By MARSHA MERCER
Nearly six decades ago, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and for a generation of American children school nights would never be the same.
Many school systems had dropped homework in the 1940s, but after the satellite crossed overhead on Oct. 4, 1957, Americans struggled with the idea that the commies had beaten us into space.
One way to help close the education gap with those over-achieving Russian kids was for American boys and girls to concentrate on math and science and take home extra schoolwork.
The homework pendulum has always swung between pro and con. In the 19th century, American students spent hours at home memorizing and reciting their lessons. The 20th century rebelled against rote and repetition.
Homework fell out of favor in the Age of Aquarius along with most things Establishment.
In the 1980s, though, a major government report said “a rising tide of mediocrity” was to blame for the ailing U.S. economy and the nation’s very future was threatened. Homework was back.
But by 1999, a Time magazine cover story -- “The Homework Ate My Family” – painted a bleak picture of the stresses that homework was adding to already overworked and overscheduled families.
Last month, a second-grade teacher became an Internet sensation when she announced she would not assign any homework this year. If children brought work home, she said, it would be because they didn’t finish it at school.
But Brandy Young of Godley, Texas, didn’t stop there. She assigned homework to the parents.
“I ask you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early,” she wrote in a note to parents.
After a happy parent posted the note online, others around the country reposted it, and the news media started calling.
“I’m trying to develop their whole person; it’s not beneficial to go home and do pencil-and-paper work,” Young told CBS News. Students have other things to learn at home, she said.
Young’s homework assignment sounds like old-fashioned good parenting. It also dovetails nicely with recent academic research about rising academic skills of both poor and affluent children.
Between 1998 and 2010, the gap in school readiness skills between students in low-income and upper-income families entering kindergarten narrowed 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading, a team of academic researchers reported. The improvements lasted at least into fourth grade.
The change, a sharp reversal of decades of trends, reflected improvements in the skills of low-income students, not a drop in upper-income students’ skills, they said.
Why? “It may be changes in children’s homes that have mattered most,” Sean F. Reardon, education professor at Stanford; Jane Waldfogel, social work professor at Columbia; and Daphna Bassok, education professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in an op-ed Aug. 28 in The New York Times.
“Tracking the experiences of young children over time, we found that both rich and poor children today have more books and read with their parents more often than they did in the ‘90s,” they wrote.
“Their parents are more likely to spend time with them, taking them to the library or doing activities at home,” and poorer kids also are more likely to have computers and access to the Internet and computer math games than in the past.
The researchers believe a powerful idea is getting through: “the first few years of a child’s life are the most consequential for cognitive development.”
The researchers warned that it’s by no means certain that narrower skills gaps for fourth graders will translate into higher achievement in high school. Still, this is good news.
It just so happens that September is Library Card Sign-up Month. Libraries across the country are encouraging children and their families to come in and get their library cards.
It’s an excellent opportunity for parents and grandparents to model the reading and study habits that can make a big difference in young lives. And the adults just might find something fascinating to read as well.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.