Dennis Myers: The end of homework coming in the USA?

In August in Godley, Texas, elementary school teacher Brandy Young discontinued homework.

In Spain in November, parents went on strike against homework.

In September, Kelly Elementary School in Holyoke, Mass., banned homework.

There are books out with titles like “The Battle Over Homework” and “Teach Like Finland.” That last title is written by a U.S. teacher who now teaches in Finland.

Children in Finland have been ranked as among the best educated in the world for several years by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues. Smithsonian magazine reported that PISA found Finnish youth to be “the best young readers in the world.

Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.”

One thing Finnish educators recommend against is standardized tests. Multiple choice questions are rare. Finland has also shortened school hours and done away with most homework.

“We’ve heard this,” Washoe School Board member Howard Rosenberg said last year. In fact, there have been plenty of home field warnings about U.S. homework.

“As I watch my daughter struggle through school days on too little sleep and feel almost guilty if she wants to watch an hour of television instead of advancing a few yards in the trench warfare of her weekly homework routine, I have my doubts,” author Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in the Atlantic Monthly two years ago after he tried doing his daughter’s homework for a week. “When would she ever have time to, say, read a book for pleasure? Or write a story or paint a picture or play the guitar?”

No homework. Would the U.S. public stand still for this kind of thing? Rosenberg said the public is already convinced of one thing about existing education—“It doesn’t work,” he said, adding:

“Reading, writing, arithmetic—what you’re talking about when you’re doing reading, writing and arithmetic is mechanics. It has nothing whatever to do with content. What we’ve got to do is start teaching our children using content that will make them think. Instead of doing some of the things that we do in the middle schools, why not ‘Planet of the Apes’? It poses some marvelous questions about who actually has the most intelligence—and how do they use it. If Finland can do what it’s doing, why the hell are we back in the Dark Ages? … The teacher knows what she’s doing. Let her do her job.”

While the U.S. chases fads like data-driven instruction, vouchers, incentive pay, Broad Academy superintendents, one-to-one initiatives and charter schools, Finland has leaped ahead with what it does NOT do.

Frequently and unfortunately, homework is the only contact some parents have with their children’s education. It’s not always their fault. Not many years ago, U.S. households could survive on one income. No longer, and today both parents come home exhausted.

Fairly often, homework becomes a source of friction between parents and schools. Without knowing the classroom context of specific homework assignments, parents often object to them. Recently there have been controversies over assignments given in schools in Salt Lake City, Staten Island, Sussex County, Del., Bucks County, Penn., Aloha, Ore., South Orange, N.J., Chatham, N.J., Spring Hill, Fl. and Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the principal at Kelly Elementary explains what is more important than homework: “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.