My son Channing, the grinning eight year-old to the left, has too much homework. He attends one of the best schools in the state and they send him home every night with what the teachers say is one hour of homework but it looks like two hours to me. And since Channing would really rather be fishing or terrorizing his little brothers those two hours regularly turn into three hours or more. This is not only too much homework, it hurts rather than helps. It seems indicative of an educational system that’s out of control.

Several years ago I gave a speech about technology to the Texas Library Association’s big annual meeting. After the speech I was talking with a pair of elementary school librarians. Channing was back then just going off to pre-school so homework was the last thing on my mind but they brought it up. “The best thing you can do for your kids,” they said, “is to not allow them to do homework until the third grade.”

I wish I had followed their advice. I wish I had taken a firm stance and told the school not to expect any homework because it wouldn’t be coming, at least not for a couple years. You can do that, you know. But of course I wimped-out.

American education, perhaps because of the No Child Left Behind Act, has become a testing nightmare. Metrics are everything and much of the curriculum is now intended not to educate but rather to pass the damned tests. It is precisely analogous to what I discovered thirty years ago investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, where reactor operators were trained to pass the operator test, not to actually operate the reactor. When things went wrong — when they went beyond the scripted scenarios — the operators had no idea what was happening inside that containment. Channing’s curriculum, too, tends to be 100 miles wide and an inch deep.

We’re being told our kids lack critical thinking skills, yet this curriculum doesn’t seem to teach those skills, at least not that I have seen.

Worse still, most of the homework is busywork. It teaches nothing. Worst of all, our child-centric culture has parents digging-in with their kids to do that homework, wasting all of our time and ultimately pitting adult against adult as surrogates for their exhausted kids.

What’s wrong with this picture? Everything.

When I was Channing’s age, 50 years ago, my parents’ attitude was one of benign neglect. They were busy doing whatever parents did back then (drinking and smoking cigarettes, mainly), but it sure didn’t include helping me with my homework. Somehow my siblings and I survived just fine. Yet today we’re supposedly faced with plummeting test scores and surging dropout rates despite whole generations of parents slaving away every night on homework. What gives?

Well one thing that gives is something I learned during my many years experiencing droughts in California: public officials don’t like good news, seeing it as un-motivating. If we had a dry year it was bad, they’d explain, because there wouldn’t be enough snowmelt, the reservoirs would be down but, most importantly, the forests and grasslands would be tinder-dry, increasing the danger of forest and wild fires. But if we had the occasional rainy year their line changed. Now the reservoirs were full (though that could change in a moment so don’t take any extra showers) but the extra snowmelt meant extra forest and grassland growth creating more combustible material making forest and wild fires even more likely. No matter what happened it was bad according to these guys because they didn’t want to ever give up the chance to preach down to us.  They were determined to remove whatever joy there was in life.

Same thing in education. We aren’t as good as we used to be and that’s going to have a major impact on, well, everything. So the answer is always more resources, more testing, more consultants.  Oh but no more art or music — those are too expensive.

Frankly I’m not sure any longer exactly what is the truth. Things might be getting better or worse, I don’t know. But I know I don’t generally trust the idiots who are telling me what to worry about.

We’re falling behind, we’re told. Our college populations are declining and our test scores are slipping. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

General Motors, having over the last half dozen years shed more than 200,000 skilled workers, this week offered buy-outs to thousands more. If we’re in such trouble in terms of educating our people, how can GM afford to do that? Robots, we’re told. Robots will build your Camaro.

What we’re talking about here is educating the masses, not keeping Silicon Valley globally competitive. The distinction between those two concepts is lost on a lot of folks but I have been pointing out for the last 20 years that most of the top technical work comes from an incredibly small number of people. Xerox PARC changed the world, remember, in 3-4 years with fewer than 100 people, defining back in 1973 pretty much our computing world of today. The Bob Metcalfes and John Warnocks aren’t affected by any of this educational policy BS. They’d rise to the top in any culture or any time. The Metcalfes and Warnocks of today are already hard at work, not stuck behind some standardized test that’s keeping them from their destinies.

No, it’s the intellectual middle class — you and me — we’re talking about. Wait, that’s not true: you are really smart, so that means just me we’re talking about, and my goofy sons. How do we optimize our educational system to encourage normal kids to achieve greatness?

Not through all this God-damned homework.

German students have plenty of homework, too, and they go to school an average of 220 days per year to our 183. German kids go to school on Saturday. (Not since the 1980s, commenters from Germany report, below.  I went six days as a schoolboy in England, and that apparently ended for the most part in the 80’s too) That should prove the point, right? Because nobody is saying the Germans are falling behind. Heck, they are the economic powerhouse of Europe.

But wait a minute. School in Germany starts at 8AM and ends each day at noon 1PM. Even the high schools follow that schedule. German schools don’t serve lunch because the kids have all gone home, I suppose to do their homework. But if you get home at 12:30 1:30 there is plenty of time for homework, eh?

Channing will spend this year 1,372 hours in school not counting basketball practice or chess club while the average German third-grader will spend 880 1100 hours in school.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. I don’t know if we are really falling behind or not, since it isn’t clear who I can even trust to tell the truth. Are we in a drought or a flood, who knows? All I know for sure is whatever the true situation, we aren’t supposed to feel good about it, no way.

I also know who are my heroes in this story — those Texas librarians.