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Let's Outlaw Homework

by on September 12, 2017 5:00 AM

It’s that time of year again when anger fills the air in many homes. When the unfairness of life is placed front and center in the days of parents and their children. When those in charge make sure their charges know who’s in charge.

That’s right. It’s time for some homework.

Yes, homework. The bane of every democratic educational system on the planet. Do we give too much homework or too little? For every Finland where homework is essentially non-existent and test scores remain high, there is a Singapore where the average 15-year-old is assigned 9.4 hours of homework per week and test scores are also high. So what is an educator to do?

Here in Happy Valley the local school districts maintain written policies regarding homework that are vetted by the school boards. That’s how important this topic is – your elected officials are involved in approving how much or little homework your children receive.

In the State College Area School District there is a proposal being considered by the school board that will change the times students attend school starting with the ​2018-2019​ ​school​ ​year. In the case of elementary school students, this will increase their school day by 44 minutes – although high-schoolers will see their day shorten by 4 minutes.

In the proposal the first item listed under the feedback from the community regarding this change for elementary students is the ​increased​ ​time​ ​for​ ​learning​ ​during​ ​the​ ​school​ ​day ​​resulting ​in​ ​decreased​ ​homework. Which makes sense. If you spend more time in school you can spend less time on homework.

But why do they need to spend any time on homework?

Currently local elementary school students spend more than 1,000 hours a year in school. Middle and high school students spend more 1,200. Add to that the additional 200 hours per year (6.1 hours per week) the average American student is assigned in homework. A full-time 40-hour-per-week job with two weeks of vacation only equals 2,000 hours of work per year. So all of our students hold down, at minimum, more than year-round half-time jobs. Shouldn’t that be enough time to learn what we want them to learn?

I can tell you from personal experience that it is. In fact it’s much more time than is necessary to learn the concepts we want our children to absorb. A motivated student can understand 12 years of scholastic-level math in a few months when they are ready. So why all the hundreds of extra hours in class AND all the homework?

One explanation is Parkinson's law, which states that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, if schools schedule 1,000 hours to impart the knowledge we expect them to impart, then that’s how long it will take them to impart it. If we cut that in half they will find ways to make it happen in that amount of time. And if we give them more time, that’s how long it will then take.

Another possible explanation is that traditional school as we know it may not be as completely about education as we wish, and may at least partly be about government-funded daycare. In 1950 more than 75 percent of families with children had one wage-earner, usually the father, working outside the home. That was the norm. By the mid-1990’s and continuing through today families, with school-age children are more likely to have both parents working – more than 60 percent of them are dual-income. Meaning our educational system needs to keep our kids busy for eight hours a day while both parents work.

How convenient that between time at the physical school – six hours for local elementary and seven hours for local middle and high school students – and the additional average of one hour of homework, we cover a full eight-hour day.

Even another explanation is our focus on age-based segregation in our educational system. There is very little data available to demonstrate when the best time in life is to learn different concepts. At what age is it best to teach and learn basic addition and subtraction, chemical properties, biological functions, world history?

The point is there is no magic age when one is best equipped to become knowledgeable about these topics. But our entire public school system is set up to force kids to learn at prescribed ages, meaning you end up with a percentage of kids being taught information that they are not ready or willing to learn, and resulting in the need for homework to get the concepts through.

Which bring us back to the chicken-and-egg question: to give or not to give homework?

Since there are clearly examples of children growing up healthy, happy and intellectually stimulated in towns, cities and countries where minimal or no homework is done, and because it has for years been such a contentious topic for society, I say let’s just outlaw homework. How about it folks?


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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