If this op-ed from The New York Times is to be believed, American education suffers from placing overambitious expectations onto children, subjecting them to grueling schedules of AP classes combined with hours and hours of homework and extracurriculars.
Vicki Abeles, a filmmaker who helmed the documentary “Road to Nowhere,” writes that such punishing environments are driving children to anxiety and depression because they are buckling under the weight of all the pressure to succeed, to win acceptance into the right college, to land good jobs.
Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA, wrote a review in The New York Times praising Abeles’ book on the crippling stress students face, writing, “She points out that homework has been around for centuries, but since when did it become normal for children as young as 6 and 7 to be burdened with hours of it each night?”
Except available data doesn’t bear out this assertion—and it is just that, an assertion, with no evidence supporting Noguera’s claim—of children buried under piles of assignments, crippled by the weighty expectations thrust upon them by their schools.
What ails American education isn’t a surfeit of demands, but a lack of them.
It’s worth asking what sorts of schools create these intense environments for students. The school Abeles cites in her op-ed, Irvington High School, in Fremont, California, is a highly rated magnet school that does not receive Title I funding since only 18 percent of its student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. We are not exactly talking about the typical American school here.
The phenomenon Abeles and Noguera depict couldn’t be farther from the truth of what goes on at most schools, especially those serving students of color and the poor. These kids aren’t getting crushed with homework and AP/IB classes to get them ready for Stanford; they’re probably being told they’re lucky to snag a low-paying retail job after graduation. The expectations set for them are so low, these children are discouraged from even thinking college, let alone Stanford, is a viable option.
Jay Mathews, a longtime education reporter for The Washington Post, took on the homework myth, a fiction that persists thanks to the attention-grabbing headlines periodically popping up in newspapers and magazines when they deign to cover education in any meaningful way. (Note that Silicon Valley schools such as Irvington, paragons of affluence with kids by the dozen vying for spots at the Ivies or Stanford, tend to be part of these stories.)
According to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, the national conversation about homework has been hijacked by a small group of people—about 15 percent—determined to reduce after-school assignments even though most of us think the homework load is fine or should be heavier.
During the past three decades, the homework load “has remained remarkably stable,” Loveless said, except for 9-year-olds “primarily because many students who once did not have any now have some.” He said, “NAEP data do not support the idea that a large and growing number of students have an onerous amount of homework.”
The Brookings report further elaborates on the misleading, and rather unpopular, narratives perpetuated by the anti-homework contingent:
Homework typically takes an hour per night. The homework burden of students rarely exceeds two hours a night. The upper limit of students with two or more hours per night is about 15 percent nationally—and that is for juniors or seniors in high school. For younger children, the upper boundary is about 10 percent who have such a heavy load. Polls show that parents who want less homework range from 10-20 percent, and that they are outnumbered—in every national poll on the homework question—by parents who want more homework, not less. The majority of parents describe their children’s homework burden as about right.
Another study, from the American Journal of Family Therapy, says that while younger children are assigned too much homework (30 minutes is onerous?), most high school students get less than an hour a night. Do we really believe this is anything close to adequate preparation for college?
We suffer from a belief gap in this country. Our own poll actually found that half of all parents believe that all children have access to the same quality of education in our public school system regardless of background, race or income—which means we have a lot of work to do around persuading parents from all backgrounds that school inequity is a problem nationwide.
Our schools reinforce the belief gap. For example, a 2012 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that “many schools are not challenging students and large percentages of students report that their school work is ‘too easy.’” Also, “many students are not engaged in rigorous learning activities.”
The learning environments described by CAP’s report seem less like the pressure cookers asserted by Abeles in her op-ed and more akin to slow—verrrrry slow—cookers.
Thirty-nine percent of 12th-grade students, for example, say that they hardly ever or only once or twice a month write about what they read in class. Nearly one-third said they write long answers on reading tests two times a year or less. Moreover, almost one-third of 12th-grade reading students say they rarely identify main themes of a passage when reading, and almost 20 percent said they never or hardly ever summarize a passage.
These sobering numbers are piled on top of what has also long been true—minority students still lag well behind their peers in taking AP classes. These kids are steered away from coursework that could challenge them.
Far from enforcing a culture of unhealthy ambition and workloads, the vast majority of American schools do the opposite: They tell children to barely try.
Too much homework seems like a luxury problem of the sliver of the population whose schools actually expect a lot from their students. If more schools actually pushed kids, we’d see the progress we’ve all been clamoring for.
Let’s not manufacture crises. Let’s deal with the underreported one we have.