I came across an item in the news today, “Does Homework really work for students?” The article mentions the work of Alfie Kohn. It goes on to say that students at this school would disagree with Alfie, noting that Homework Club is the most popular after school activity the school has to offer. Apparently, 40% of all students attend this club. The article has an accompanying video chip which shows Alfie making his point and then pans onto the kids in the homework club. It ends with the principal, Donyall Dickey, claiming major strides in student learning and citing homework as the primary reason this improvement occurred. Watching the tape, it appears that this school serves large numbers of minority students.
Although I’ve positioned myself as a homework critic, I want to start by applauding Mr. Dickey and noting that the article and video clip highlight some universal aspects of educational success that are common to what could be called “turnaround schools.” They involve a visionary principal, a mobilized and motivated staff, a learning conducive physical environment, and a peer based milieu that supports learning, in a sense making it “cool.” I’ve read countless stories of poor performing, often inner city schools, that show dramatic effects when these components are in place. There are many schools that could learn from this example, and this could be a model for leveling out the educational inequalities that plague our society now.
But let’s be careful in the semantics we use. The words “homework” and “homework club” are not the same. In his interview, Mr. Dickey is very convincing in touting the success of his school’s homework club, and then erroneously says that this supports the value of homework. That’s deceptive. Nothing he is doing supports homework as a policy. It supports homework club as a teaching tool. The fact that he successfully created a culture that draws 40% of his students to the club is remarkable. It’s a laudable fete. But it isn’t homework! It’s schoolwork! It’s an extended school day. It’s a time in which teachers put their structured lesson plans aside and make themselves available to guide and assist students in completing their assignments. It is bounded by time. Don’t tell me that homework club runs from 3 pm until 11 pm at night. It comes to an end and the students go home. It creates no disruption to ordinary family life any more than after school sports practice or chess club would.
Perhaps, there is value in continuing to use the word homework when describing this after school club. The program might not be successful if we called it “extra learning club,” or “extended school day club,” or something else. The word homework is deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness, and can be used without further explanation. It’s nothing new, so Mr. Dickey’s linguistic lapse between homework and homework club can be overlooked. Let the kids think of it as homework club, not as an extended school day. Let them continue with the excitement and enthusiasm this program creates, and let us be grateful that there are schools like this that give children, particularly minority children, better access to a good education. But let’s not use this as a broad-based endorsement of homework. Homework club on school property: Yes. Homework that overrides the decision-making of the parents and potentially causes the child to fail: No.
For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.