Saturday, October 11, 2003

Rights and Reason: Filling the Gap

The Washington Times editorial board suggests President Bush declare the lack of homework in our nation's schools a federal priority. The Times seizes on various studies noting the relative lack of homework compared to schools in other countries to be a sign of educational rot:
Homework, or the lack of it, undoubtedly represents a major reason why U.S. students perform so poorly compared to students in other countries. The 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Survey asked students in their final year of secondary school how much time they spent studying and doing homework each day. Among the 20 nations, U.S. students ranked near the bottom, tied for the next-to-last position, Brookings reported, with students in France, Italy, Russia and South Africa "spending at least twice as much time on homework as American students." Not surprisingly, the performance of U.S. high school seniors ranked 16th in general science, 19th in math and dead last in physics.

Following a precedent established by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988, every presidential candidate tells the electorate that he wants to be "the education president." In 1996, this page lowered the bar, begging for a candidate to step forward promising to be "the homework president." We repeat that exhortation today:

Truth be told, America doesn't need an "education president." But it could use a "homework president." Who will promise to use the bully pulpit as long and as often as it takes to eliminate the homework gap?
The Times cites a lot of data demonstrating the comparative lack of homework; what it does not offer is an explanation for why more homework will improve students' education. Most schools keep students in class eight hours a day. If the schools can't make efficient use of that time, what will two or three additional hours of homework accomplish? The homework issue, it seems to me, is the conservative version of teacher unions demanding more money; both arguments rely exclusively on input factors without examining its connection to the quality of output.

And the notion that President Bush, or any president, should use his "bully pulpit" to arbitrarily demand more homework is facially irrational. It implicitly encourages the sort of top-down thinking that got American schools in the mess they're in now.

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