and which would actually RAISE the level of our districts educational mission (Manderin precisely) just to watch it be deliberately sabotaged, to hours sacrificed for sports practices, to the damage they are permitted to do to their bodies because of said practices/games by their coaches and parents … my list of frustrations go on and on…

    Some of the reasons I believe our educational system fail our children is because:
    – it is rigid and archaic
    – it frightens our educators from being creative and following their instincts because of the obcession for teaching to tests (thank you NCLB and Race to the Top)
    – lack of collaborative work between our district educators and administration
    – throwing away copious amounts of money on “New & Improved” programs of curriculum
    – continue to cookie cutter our children because of the date they were born
    – media (TV, computers, videos, DVDs, hand held electronics…) as a babysitter

    We need to speak out more, trust our instincts, reduce our children’s hours of media addiction and question the “authority” of OUR employees at the local Boards of Education.

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