Summertime not homework time


Several years ago we co-authored a book on homework. At the time, we were often asked about the advisability of regular homework for elementary school children. In the last two years, the question has expanded - especially this time of year - to include inquiries as to whether children as young as first grade should be doing homework over their summer vacations.

The subject of homework over vacations is bound to be controversial. There is relatively little research on this, and research on the normal homework students do during the school year is itself a source of debate. The research that has been done on vacation homework as well as the more extensive body of research on homework during the school year suggests that homework does not improve academic performance in the elementary grades and has at best a modest effect in middle school.

Even if, as a recent ABC news story suggests, students lose a month's math proficiency during the summer, there is no guarantee that homework over the summer will stem that loss.

We also suspect that vacation homework is controversial because parents are cross-pressured. Some are unemployed or working only part-time, while others are badly overworked. Many parents know that their own hard work isn't everything in life and often hasn't delivered promised returns.

We do not think homework over vacations is a good idea. We bet that many teachers who require such homework would themselves insist on the value of sabbaticals to refresh their minds.

School is stressful and demanding for children and teachers alike. Children, especially, need time to unwind. Johns Hopkins political theorist Bill Connolly argued in his recent book, Neuropolitics: "It is critical that citizens from a variety of walks of life be provided with structural opportunities for periodic retreat from a fast-paced life." We believe this should include our student population as well.

Schools are increasingly under the gun to show progress on the testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. That law is an outgrowth of the widespread conviction that students are failing to get good jobs because the public schools are not educating them.

There are many problems with this logic. Some schools are doing quite well - generally the affluent, suburban schools. Their success is owed to levels of funding, class size and teacher training.

The connections between education and good jobs are increasingly tenuous. Even many of the best professional jobs are now subject to outsourcing. The greatest projected job growth is in service-sector fields that require relatively little advanced education.

Despite increasingly bleak prospects, even for qualified graduates, many schools are ratcheting up demands on students and teachers in the hope that this will raise test scores and ease students' entry into good jobs. Perhaps, like Lake Wobegon, if we do this right, everyone's child can be better than average and get the few remaining good jobs.

Even if we remain obsessed with test scores, there may be a better way than homework. Recent research by Johns Hopkins University sociologists suggests that some groups of children fall behind others during summer. Nonetheless, homework does not seem to be the decisive variable. The children who keep up best during the summer had more access to nonacademic forms of enrichment, such as fairs, museums, carnivals, lessons, science centers and zoos.

These activities are often educational experiences. Just as important, they develop an active engagement with a subject and evoke interest in it. Mr. Connolly points out that thought itself is hardly a passive activity. It is heavily dependent on the active engagement and interest of the child in the world.

That world is increasingly subject to unexpected disruptions. Opportunities to choose activities and to respond to events and inspirations outside normal courses are vital. They foster academic interest and help us become more aware and appreciative of an evolving world.

We will need more young adults with active and responsive mindsets if we are to forge cooperative global agreements to address economic and environmental crises. Broadening access to camps, museums, libraries and the like for all our children is far more important than devising new ways to test and monitor them over their vacations.

John Buell and Etta Kralovec are authors of "The End of Homework." Their e-mail is

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