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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 8, 2001

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


My seven-year-old hates homework.

That's no surprise. What kid doesn't?

The thing is, when I was seven, I almost never had homework.

In second grade in 1958, I was attending school in California at a time when California's schools were the model of excellence for the nation. (Hard to believe, but that was the case for many years.)

In those most excellent schools, second grade was the first year that we ever had homework at all.

And then homework consisted of classwork we hadn't been able to finish in time.

Most students had homework no more than once or twice a week.

Those of us who finished our work in class never had homework at all.

So why is my seven-year-old burdened with repetitive and meaningless tasks during her hours at home?

Is there someone in our schools who decided that families are such an evil influence that anything the schools can do to keep children from having time to hang out with their parents or siblings will be in improvement?

No, no, of course not. After all, the instructions on the homework are often so vague and badly written that parents can spend hours trying to help their children figure out what absurd task the teacher actually wants them to perform.

That's quality time.

No, the reason the homework is piled on is because educators have only two strategies for dealing with their increasing incompetence at the only task that matters -- educating our children.

The first strategy is to hire more bureaucrats to run more programs that either take students out of their classrooms or require teachers to make more reports so the bureaucrats can have something to do to justify their much-higher-than-the-actual-teachers' salaries.

The second strategy is to force the children to do more meaningless busywork so that parents can see that the schools are "back to basics."

Folks, have you actually looked at the homework your kids are doing? Especially the kids in the younger grades, who need playtime at least as much as they need schoolwork in order to be happy, healthy kids.

If your child did not understand the concept being taught until after you helped with the homework, then perhaps the homework was justified. But then ... it was you who taught the concept, wasn't it? In which case, what is the teacher actually being paid for?

But if your child did understand the concept, why is your child having hours of home life taken away to teach a concept that has already been mastered?

There are a few tasks that are learned by drill and repetition -- the addition and multiplication tables, for instance. The periodic table of elements. The names and order of the presidents.

But most schoolwork is learned by competent explanation, demonstration, and testing. All of which can and should be completed at school most of the time.

Even in the higher grades, homework should consist of projects for which there simply is not time in class.

Like reading books. Researching reports. Doing hands-on projects that have some practical value.

Of course, those hands-on projects can be real time-wasters, too.

I remember attending a parents day at Page a few years ago and hearing a chemistry teacher proudly tell us that one of the main projects that year was going to be "making a three-dimensional model of the periodic table."

We were told that students had put the periodic table on quilts, t-shirts, blocks of wood ...

I raised my hand. "How much of their grade is on science," I asked, "and how much on art?"

The teacher did not appreciate my attitude. My son was a marked man in her class from that day.

He created his three-dimensional model of the periodic table.

And at the end of all the time spent on that project he knew not one speck more about chemistry. A complete waste of time. Time stolen from our family's life with him.

Homework also steals from the other educational opportunities we want to offer our kids. Athletics in the lower grades. Lessons in dancing and music and art. Taking part in plays. Watching and reading the news with parental commentary.

Do you know what the best indicator of a child's success in school is?

The level of the child's interaction with educated parents.

Of course, that requires that parents spend time with their kids.

Maybe my wife and I are the odd ones.

Maybe most of you are happy if the schools keep your little children busy so you don't have to spend time with them.

Maybe most of you actually think that when your children sit at the kitchen table and write out laboriously repetitive exercises on topics they have already learned, following instructions sometimes translated by computer from Japanese, "education" is happening.

But if, like me, you actually enjoy your children and resent the ludicrous amount of wasted time the schools steal from our families, perhaps we could ask a school board member, now and then, if the school system might adopt a policy of teaching subjects in class, and resorting to homework only on those rare occasions when it is actually useful and necessary.

(Note to our seven-year-old daughter's teacher: We love you! We think you're wonderful! We know it's not your fault!)

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