As my family counts down the days ’til winter break, there’s one gift we’re all anticipating. It’s not a fancy Caribbean vacation — deep sigh — or even a quick jaunt to a local ski resort. Nor does it involve any hot gift items under the tree or in the driveway. It’s the simple but beautiful gift of no homework for two long weeks, a fairly long-lasting present that is likely to translate into far fewer rants and refusals and foot stomping in our house during that peaceful period. France’s president has promised this gift to his country’s youngest students, those in primary and middle school — permanently.
Why? Equal opportunity, apparently. According to an article on the topic by Louis Menand in the December 17, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, the French president, Francois Hollande, believes parents who are more affluent and educated are better equipped to help their children with their homework, resulting in an unfair playing field. Not sure I agree with this entirely.
I have an advanced degree and inevitably end up stammering or silenced when faced with my daughter’s sixth grade math problems. What I find more compelling than Francois Hollande’s rationale for getting rid of homework is that he has the courage to do so in light of France’s relatively poor global educational standing.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, publisher of The Economist, recently ranked France twenty fifth of educational systems. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. — often criticized for its weak global educational standing — came in at seventeenth. This begs the question: What’s going to happen to France’s educational ranking if the country eliminates homework?
The answer may depend on which model of education you believe in. Finland, number one in the Economist’s global educational standing, gives no homework. Zero. Formal schooling doesn’t start until age 7, and the school day is short—between four to seven hours a day. But South Korea, which has the second leading educational system in the world, appears to possess the opposite philosophy. The country’s educational system is notoriously competitive, with some 90 percent of primary-school students seeing tutors outside of school. Not surprisingly, South Korea’s teenagers are reportedly the least happy in the developed world.
As different as Finland and South Korea are, each one’s approach to education seems parallel to their respective countries’ cultural norms. In Finland, equality is celebrated above all else; in South Korea, the general consensus holds that individuals who are industrious will advance. Here, in the great melting pot we call the U.S., where students from a myriad of backgrounds and value systems come together in schools, no single educational philosophy dominates.
And that’s probably why education “reform” talks seem always to be taking place in our country, with questions about funding, teacher accountability, test scores, curriculum and, yes, homework, being debated but rarely, if ever, agreed upon.
So rather than wait in vain for some seismic and singular shift in America’s educational policy regarding homework, I’ll simply enjoy the two-week holiday hiatus. With all that extra time on his hands, my reluctant reader of a son may just find the will to read a book…for the fun of it.
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