Primary Education In America

Robert X. Cringely has a great piece today about American primary education, excessive homework, and outcomes. His take-away, based on his son’s (an America’s) results, is that excessive homework does not lead to academic excellence. It’s just a means of teaching to the test, an increasingly common practice since the introduction of standards-based education.

Interestingly, he points out that

German students have plenty of homework, too, and they go to school an average of 220 days per year to our 183. German kids go to school on Saturday.  That should prove the point, right? Because nobody is saying the Germans are falling behind. Heck, they are the economic powerhouse of Europe.

But wait a minute. School in Germany starts at 8AM and ends each day at noon. Even the high schools follow that schedule. German schools don’t serve lunch because the kids have all gone home, I suppose to do their homework. But if you get home at 12:30 there is plenty of time for homework, eh?

We like to amuse ourselves pointing out how much longer the school year runs in other countries, and how that leads to better test scores, but conveniently leave out how long the school-day runs there. In the German example, children receive less than 65% of an American student’s time in the classroom each year. The time spent, though, is less exhausting, and therefore more conducive to learning, and leaves more free time for homework and, you know, playing. In other words, “more” does not necessarily equate to better scores.

Cringely also muses that the brightest always rise to the top, inventing and creating and pushing forward our culture, and the world’s. But he drops the ball when he wonders how the intellectual middle-class* will achieve greatness in today’s American educational system. The obvious answer is, they probably won’t. But they rarely have.

Most people have moments of localized greatness, at home, at work, online. They gain some small bit of notoriety for one thing or another. But they don’t rise to true greatness because they aren’t in any sense “great.” They are, as Cringely notes, intellectually middle-class. We cannot, and will not, all be great.

But here’s the nub of it: we don’t solve the problem of declining national test scores by piling on the homework, or lengthening the school-year. Previous generations of students had less homework and the same school-year, and they tested out higher than today’s students. You solve the problem by being frank with the source of the problem: uninvolved parents. School is not a daycare where you put your child to absorb knowledge in a vacuum. School is the seed bed. Home is where learning is cultivated. That’s a parent’s job. That’s what they signed up for when they got all googly-eyed about having a child in the first place. If your child fails at school, it’s probably your fault.

* I take “intellectual middle-class” to be a designation of average, middle-of-the-road intellect, not an economic designation.