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Lynn Hummel: Have you done your homework, mom?

     A single mother of two teen daughters told me this story last month. The mother is finishing her degree at Bemidji State University and she drives 50 miles to classes three days each week.

     She leaves for school about the same time as her daughters and the last thing they ask her before she leaves is, “Have you done your homework Mom?”

     That question is undoubtedly followed by a smirk.  

     Is there any escape from homework? In France, President Francois Hollande, who has the power to abolish homework, announced in a speech in December that he intends to do just that for all primary and middle school students. He also wants to shorten the school day and divert more resources to disadvantaged areas.

     His reasoning is that homework gives children with better educated parents helping them with the books the edge over children whose parents don’t have that advantage. Hollande wants all the kids to have an equal chance.

     Currently, France ranks 25th in the world in educational effectiveness.

     Homework is a grind for everybody involved in it — the kids who hate to do it, their parents who force them and the teachers who have to grade it.

     Grading homework is just added homework for teachers.

     The leading American authority in this field is Harris Cooper of Duke University. Cooper says homework has limited benefit in elementary school and that it has minimal positive effect in middle and high school.

     To avoid homework overload, he says, homework should be limited to 10 minutes per grade each night.

     Recent studies show that the majority of students, including high school seniors, spend less than an hour a day during homework during a five-day school week.

     The country with the most effective educational system is Finland. Finnish students are assigned virtually no homework. The kids don’t start school until age seven and the school day is short.

     It is estimated in Italy (ranked 24th), school children spend a total of three more years in school than Finnish students. How can the Finns be number one? Go figure.

     The number two most effective country, South Korea, takes the opposite approach from Finland: very rigid study discipline, heavy homework assignments and some 90 percent of primary school students study with private tutors after school.

     The Finnish system aims to bring all students to the same level and instill a commitment to equality while South Korea’s system is designed to enable hard workers to get ahead. Both systems work, but Finland’s works better.

     Our American system ranks 17th on the world’s scale (25th in math). Our approach is closer to South Korea than Finland — everybody had an equal chance to become better off than everyone else. But, unfortunately, one of the greatest predictors of success in school in the U.S. is household income.

     Here’s a question I have. Do kids who are home-schooled have more homework than students in public school, or less? If a kid wants to keep a low profile, slough off and not be noticed, home-school would be the last place to try it ─  unless (worst case scenario) he or she has a teacher of like mind. How do home-schooled kids rank in the world?

     World rankings don’t answer the questions of whether homework is a curse or a blessing. Homework can seem like a no chocolate diet, a rigid physical fitness program, vaccinations, flu shots, an early-to-bed-early-to-rise routine, minimum TV, no video games, reading more books, iron discipline and sleeping on a bed of nails.

     The alternatives are much more comfortable, but I always thought homework paid off.

                How does Finland do it? Don’t ask that single mom and her two daughters — all three have to keep doing their studies at home to keep from being swept away by the competition.