The Politics of Homework

My father went to medical school during the Depression on four thousand dollars in gold his grandfather had stashed under a bed many years before. During my childhood, I was constantly admonished that the only way to avoid poverty was to "study hard." Etched as these words are in my memory, I doubt they make sound public policy. I am inclined to reverse my father's advice. Most Americans will not enjoy jobs with adequate salaries and benefits -- let alone the opportunity to deploy skills and creativity -- unless some of us are willing to study less and raise a little more hell. Monitoring our kids' long hours over their homework is a zero sum strategy that will work for fewer and fewer Americans. And paradoxically, it may keep us and them from organizing on behalf of reforms needed to extend and broaden opportunities for all.

The United States has a long history of regarding school reform as the key to social change. In a nation often resistant to other forms of economic redistribution, schools are thought to level the playing field. Nonetheless, previous ventures in school reform promised far more than they delivered. Sending young graduates into workplaces not receptive to their intellect or idealism often does not change those institutions. It can just as easily elicit growing elite demands that schools heal themselves and learn some "real world" lessons.

The current emphasis on school failures and school reform is at least an implicit recognition that all is not well in this "booming" economy. However conservative the tenor of our times may appear, discontent lurks below the surface and events like the demonstrations in Seattle may not be an aberration. Whether sincerely or in an effort to contain more radical demands, many leaders in business and politics now invoke educational reform as the way to ease the transition to a new global economy. But their faith in education as a panacea is unlikely to be justified. Worse still, much of the education reform they promote may in fact make the lives of many poor and working class citizens even more burdensome.

On an individual level, it is of course hard to quarrel with my father's advice. Citizens with the most formal education seem to occupy the upper reaches of law, medicine, engineering, computer science, and business. Even in the face of general declines in working class incomes over the last two decades, these professional classes, Robert Reich's "symbolic analysts," have done quite well. But will improving our educational system by itself help more of us become engineers, lawyers, doctors, and computer programmers? And what social and economic price will we pay for some of the most fashionable reforms?

Increasing numbers of students are now facing batteries of new standardized tests, and both parents and teachers feel the pressure. In our underfunded and highly inegalitarian public school system, many educators are now pursuing school reform on the cheap. They turn to an old remedy, ratcheting up the homework. Over the last decade and a half, children as young as 9 to 11 have seen a nearly 40 percent increase in homework. Not only do these requirements create enormous psychological stresses on both children and families, there is little evidence that increased homework demands, even in well-funded districts, pay off.

Studies of homework vary all over the place even as to what they mean by success. Is it the ability to pass a particular test, or to retain core elements of knowledge over long periods of time or to remain committed to life long learning? In much of the prevalent public discussion of this topic, all these elements easily merge, but such substitutability has hardly been demonstrated.

Other problems also abound. Summarizing hundreds of studies, Harris Cooper, a close student of the subject, reports that "The conclusions of past reviewers of homework research show extraordinary variability. Even in regard to specific areas of application such as within different subject areas, grades or student ability levels, the reviews often directly contradict one another." Even where a positive correlation is established, it is not clear whether homework makes good, well motivated students or whether privileged and well motivated students do homework.

Conventional wisdom also holds that the computerization of our economy will open up more opportunities for those whose schooling affords increased skills. Plausible as this claim may seem, neither past experience nor the most recent labor market projections bear it out. New York Times reporter Richard Rothstein reported recently that "employers will hire more than three times as many cashiers as engineers. They will need more than twice as many food counter workers ... than all the systems analysts, computer engineers, mathematicians, and database administrators combined." Rothstein went on to point out that we are already turning out more college graduates than any foreseeable vacancies in these professional fields.

Rothstein's example inadvertently illustrates the limits of education as a strategy to alleviate poverty. For many workers, computers have been a double-edged sword. Programming positions are created, but the computer itself makes many other skills obsolete. Formerly cashiers had to be proficient with numbers. Scanning devices have largely eliminated this need. And for all the talk about jobs with computers, most labor economists foresee more job growth among security guards and home health aides.

Even symbolic analysts may be less secure than they imagine. Despite their many failures, communist nations did manage to produce a generation of superbly educated physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. Some "less developed" nations have also done an excellent job with the education of their elites. "Outsourcing" a range of technical and scientific tasks is becoming increasingly appealing to corporations In a recent investment advisory regarding General Electric, Merrill Lynch gushed: "Globalization has morphed beyond making products in low cost areas to ... becoming a source of the new core of GE, its intellectual capital. Many engineering and accounting functions are now based in India, with engineering costs dropping ten percent a year. "

Service sector jobs -- whether of the elite or "unskilled" variety -- are less secure and remunerative than manufacturing jobs not because the work is inherently less productive but because much of this sector is non-union. The recent success of home health-care workers in California in unionizing for better pay and working conditions may herald a significant change. Direct organization not only by union professionals but by rank-and-file members promise the most good.

Nor do most service sector jobs need to be low skill. Both nationally and here in Maine, a progressive corporate minority has attempted to fashion "high performance" workplaces. Even such front-line workers as wait staff and bank tellers can be given a voice in designing the service, establishing corporate goals, and fashioning job ladders and training programs. Businesses pursuing such strategies have an impressive track record, but too many business leaders are not interested in sharing power or making the long-term commitments required by workplace reorganization.

Federal and state policies can encourage business to fashion job ladders that allow workers to become life long learners. Joan Fitzgerald and Virginia Carlson report in the July 3 issue of The American Prospect that while most states have left hundreds of millions of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families unspent, Washington state has used some of these funds to assist businesses in developing job ladders for low-income workers. They also suggest that broad commitments to develop and utilize workers' full potential are most likely where workers have organized an independent voice to demand them.

Finally, even the loss of good manufacturing and professional jobs should not be regarded as inevitable. Physicists in India and auto manufacturers in Mexico are as worthy of good jobs as their counterparts in Berkeley or Detroit. Nonetheless, as long as current trade practices prevail, everyone will be whipsawed until wages are near subsistence level everywhere. Only corporate owners will profit.

Fortunately, events in Seattle suggest that international grass-roots coalitions of workers and environmentalists may force a new charter on multinational corporations. If wage standards, labor rights, and environmental protection are taken as seriously as copyrights and profit repatriation, engineers and blue collar workers may prosper worldwide. Education is important, but it will never pay off for most citizens until we devote as much effort to our politics as our studies.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Etta Kralovec, of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning (Beacon Press). He invites comments at

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