Home Free

Peter Sipe
October 17, 2021
Too much school at home, too much work from home, and not enough school in school. Let’s reestablish some boundaries.

The school year has begun, and the news is full of vocal — even violent — parent opposition to mask mandates. This teacher keeps thinking, “If that’s how they feel about a piece of protective cloth, wait till they find out about homework.”

Even before the pandemic, I marveled at the docility with which Americans — usually not shy about their love of freedom — accepted this intrusion into private life. You’d think that having to confer their children to municipal custody Monday through Friday would be indignity enough.

Of course, homework is useful. It’s one way teachers can let families know what their children are studying at school. It’s also a reliable data feed for the grade book. And, during parent-teacher conferences, it can be a handy shield against pointed queries about academic progress (“Well, if only Johnny would do his homework…”).

It’s not without drawbacks, however. Most kids don’t like it. It can stress family life. It unfairly advantages students with educated parents. And then there’s the matter of whether homework is actually beneficial.

The truth is — and please, not in front of the children — we’re not entirely sure if homework works. Tell you what. I’ll give you some homework right now. Type into your search bar “Is homework effective?” Given its permeation of American schools, you’d expect a cascade of affirmatives. Instead, the vibe is rather more ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. As this summary of a study put it: “After at least 150 years of assigning after-school tasks to American children, it remains maddeningly unclear what homework actually does for kids.”

Since its effectiveness is (maddeningly) unclear, I have a proposal: let’s just stop. Surely if we can heed the evidence on masking, we can do so for homework!

Oh… right. Well then, let’s politicize the issue. Remember Al Gore? Jay Leno said he seemed like the kid who reminds the teacher, “You forgot to give us homework!” That cost him at least 537 votes. Geraldine Ferraro worked as a schoolteacher while attending law school at night, so she knew how to dish it out as well as take it. Neither did much for her ticket. As for our 45th president, both supporters and detractors can agree he probably did less homework than Hillary Clinton.

However, it’s to the judicial branch that we should look for guidance. Namely, Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis, who wrote of “the right of the individual to be let alone.” Let’s put aside homework’s dubious pedagogical value and consider it as American citizens. Should we allow government agents to determine how families spend their leisure time? Should Americans let their personal liberty be dictated by that notorious socialist entity, the neighborhood public school? And how many of those freedom fighters who show up at school board meetings, decrying the tyranny of the mask, then return to their proverbial castles only to tell their kids, “Do you homework!”?

School hasn’t been the same since the spring of 2020. You don’t have to look far to find dissatisfied parents. Too much school at home, too much work from home, and not enough school in school. Let’s reestablish some boundaries.

Schools have your children for most of the daylight hours of half our journey around the Sun. That’s plenty of time. If not, then homework isn’t the problem. Nor is it the solution. Ineffective use of the school day — now that’s worth taking up with the school board.

Whatever American education may need, it’s not more of your family’s free time. Now then. What should your child do for the rest of the day? Sure, you could always ask us. We teachers love telling kids what to do. Or, you can leave us out of it completely. It depends, my fellow Americans, on how much you love freedom.

Peter Sipe
Peter's writing has appeared in USA Today and the Harvard Educational Review. He teaches at a public middle school. If he gives you homework, you better do it.
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