I'm an English teacher at a leading public high school in Los Angeles. This year I have 175 students spread across five classes. They all keep journals, and the last entry in them is a "free write" in which students write about anything they want.
This year, the No. 1 topic is homework. Excessive homework. Stress and anxiety about the amount of work required. Complaints about homework that doesn't accomplish any apparent goal other than to keep them busy.
I believe my students' complaints are real. Most of them are conscientious and hard-working. Their problem is serious, and we need to address it.
I think this obsession with busywork began when other countries streaked ahead of us academically. In an effort to regain our top-tier standing, we set out to improve the academic performance of American youth.
Though there's nothing wrong with improvement, all of us -- parents, teachers, theorists and administrators -- bought into the idea that raising test scores was the key. What difference did it make whether our kids actually learned anything substantive as long as their CAHSEE, PSAT, SAT, CAT 6 and who knows what other acronymic test scores went up?
I have students who took the SAT in seventh grade. I took it in my senior year in high school and managed to get into a good university. Do kids really have to study for the SAT before they reach puberty? Are we that maniacal about grades and getting into "good schools"?
Perpetuating the problem is the evolving fixation on standards as a means of holding both students and teachers accountable. There were 972 students in my graduating class from a Midwestern public high school, and not once did we ever hear the word "standards." Eighty percent of us went on to college; more than 40 went to Northwestern University, many others attended Ivy League schools or Berkeley, Stanford, etc.
Our teachers didn't need standards to teach us how to learn, and my colleagues and I don't need them to teach our students either.
The current educational environment is perversely reactionary. If there's a problem, attack it with the tools of accountability. Never mind whether it's appropriate or has anything to do with real learning. Just get those scores up. A good SAT score says a student knows how to memorize; it has no relationship with that student's ability to think. And if you're a teacher, the more homework you can throw at kids, the busier they are and the less you have to worry about parents and observers accusing you of incompetence.
I honestly believe the best thing I can do for my students is to teach them how to learn. I'd rather my students become their own best teachers than a robotic army of rote memorizers and fact collectors. If I can equip them with the tools of learning, they can succeed anywhere.
In that spirit, I will continue to respect their intelligence, their cultural diversity and their individuality. And help them understand that life is a lot more than multiple choice, short answer and fill in the blank.