The “Dirty Little Secret of Education Reform”

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In next week’s New Yorker, Louis Menand has a wonderful discussion about homework, riffing off French President François Hollande’s recent announcement at the Sorbonne that he was planning on forbidding homework for elementary and middle school students.  France recently was rated a disappointing 25th in an international ranking of national school systems and Pres. Hollande believes that homework gets in the way of meaningful learning. America, by the way, ranked 17th.

Finland, of course, ranks first but not because there’s minimal homework and testing or because kids don’t start school til age 7.  Writes Menand,

What do Americans want? Not to be like Finland is a safe guess. Americans have an egalitarian approach to inequality: they want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else. By and large, for most people school is the mechanism for achieving this. Still, Hollande has a point. The dirty little secret of education reform is that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is household income. Even the standardized tests used for college admissions, like the S.A.T.s, are essentially proxies for income: students from better-off backgrounds get higher scores. The educational system is supposed to be an engine of opportunity and social readjustment, but in some ways it operates as a perpetuator of the status quo. 

Is homework one of the bad guys? Supporters of homework say that it’s a way of getting parents involved in their children’s education by bringing school into the home, and that has to be a good thing. But it’s also likely (contrary to President Hollande’s assumption) that the people most hostile to homework are affluent parents who want their children to spend their after-school time taking violin lessons and going to Tae Kwon Do classes—activities that are more enriching and (often) more fun than conjugating irregular verbs. Less affluent parents are likely to prefer more homework as a way of keeping their kids off the streets. If we provided after-school music lessons, museum trips, and cool sports programs to poor children, we could abolish homework in a French minute. No one would miss it.

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