Who Does How Much Homework: A Response to The Atlantic

"My Daughter's Homework Is Killing Me," an article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, makes an excellent point. Educational trends often latch on to one good idea, use the more-is-better approach, and lose track of how the parts fit into a cohesive whole. That the daughter in this article learns how to conjugate 20 verbs without also learning the meaning of those words may teach something about the structure of language but misses the larger point. I've written about the important role of grit in critical and creative thinking, but I recently heard from a friend that her young daughter earned gold stars for self-control, not for using self-control to accomplish a task or learn something.

Balance too often gets lost in the process of educational innovation and trends. Washing hands is a good idea, too, but not if you do it for two hours when you should be getting a good night's sleep. So Karl Taro Greenfeld's piece is a nice bit of memoir-meets-immersion-journalism.

What I really kept thinking about in the days after I read that article, though, was that his family had lived in Brentwood, California, where his daughter had attended a charter school, and that they now live in New York City, where she goes to the NYC Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies and takes foreign language and earth science classes.

In 2005 -- almost 10 years ago -- Brentwood's average household income was $97,769. Chelsea, where the lab school is located, is a hip neighborhood brimming with art galleries, where, according to City-Data.com, the median income in 2010 was $92,547 and the vast majority of residents are white. In another article in the same issue of The Atlantic, Richard Florida says, "Tech clusters have sprouted in Manhattan, mostly in the lower neighborhoods like the Flatiron District, and Chelsea and the Meatpacking District [...]." So geography and demographics matter, according to The Atlantic, and Chelsea is a good place to be. This is a neighborhood of lab schools with fancy names and selective admissions and of sushi, tapas, and sustainable foods restaurants.

There's a difference between Lower Manhattan -- where the Chelsea neighborhood is located -- and Upper Manhattan, where the Justice Mapping Center estimates one in 20 men have served time in jail or prison. East Harlem, a neighborhood with a majority Hispanic population and a large African-American population, has a median household income of $33,617, roughly a third of that of residents in Chelsea, just a hop, skip, and a jump away. A whopping 38 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in East Harlem, according to a NYC report in 2006, before the recent economic crisis hit.

East Harlem has charter schools, but they don't sound quite the same as in Chelsea. Just this fall, the New York Times reported that, at Global Technical Preparatory, "which serves a large population of students from poor families, 7 percent of students were rated proficient in English, and 10 percent in math." That's how the new "common core" testing sums things up for the prep school kids in East Harlem. The city reported in 2006 that only 13 percent of its residents 25 and older had earned a college degree. This is a neighborhood of more than 20 public housing projects.

So when Greenfeld reminisces about his high school days -- "I sometimes smoked marijuana" or "getting stoned, attempting math, and failing at it" -- I think about the kids who grew up in East Harlem. I think about kids who smoked pot as high school students in less affluent neighborhoods during the 1980s and didn't go to Sarah Lawrence for college.

Toward the end of the article, toward the end of this father's week of homework, Greenfeld and his wife walk to a local restaurant and run into another couple they know. The man is smoking pot and offers the joint to Greenfeld. He writes, "I hadn't smoked [a joint] in a few months, but it's Friday night and I've been doing homework all week. I take a few tokes."

It's not that Greenfeld and his family didn't face difficulties as he was growing up -- they did.

It's not that Chelsea and East Harlem should be singled out. I could be talking about neighborhoods in the Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas instead. I've lived in Oak Park, Illinois, and I know that Austin Boulevard has long been a sharp dividing line between neighborhoods. Geography and demographics matter.

It's not that marijuana is a great evil. It may be the most widely used illegal drug, but, according to a recent study, prescription medication kills more people than illegal drugs.

But here's a guy with a good income who can smoke dope out in the open in his safe neighborhood. Here's a guy who, by his own surmising, has a daughter who doesn't have time to indulge in illegal drugs because she has too much homework.

And I'm thinking about the guys from other neighborhoods, the 17 percent of state inmates and 18 percent of federal inmates who, in a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, said they committed their crimes to get money to buy drugs. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 46.8 percentof inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses. So I'm thinking about mandatory sentences for drug offenses and about who is in jail and who is not. I'm thinking about people who went to jail for possession with intent to sell when the person who smoked the pot was walking with his wife to a sushi restaurant where they would while away the evening.

In the end, I'm thinking about the readers of The Atlantic, people who have a household income of $94,233. The magazine calls their readers "affluent and accomplished" and "a vital target for any marketer of a luxury product or service." I think about people like me, who earn graduate degrees and go to gastropubs, and about those who don't read The Atlantic or earn college degrees.

Too much homework is a problem, and the fast-approaching Common Core State Standards will probably make that situation worse. Even some former proponents of No Child Left Behind, like Diana Ravitch, say about education, "Our priorities are confused." But there exist bigger problems in this world, too, and these overarching problems are not unrelated to who's doing how much homework. Issues of class and education are very much intertwined.