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Gary Stager Headshot

Senseless Acts of Homework

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I'm a big fan of summer. I still have the same "back-to-school" nightmares I experienced as a kid as the days get shorter each August. I think that "Back-to-School" sales before Independence Day are a form of child abuse. I believe that casual neighborhood play, family vacations, scouting and organized camps produce powerful learning experiences unrivaled by school.

When I hire new teachers, I look for people who worked at a summer camp. These are teachers who love kids and know how to engage them in meaningful (and fun) activities without coercion or a scripted curriculum. In 2007, I took issue with then Senator Clinton's call for more tutoring and suggested that the federal money allocated for tutoring children in "underperforming schools" be spent on summer camp (My Plan to Fix NCLB). The richest nation in the world can afford high-quality summer activities for even its poorest children.

Also in 2007, I published When the Jumbotron says, "Read," You Read! That article addressed the folly of forced summer reading assigned by schools, the outlandish claims made on behalf of the practice and the punishments meted out for non-compliance. I marveled at the quality of books assigned as summer reading when compared with the standardized drivel "read" during the school year and mourned the absence of meaningful discussion accompanying the reading.

When I was a kid, the only time you heard the combination of the words, "summer" and "school" was if you misbehaved or failed a course during the school year. How I long for the good ol' days.

Just when I think that schooling can not get any more punitive or heavy-handed, things get worse. Schools no longer feel constrained by the impulse to ask kids to read Homer Price, Holes or Because of Winn-Dixie for pleasure under a tree on a balmy summer day. Now, school leaders view children as their serfs and every waking minute of a child's life as their property. Such megalomania may be rooted in the paranoia created by the testing uber-alles policies of NCLB and Race To The Top. Whatever the motivation, robbing children of summer is irresponsible, ineffective and malicious.

Wow! Those are strong words, Dr. Stager. What are you talking about?

My "niece," let's call her "Miss Summer," just completed eighth grade in a Northern New Jersey public school district. Miss Summer is an excellent student with perfect attendance and a great many interests she looks forward to pursuing during the summer. They include swimming, playing with her brother, developing friendships, practicing the trumpet, fishing, genealogy, reading and doing nothing at all but staying in her pajamas on rainy days and watching cartoons. When I was a kid, our society valued those activities and embraced childhood. That is no longer the case.

At the end of eighth grade, Miss Summer received a substantial packet of work to be completed before she sets foot in her new high school. The transition from primary to secondary school is stressful enough, but now a mountain of homework hung over a carefree summer like a rain cloud ruining your beach vacation. Miss Summer's school district is no longer content with suggested summer reading for parents interested in supplementing a child's education. Hell no!

Miss Summer has assignments in nearly every subject, is expected to read Dickens' Great Expectations alone and without teacher support, write a thesis or two and submit the work by assigned due dates via a Web-based plagiarism site, Turnitin.com.

This mountain of homework is not only cruel, it is irresponsible, miseducative and profoundly unfair for the following reasons.

  • Miss Summer has not met any of the teachers this work is being submitted to. She neither knows their personalities, values or expectations.
  • Great Expectations is pretty heavy for a fourteen year-old without teacher assistance or classroom discussion. Will it inspire or hinder a greater interest in English literature?
  • Thesis writing has not yet been taught and is unnecessarily anxiety producing for a kid who has yet to enter your school for the first time.
  • Three is an assumption made by the school district that every student knows how to use the specialized web site and has sufficient computer access to complete and submit assignments.
  • Due dates assume that children have no plans for the summer. Should camp or family vacations be ruined by these deadlines? Should a student take a laptop and satellite modem on a hike?
  • The same impulses to assign massive amounts of homework to students you've never met predicts that there will be little follow-up of that work when students return to school.
  • These practices are coercive, intrude upon families and seek to overrule parental decisions.
  • You are ruining kids' summer!

I do everything I can to combat to the misguided federal education policies turning schools into joyless test-prep factories. I'll march. I'll write. I'll speak out. I'll organize. I'll donate. I'll provide educators with alternative strategies and help them improve their practice. I will challenge the plutocrats who threaten teachers and children.

What I will not do is defend educators who transfer their misery to innocent children. It is unconscionable for teachers to outsource their corpulent curriculum to children. You have no right to surveillance when a child is at home. If kids cannot count on you to stand between them and madness, who will protect them?

For more arguments against homework, read Alfie Kohn's book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing or watch his DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.