Our Vacations, Ourselves

A fifth-grader from Rye, New York, who summers on Mount Desert Island, recently asked me: "Do you think that it is a good idea to have homework assigned on vacations?" His mother had read "The End of Homework," a book Etta Kralovec and I co-authored. His teacher had asked students to interview "experts" with differing views.

Though his mother had read extensively on the topic, she was not allowed to participate. I agreed, but with many qualms. Homework is controversial in part because scholarly studies of its efficacy come to differing conclusions. Just as fundamentally, the simultaneous persistence of both unemployment in some families and overwork in others raises troubling questions not only about time for homework but also about the place of work itself in our culture.

Many parents know that their own hard work isn't everything in life and often hasn't delivered promised returns. They are asking hard questions about the work demanded of their children and correctly feel that their views - both pro and con homework - are as important as those of any expert.

I do not think homework over vacations is a good idea. The academic literature here is even less useful since most studies are based on daily homework rather than vacation assignments. I'll bet that many teachers who require homework over vacation would themselves insist on the value of sabbaticals so they can refresh their minds.

If teachers are planning academic work over their own sabbaticals, they at least want to choose the work themselves. School is stressful and demanding for children and teachers alike. Children especially need time to unwind.

Johns Hopkins political theorist Bill Connolly, a friend and mentor of mine, argued in his recent book "Neuropolitics": "It is critical that citizens from a variety of walks of life be provided with structural opportunities for periodic retreat from a fast paced life. Such retreats enable us to revisit from time to time selective assumptions and dispositions that have gripped us and to refresh our energies to enter the rat race. In my democratic utopia, sabbatical leaves would be expanded rather than contracted."

In my democratic utopia, this logic would extend beyond the academy and include our student population as well.

Connolly's reference to the rat race reminds us of the context of these debates. As readers of this paper know, schools are increasingly under the gun to show progress on the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. NCLB itself is an outgrowth of the widespread conviction that students are failing to get good jobs because the public schools are not educating them.

There are many problems with this logic. Some schools are doing quite well, generally the affluent suburban schools. Their success is owed to levels of funding, class size and teacher training. The connections between education and good jobs are also becoming increasingly tenuous. Even many of the best professional jobs are now subject to outsourcing. The greatest projected job growth is in service-sector fields that require relatively little advanced education.

Despite increasingly bleak prospects even for qualified graduates, many schools are now ratcheting up the demands on students and teachers in the hope that this will raise test scores and ease students' entry into good jobs. Perhaps, like Lake Wobegon, if we do this right everyone's child can be better than average and get the few remaining good jobs.

Even if we remain obsessed with test scores, there may be a better way than homework. Recent research by Johns Hopkins sociologists suggests that some groups of children fall behind others during the summer months. Nonetheless, homework does not seem to be the decisive variable. The children who do best during the summer had more access to nonacademic forms of enrichment, such as fairs, museums, carnivals, dance and swimming lessons, science centers and zoos.

These activities are often educational experiences in their own right. Just as importantly, they develop an active engagement with a subject and evoke interest in it.

Connolly points out that thought itself is hardly a passive activity. It is heavily dependent on the active engagement and interest of the child in the world. That world itself is increasingly subject to unexpected disruptions. Opportunities to choose activities and to respond to events and inspirations outside normal courses are vital.

They foster academic interest and help us become more aware and appreciative of an evolving world. We are going to need more young adults with active and responsive mind-sets if we are to forge cooperative global agreements to address economic and environmental crises. Broadening access to camps, museums, libraries etc is far more important than devising new ways to test and monitor our children over their vacations.

When I presented these ideas to my fifth-grade interviewer, he encouraged me to run for president. I accepted the compliment, but I will pass on his suggestion. The job seems to zap whatever creativity and humanity all its recent occupants may have once possessed.

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