It turns out that there is research for and against having kids memorize random bits of information without some sort of context to house those bits in. I fall into the camp that believes kids should be engaged in authentic, challenging tasks that will, as age permits, require the use of numbers to, for example, build a fort (my son is an expert) and then determine which words best describe it. He’s been making up some funny ones lately, but alas, none of them are on the sight words list.
Philip Kovacs' An Open Letter to My Son's Kindergarten Teacher does an amazing job of summarizing my concerns as my own son enters school. His points about teaching kids how to learn (not how to ace a test) and not destroying their love of learning (by replacing it with performance anxiety) are spot on.
But I also worry about homework and other busywork. My son is very interested in learning to use tools properly. I initially set up some exercises for him. I have him a bunch of screws to screw into wood or nails to pound. He'll try one or two, do them pretty well the lose interest. If he's doing the same thing in the context of a project, however, he'll screw every screw and hammer every nail. It's even better if it's a project he's come up with: “Let’s use these bits of wood to build a house for Little Kitty!” He needs authentic, challenging tasks not just busy work.
I fully recognize that this is part of my responsibility as a parent; however, he's going to spend much of his life in school. I'm going to do everything I can to ensure he has the same sense of curiosity and creative drive when he comes out the other side. My current feeling is that this will be a constant struggle against a government whose priorities are very different from mine as a parent.