The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning
reviewed by Andrea DeBruin-Parecki - 2002
Title: The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning
Author(s): Etta Kralovec and John Buell
Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston
ISBN: 0807042188, Pages: 119, Year: 2000
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It is a Sunday morning, and I have been thinking about the book The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learningby Kralovec and Buell for several weeks as I prepare to write this review. I glance over the comics as I drink my morning coffee, and there is my inspiration, a comic strip called Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman (3/18/01). The first panel shows a father with a glass of wine remarking that it is dinnertime and he can finally lay down the burdens of the day and enjoy the fruits of his labor. The next four panels show a teenager desperately trying to lift up his heavy backpack. When he finally succeeds, stacks of books and papers spill out. His father reflects on his first comment and adds, "That would be for the non-homework oppressed among us." The son, trying to see his mother over the stack of homework piled high on the dinner table, replies to his father "Thank-you".
This comic strip portrays several of the authors' cogent arguments against homework. Before presenting these arguments, I’d like to relay another personal experience related to this book, a conversation with my teenage daughter and her friends. I asked them what they thought of homework, fully expecting a pat answer like, "I hate it!" Much to my surprise, like the cartoon discussed earlier, they too, expressed many of the author’s arguments. The following comments reveal how high school students might feel about homework. "It isn’t fair because some kids have so much help at home and others don’t have any." "Teachers don’t talk to each other, and some nights we have hours of homework from each teacher and other nights we have none at all." "With all the homework I have to do, I can’t please my swim coach who wants me to practice for hours, and my parents who expect me to get good grades." "When I am absent, it is impossible to make up what has happened in class and all the homework, too." "I never have time for my friends or family anymore." "I don’t get enough sleep. Shouldn’t teenagers get more than four hours of sleep?" "It seems all I do is go to school, do extra school stuff, and then come home, do homework and fall asleep. I don’t even eat with my family during the week anymore."
Etta Kravolec and John Buell spend 118 pages presenting a variety of similar arguments to those above, all the while giving the reader both a historical and political view on this topic. They state in the early pages of their book, "We believe that reform in homework practices is central to a politics of family and personal liberation." (p. xi). Parents and family members are working longer days, leaving them less leisure time and less time to assist their children with homework. Children are expected to participate in extra-curricular activities from a young age, and get home later in the evening, forcing them to ignore family and move right on into doing their homework. Families in poverty often don’t have the time, resources, or educational background to help their children, and this can lead to considerable frustration. The authors claim, "Homework may just be one of those schooling practices, like tracking that in fact serves to sort according to class and to magnify the class differences inherent in our society." (p.66). There are always those that overcome the odds so to speak, but why shouldn’t all students be able to do a good job by receiving effective assistance and having access to needed resources?
Kravolec and Buell provide a number of excellent reasons why homework causes problems in families by examining a variety of situations that cross ethnic and socioeconomic status, and others directed specifically at families in poverty. Consider the following: What if you were a single mother, worked all day, picked up a baby at daycare by 7:00 P.M., had to make dinner, do laundry, put the baby to bed, and then try and help your child with homework you don’t know how to do? What might be the outcome? The authors suggest this type of situation often times leads to a mother or father yelling at their child for not understanding what they are required to do. Other times, it results in a parent just doing the homework for the child to "get it over with." How is this helping our children to learn? How do we know if the child was even taught what he/she was expected to do for homework that night? Should schools expect parents to have the knowledge needed to assist their children in all types of assignments? Should schools be structuring what goes on in the home environment? What about the things parents want to teach their children unrelated to school? Where is the time?
In this book, the authors also extensively review research in favor of homework, only to show that these studies have provided inconclusive results as to its academic value. Yet, even with this additional evidence, Kravolec and Buell are still realistic and admit that changing homework policy will not be easy. Our society believes that the amount of work done says something positive about the work ethic of students and their performance in future careers. This makes modification of an increasingly intensive homework policy somewhat unlikely. However, the authors do lay out an interesting and feasible plan. They suggest that elementary students receive no homework because the length of a standard school day is long enough for young children and often leaves them exhausted. For middle school students, they suggest no more than an hour of homework, along the lines of the high school student plan discussed next. For high school students, Kralovec and Buell believe that their total work load related to school work should not exceed 40 hours a week including required academic and physical education classes. The school day would run from eight to four with the first six hours spent in classes, and the latter two hours spent working on designated projects and "homework." This would allow students to get assistance from peers, teachers and others hired specifically for this purpose. In addition, they demand that schools receive more equitable funding. This points to a political resolution. The authors urge parents and family members to stand up and be counted in regard to homework policy. They press them to go to school and school board meetings, and to make their voices heard by politicians.
As is obvious by the previous paragraph, this book goes far beyond suggesting the end of homework as we know it. It advocates a revolution, an uprising of families and students. A more equitable education system and more leisure time for students and families heads their list of demands. The authors summarize their strong philosophical beliefs about education and democracy in the final pages of their book:
Genuine education is about more than producing skilled workers; it is about democratic citizenship. Democratic citizenship, for its part, goes far beyond curricular development. Education for democratic citizenship involves preparing citizens to participate in active debate on urgent matters both as students and as young adults. Such participation is less likely when students have spent too many of their waking hours dominated by the demands of school, and too few trying to forge a stronger sense of their social selves, with all the possibilities and limits those selves contain (p. 101).
The content of this book contains timely and cogent arguments against homework with the intention of motivating the reader to protest what seems like an enormous societal inequity. The message to readers is clear. Now is the time for members of a democratic society to find ways to make important and needed changes in homework policy.