The Value of Homework

Tom Friedman’s bestselling book, The World is Flat, presents the premise that competition for jobs is now global. The “playing field” for employment has been leveled due to the availability of a highly educated, inexpensive global workforce. Anyone who has attempted to receive technical help with electronic equipment has discovered the veracity of his statement. Those toll-free numbers connect with assistants located in the far reaches of the globe. Corporations continue to outsource departments previously filled by local employees.

This globalization of the world’s economy has far-reaching implications for our educational system. U.S. students are no longer competing only with their neighbors down the street, in the next towns, or even across the country for college entry and jobs. Rather, they must be globally competitive. Of course, that implies that our schools must produce students capable of that competition. What can they do to be ready for the challenges of the twenty-first century? A number of options arise, and one is quite simple.

In the first place, the current 180 day school year, modeled on an agrarian culture is on one of the shortest in the world, and it is certainly archaic. Furthermore, each school day consists of a mere 6 hours, and much of that time evaporates in non-instructional tasks like lunch, recess, passing time, and study halls. Increased testing, extended school days and expanded academic years are contentious and expensive propositions. Yet, according to one writer at the Brookings Institute, a famous “think tank,” another solution for increased learning and additional time “on task” does exist. It’s called “homework.”

Too few American students in engage in meaningful homework. A 1999 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that about 66% of seventeen year olds had less than an hour’s worth of homework each night, and approximately 40% did no homework at all. Homework, which includes reviewing and compressing class notes, reinforces concepts from the day’s lessons. It also teaches responsibility. After all, school is a student’s primary work. Learning the lesson early in life that sincere effort and dedication yield positive results has benefits that extend far beyond the classroom.

Many immigrant families acknowledge the benefit of homework in their children’s success. Several decades ago, an educational study performed in one of California’s poorest performing districts yielded interesting results. It found that the children of new immigrants from Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam ranked at the top of the nation’s performers. They were in the same schools, in the same classes with the same teachers, yet they were honor students achieving academic distinction and national awards. The significant difference between them and their American born classmates was that after school they sat around the kitchen table (most with non-English speaking parents and grandparents at their sides) doing homework and studying!

Of course, the homework needs to be meaningful and directly related to classroom learning. It can’t be “busy work” that is never checked or reviewed. It needs to promote academic learning, reinforce the curriculum, and enhance skills. In order for students to see it as beneficial it should have a direct impact on their lessons. The amount of homework a student receives should vary according to age and grade. But certainly a half hour per night for elementary school students is appropriate. On the other hand, twenty to thirty minutes per night per academic subject for high school students would provide a great deal of additional learning. If high school students spent at least an hour on homework every weeknight, they would be engaging in 180 additional productive learning hours, or 30 more school days, without adding any time inside the building! Let’s help our children succeed now and in the future! Homework is a beginning.

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