Japan has long been notorious for its super-short summer vacations — it’s just five and a half weeks at the public school my seven-year-old daughter started in April. But just in case kids still have a little too much unstructured time on their hands, the school provided a big brown envelope stuffed with homework assignments.
- Yumiko Ono/The Wall Street Journal
There’s the math and Japanese drills, a book report and two diary entries to submit, each with an appropriate drawing capturing the highlights. There are six songs to practice on a musical instrument called the “keyboard harmonica” or melodica, which looks like a portable keyboard with a mouthpiece attached to the side to blow into.(10 times per song.)
Two observation reports must be submitted, noting the condition of her sprawling morning-glory plant that she took home (or rather, I lugged home) for the holidays. Once the fall term begins in late August, we have to take the plant back. That, of course, is a huge incentive to keep it alive by watering it every day.
Then there’s something called “independent research” — the ultimate test of a child’s creativity and presentation skills, and a nightmare for many parents. A detailed newsletter distributed by the school listed helpful suggestions on appropriate topics for a first-grader: observing an insect, conducting a simple science experiment or detailing a special trip.
If you’re still stuck, there are a slew of online sites to the rescue. Gakken Education Publishing Co., a major publishing company, has a site called Study Kidsnet that lists 500 suggested research topics categorized by the appropriate grade level and the amount of time it takes. For those really pressed for time, it even sells science experiment kits.
All this is a far cry from the summer vacations I had while growing up in Flushing, NY in the 1970s. I fondly recall spending leisurely weeks at Mid-Queens Day Camp playing Jacks, singing camp songs and just enjoying being out of school for almost three months.
Of course, my American friends tell me that summers for the children of hyper-achievers there are no longer quite as relaxed as I remember them either. There are plenty of intense summer programs aimed at elementary schoolers geared to show accomplishment, instill discipline, and put them early on a path toward a top college. However, those are rarely related to the kids’ school, which may or may not care what they do over the summer. Another difference: the Japanese school year starts in April, which means the summer break comes in the middle of a school year. That makes it easier for the teachers to give out the homework since they know they will be the ones grading the assignments.
The attitude of Japanese schools is that summer vacation is “a period of fun, excitement and of danger,” says Gail R. Benjamin, an American anthropologist who chronicled her two children’s year in a Japanese elementary school in her book, “Japanese Lessons.” The danger, she says, arises “from the possibility that the summer vacation will involve a change of routine and that the goals and habits established through hard work and vigilance in the previous months will be eroded.”
Indeed, the most effective way to minimize this danger may be to supply lots of homework. Just to make sure, there’s the last bit of assignment, called “It’s Almost The Fall Term” may come in handy. Starting a week before school starts, my daughter Yuzu will fill out a form with a drawing of seven mouth-watering cups of shaved ice. If she can get up by 7 a.m., she can color the shaved ice in any color she likes. If she is in bed by 9:30 pm, she can color the bowl light blue. The good news: You don’t have to be asleep as long as you are tucked in bed.
Instead of improving educational achievement in countries around the world, increases in homework may actually undercut teaching effectiveness and worsen disparities in student learning, according to two Penn State researchers.
Most teachers worldwide are not making efficient use of homework, said David P. Baker, professor of education and sociology. They assign homework mostly as drill, to improve memorization of material either in math, science or the humanities. While drills and repetitive exercises have their place in schooling, homework may not be that place.
"Assigning textbook or worksheet questions as a drill assumes that the child has the kind of home environment conductive to supporting drill and memorization practice," noted Gerald K. LeTendre, associate professor of education.
Upper-income parents, who tend to have closer communication with the school and with teachers, are better able to assist their children with homework. But in poorer households -- often headed by single parents, parents with comparatively little education or, in some nations, parents held back by language barriers -- homework may not be cordially received, especially by parents of small children.
"An unintended consequence may be that those children who need extra work and drill the most are the ones least likely to get it. Increasing homework loads is likely to aggravate tensions within the family, thereby generating more inequality and eroding the quality of overall education," Baker said.
LeTendre and Baker are co-authors of the book, "National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling," recently published by Stanford University Press. Chapter Eight, "Schoolwork at Home? Low-Quality Schooling and Homework," was written in collaboration with Motoko Akiba, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The researchers analyzed data from the Third International Study of Mathematics and Sciences (TIMSS), which in 1994 collected a large amount of data from schools in 41 nations across the fourth, eighth and 12th grades. For some analyses, they employed figures from the TIMSS 99, an identical study carried out in 1999 with 50 nations.
Their findings indicated a frequent lack of positive correlation between the average amount of homework assigned in a nation and corresponding level of academic achievement. For example, many countries with the highest scoring students, such as Japan, the Czech Republic and Denmark, have teachers who give little homework. "At the other end of the spectrum, countries with very low average scores -- Thailand, Greece, Iran -- have teachers who assign a great deal of homework," Baker noted.
"The United States is among the most homework-intensive countries in the world for seventh- and eighth-grade math classes. U.S. math teachers on average assigned more than two hours of mathematics homework per week in 1994-95," said LeTendre. "Contrary to our expectations, one of the lowest levels was recorded in Japan -- about one hour a week. These figures challenge previous stereotypes about the lackadaisical American teenager and his diligent peer in Japan."
During the early 1980s, many U.S. schools and teachers ramped up their homework assignments, at least to younger children, in reaction to intense media focus on studies comparing the mediocre performance of American students to the industriousness of their Japanese counterparts. At the same time, ironically, Japanese educators were attempting to reduce the amount of homework given to their students and allow them more leisure from the rigors of schooling. Neither the American nor the Japanese educational reform of the 1980s seems to have affected general achievement levels in either country, according to the book.
"American students appear to do as much homework as their peers overseas -- if not more -- but still only score around the international average," LeTendre said. "Undue focus on homework as a national quick-fix, rather than a focus on issues of instructional quality and equity of access to opportunity to learn, may lead a country into wasted expenditures of time and energy."
If schools expect every family to reinforce the child's learning process at home, they need to realize that, when families are unequal to the task, students will not receive the same quality of education. The addition of homework will only exacerbate existing inequities within a nation's student population and pull down overall scores, said Baker.
"Those families that are better able to marshal resources to support outside school learning will likely gain disproportionate advantage," he added.
"However, even in affluent nations, parents are extremely busy with work and household chores, not to mention chauffeuring young people to various extracurricular activities, athletic and otherwise," LeTendre said. "Parents might sometimes see exercises in drill and memorization as intrusions into family time."
Source: Penn State
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