Tagged: homework

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Students do not have very much homework

One of my favorite nonsensical posters.
One of my favorite nonsensical posters.

favicon Homework is likely the most popular and most controversial educational topic out there.

Maybe that’s because parents feel they have to force their kids to complete homework when they would rather play their XBox 360 or PlayStation. (The antecedent “they” is purposely ambiguous.)

I’ve written about homework a lot, too, including this post about what the French think about it. When the French get involved, things get serious.

The latest brouhaha in the homework debate emerged the other day, when the Brookings Institution published “Homework in America,” part of the Brown Center Report on American Education.

Its conclusion? Homework hasn’t changed much since 1987. This means: A few students probably have too much. But there aren’t very many of those students. Far more prevalent: Most students have very manageable amounts of homework.

Here’s a (playful) video that you should watch:

What I found interesting is that 27 percent of 17-year-olds in 2012 reported having no homework. High school seniors said they spent more time socializing with friends, playing sports, and working at their job than doing homework.

In my experience, that seems right.

Here’s where I’m coming from: The students I taught, and the students I’m working with now, do very little homework. My estimate is that the average is less than an hour a night. Sometimes that goes up when a major project is due. But for the most part, homework is not the norm.

According to my colleagues, the primary reason that there’s not much homework is that “students don’t do it.” Depending on the school and the grade level, the homework completion rate ranges from 30 to 90 percent.

Now comes the interesting part. Because few students do the homework, the common result is that teachers assign less. Here are a smattering of reasons I’ve heard:

  • What’s the point of assigning it if the students aren’t going to do it?
  • If I assign it and they don’t do it, then the achievement gap gets even worse.
  • My homework requires technology, and not all students have computers at home.
  • Many of my students have challenging home lives, so I can’t count on homework getting done.

I totally understand the natural reflex of teachers to decrease the amount of homework. It’s normal. Unfortunately, it lowers expectations. It tells the students that we expect less of them.

There are educators (like Alfie Kohn, for instance) who would rather get rid of homework altogether. They claim that homework is an outgrowth of the factory model of education and is oppressive to children’s creativity.

Most of my colleagues are not in this camp. Very few of them would say that homework should be abolished.

While I do not equate homework with rigor, as some people do, I do see a problem when my students, who aspire to do good things, are doing less than an hour a night (and thinking that’s normal) while my eighth grade niece, who lives in the suburbs, does 2-3 hours and is attending an elite high school in the Fall, on track to attend a UC school or better.

I believe that we have to tell our students the truth, over and over again.

It’s not that our students have to be just like me, who probably spent too much time doing homework as a kid. (My average: Probably 3 hours.) But if they’re truly serious about attending college, then we as educators need to figure out a way to insist and require that students do significant academic work outside the regular school day.

Certainly this might mean changing things up — for example, changing the bell schedule so that students can begin homework at school. Some schools extend the day and hire tutors to help students do their work.

However we do it: Instead of retreating from homework and dismissing it as a dirty word, let’s embrace it, call it our friend, make it happen. favicon

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The homework gap is huge

Homeworkfavicon Last night, I attended a birthday party, and I got to talking with someone who is extremely concerned about homework.

“There’s just too much,” she said.

She talked about the fight she’s having with her school to lower the amount of homework for her teenage daughter. “Have you read the studies that the typical high school student gets more than three hours of homework a night?”

Yes, I replied. Yes, I have.

But then I told her that there are actually two homework problems: (1) Students in suburban schools are probably doing too much, while (2) Students in urban schools are probably doing too little.

Many of my colleagues, especially those at the San Francisco school where I work, have given up on assigning homework. “It’s just not going to get done,” one said. “Students refuse to do it,” said another.

The problem, of course, is that these students (and their families) want to go to college, just like their suburban counterparts. And even though it can be argued that some assignments aren’t worthwhile, this homework gap contributes to academic unpreparedness.

Many urban charter schools, like KIPP and Uncommon Schools, have turned to extending their days to help students with their homework. After-school mentoring programs, like First Graduate, do the same. This approach makes sense: If the students aren’t going to do homework at home, have them do it before they leave school.

But not all schools have the resources to pull this off, even if they wanted to. That doesn’t mean, though, that teachers have to give up on homework entirely.

My favorite approach is “Your Homework is Due Tonight,” which capitalizes on technology (smartphones, usually) to encourage students to take care of homework before they go to sleep. Another idea I like is promoting a common “Homework Half Hour” (say, from 7:30 to 8:00) when everyone (including the teacher!) is doing homework, available for help, and working as a team to complete the assignment.

No matter where we stand on the homework debate, it’s pretty clear that it’s not going away anytime soon, and despite its sometime ills, homework does matter for students’ chances at college.

For urban kids of color who will be first-generation college students, homework is a must.

So while homework is here, it’s important that teachers try out creative ways to increase homework completion so that students feel like they’re part of the academic conversation. favicon

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Do poor students need homework?

favicon There was a provocative piece in The Atlantic this week, “Poor Students Need Homework,” in which Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth grade teacher, argues that it’s not appropriate for affluent parents to dominate the debate about the value of homework.

Just because rich kids do well regardless of their homework load, that doesn’t mean the same thing is true for poor kids, Mr. Pondiscio contends.

[E]ducation “best practices,” fads, and trends tend to roll downhill from what ostensibly works in well-funded, affluent schools to those serving low-income kids of color.  After all, if it’s what the best and wisest parent wants, it must be good for all children, right? Not necessarily.

homeworkMr. Pondiscio’s piece reminds me of last year’s big French homework debate (there are always big debates in France), which pitted President Francois Hollande, who wanted to get rid of homework, against working class parents, who wanted more homework.

Over the past few years, I’ve written a bit about homework, and it’s pretty clear that I go back and forth on the topic. On the one hand, I’ve argued that students benefit from additional learning opportunities, and one hour a day of reading and writing in class just isn’t enough to close the achievement gap.

On the other hand, I’ve sometimes had my doubts. Is homework just an antiquated remnant from the factory model geared to force compliance and quash creativity? Alfie Kohn may not convince me on the perils of homework, but teachers who have abandoned homework and maintained good results sometimes do.

So where do I stand now? Well, one thing is true: I do agree with Mr. Pondiscio that rich parents, particularly those far away from the realities of urban public schools, shouldn’t be able to dictate what they want. Decisions about poor kids of color should come from the students’ parents, teachers, and local community.

In my experience, very few parents have told me that homework is a bad idea. To them, homework has meant hard work, and hard work has meant college, a dream come true. To those parents, even if students don’t complete their homework — which is very common, particularly among ninth graders of color in urban public schools — homework means rigor and a path to success.

Besides, a low homework completion rate is not an argument to get rid of homework. If you’re a teacher assigning homework and your students aren’t doing it, that’s your problem to solve, not theirs. The easy answers — to blame the students, to blame the parents, or to abolish homework altogether — don’t seem right, either.

Then again, just because homework has been a consistent component of the college-prep school experience does not mean that it should continue. And there’s nothing good about three hours of homework if it’s not worthwhile. As Mr. Pondiscio suggests, less homework and more independent reading might be the answer.

Wow, I’m confusing myself! Oh, how to get through this mess? There’s a lot going on here. I encourage you to read Mr. Pondisicio’s article and let me know your thoughts.

Coming up soon: A veteran teacher who no longer assigns homework and thinks it’s the best decision she’s ever made. favicon

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Less homework = more reading?

favicon Check out what this elementary school is doing in Maryland (also in Iserotope Extras!):

What do you think? At the elementary school level, I think this is the way to go. Unless we carve out time to read — and to allow students to choose what to read — there won’t be enough reading.

But once students hit middle school, things get more complicated, and I value some non-reading homework, as long as it’s consistent, purposeful, and valuable. One of the biggest challenges my students face is unpredictable and scattered homework. Homework shouldn’t change every day and require different sets of academic skills.

What are your thoughts? If teachers shun conventional homework and substitute independent reading in its place, what do you think will happen? More real reading? Fake reading? Worse math skills? favicon

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Homework: Responsibility or compliance?

hwfavicon Respected teacher John Spencer tweeted this today about homework:

What do you think? What’s the role of homework, and what is it teaching, if anything? favicon

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The homework debate: The French weigh in

favicon You know things are serious when the French get involved.

First, it was obesity. Why can the French eat cheese and drink wine and not get fat? (The answer: Lots of smoking, very few cookies.)

Next, it was parenting. Why are French kids so calm and respectful? (The answer: Their parents neglect them and force them to stay at the dinner table while adults eat cheese and drink wine.)

Now the French are weighing in on the homework debate, according to a report yesterday on National Public Radio. (Find the whole article in Iserotope Extras!) In the segment, Eleanor Beardsley covers the current effort by French President Francois Hollande to reform education in his country. One of his proposals: Get rid of homework entirely.

Listen to the report (about 4 mins):

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According to President Hollande, homework creates a greater divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” in French society. Eliminating homework would offer a more-level playing field and give every French child a chance to succeed.

Instead of requiring homework, Hollande proposes, schools should have longer days. In addition, children should attend school on Wednesdays, now a weekly holiday in France.

Sounds like a good plan, right? Do more work in school and less at home?

There’s only one problem: The “have-nots” like homework and want it to stick around. Specifically, poor and middle-class parents are protesting the proposal.

One parent, Aissata Toure, says:

[Eliminating homework] is not a good idea at all because even at a young age, having individual work at home helps build maturity and responsibility, and if it’s something they didn’t quite get in school, the parents can help them. Homework is important for a kid’s future.

In other words, homework not only offers young people academic practice but also promotes important character traits like “maturity” and “responsibility.” Homework is “important for a kid’s future.” This French debate sounds like a very American one.

At the end of the report, a French magazine editor explains why rich French parents advocate for no homework. They already treat their kids to extra-curricular activities like sports, museums, libraries, music, and dance. Homework gets in the way of the higher-class acculturation process.

He’s onto something — and that’s what makes the Great Homework Debate so difficult. If we keep homework, then the achievement gap will persist — students with privilege, who know the game of school, will continue to outpace their peers. On the other hand, if we get rid of homework, then the achievement gap will persist — students with privilege will have greater access to extra-curricular activities (as they do already) and will continue to outpace their peers.

Tough one. What do you think? What are your thoughts about the homework debate? Let me know. Or check out my previous posts about homeworkfavicon

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Two easy ways to increase student accountability

favicon Often I find myself feeling like I’m chasing my students down and making sure they take care of their business, rather than the other way around.

It’s like Hide and Go Seek. The student misses an assignment, tries to hide, and it’s up to me to follow up, find the student, and rectify the situation.

It’s exhausting. It’s enabling. And it doesn’t teach students how to take responsibility. And sometimes, it’s necessary.

But this year, I’ve been trying to flip things a bit and have my students take more ownership. Here are a couple things I’m doing:

1. Requiring students to text me if they’re going to be absent or late.
This sends the message that I expect my students to be in my class and to be on time. I want to make sure they they know that I care about them and that my class is important for their education.

When they text me, my students demonstrate regard. Another benefit is that I have a record of students, in addition to my attendance binder, who are late and absent, and I can easily text them back to remind them not to get behind and to check my class website for the classwork and homework.

2. Requiring students to write a thoughtful note if they miss an assignment.
I got this idea from a teacher in Lisa Delpit’s most recent book, Multiplication is for White People. I’ve just started doing this, and so far, it’s working well. For too many students, homework is an option, not a habit. When I taught ninth graders, it was not uncommon for less than half to complete their homework.

The note — in which students explain why they didn’t complete the assignment, how missing homework impacts their education, and when they will complete the assignment — does two things. First, it sends the message that when something is due, you must turn something in. You can’t have nothing. Second, like the texting requirement, it puts accountability on the student. Instead of missing something — instead of hiding — the student must be reflective and produce something. You can’t just run away and fail.

You  may ask how I’m doing with follow up. Do students actually text and write notes? By and large, yes. I’d say that about 90 percent of my students text me when they’re absent or late. The other 10 percent need follow up and intervention. Some of the non-texters rebel against the expectation and think that the expectation is a form of control. I respond by saying that it is a form of mutual respect, relationship, and commitment to education.

I’ll keep you posted about the no-homework note. I predict it’ll be harder to enforce. After all, a thoughtful note takes at least three to five minutes, much longer than a hurried text. But I think it’ll be worth it to put in the time to make this an expectation in my classroom. Otherwise, homework will continue to be something students will avoid without thoughtfulness and follow-through. favicon

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Homework: Time, not assignments?

Homeworkfavicon The homework question — how much to assign? how to encourage students to do homework? —  continues to intrigue me.

A recent blog post in The Washington Post, “The Homework Trap and What to Do About It,” by Kenneth Goldberg, offers a modest proposal to solve the homework problem.

Among the ideas: (1) Assign time-bound homework, (2) Reduce penalties for missing homework.

I agree to #1 in theory. It’s true that students work at different paces. If the goal of homework is to extend learning past class, then it makes sense to ask students to make a commitment of time rather than to demand a complete product the next day.

On the other hand, assigning time-bound homework does not sound as urgent to students. If my teacher tells me to go home and read for 30 minutes — which I did last year — will I actually do it? In other words, would more or less homework get done? I’m going to ask my students, as a hypothetical, about time-bound homework and what effect it would have on their habits.

As for #2, I also agree in theory. It makes sense that homework factors in as a modest part of a student’s grade. But I also know that if my students weren’t doing significant homework, they’d be writing their eighth essay next week, not their 16th. We’d be on our fifth novel of the year, not our 10th. Sure, a class is rigorous and memorable not because of the number of assignments that students complete. But the fact remains that, in any college-prep class, homework is a big part.

The other problem with reducing penalties for missing homework is that even more students would miss homework. There is no flow to a class when 25 individuals arrive to class in 25 different places. The secret to a successful class is to build a unified story, a sense of a common experience.

The answer to the homework problem, then, is not whether to assign more or less — or whether to assign time vs. completed products. I think the most important thing is to make sure that homework is a meaningful, critical piece of my curriculum — that it’s valued by students. It’s also crucial to monitor homework completion so that it never falls below 70 percent. If it goes lower, then it’s time to rethink and regroup.

What do you think about Goldberg’s ideas for homework? favicon

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Group grades: Another way to increase homework

favicon For a long time now, I’ve thought about ways to increase homework completion.

The Nightly Text was fairly successful, but still, homework decreased precipitously on weekends.

Last unit, without too much fanfare, I introduced a new idea to encourage students to read and annotate The Awakening.

I called it “Group Annotations.”

Up until this book, I regularly gauged my students’ reading by checking their annotations. It was simple: I’d go around, table by table, and do a spot check.

This time, I made a small change: Your annotation score was based on your overall team’s score.

That meant: If you did your annotations but your peers didn’t, you’d lose. And vice versa: If your peer did their annotations and you didn’t, you’d hurt them.

The results were excellent. Homework completion was more than 95 percent.

More than any other reading homework assignment I’ve done this year, Group Annotations encouraged students to do their reading nightly, to annotate closely, and to be prepared for classroom discussion.

My students didn’t want to be the one bringing down their team.

A bit of a warning: This idea likely would not work everywhere. After all, students have to care about each other and demonstrate social responsibility. In addition, the practice is a bit unethical; it’s a totally individual assignment with no group product that is being assessed collectively.

But it worked, and that’s what counts the most.

It’s intriguing to me how much better my students did with group accountability. When they’re working for themselves, they sometimes get lazy. When they’re working for me, they sometimes do so begrudgingly. But when they’re working for each other, their drive kicks in. favicon

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The Nightly Text as formative assessment

favicon My experiment with the Nightly Text, this unit’s ongoing homework assignment, has been a major success.

Reading’s up, homework’s up, and the quality of discussions is up, too.

One additional benefit of the Nightly Text is that it’s been great for formative assessment.

Too often as teachers, we wait too long to find out that our students are falling behind. We spend so much time developing engaging culminating projects and daily lessons that we don’t recognize how important it is assess whether our students are making solid progress.

That’s where formative assessment comes in, and that’s how the Nightly Text is helpful.

When I receive a text, I get a quick snapshot of a student’s understanding. If a student is off point, I can intervene immediately instead of waiting until the next day.

Here’s an exchange I had tonight with a student (about The Awakening). Part of the homework was to write an analytical question for tomorrow’s Socratic seminar.

Student: Do you think women are still under men’s control?

Me: Maybe a good question for a social studies class, but there’s nothing in the book that will help you answer that. Text me back.
Student: Why do you think Kate Chopin decided to write against women’s gender roles in society?
Me: You’re getting closer, although this question relies heavily on speculation rather than textual analysis. Try to ask a question about the last 2 pages. Text me back!
Student: On the last page, Edna hears her father’s voice and her sister’s voice. Why do you think she hears her family’s voices and not Robert’s voice?
Me: OK, that’s good.
Student: Yes!

My student’s first question, although interesting, was not appropriate for a text-based discussion. His second attempt was closer — by centering on a major theme in The Awakening — but it was too broad and wouldn’t encourage his peers to delve into the text.

After a little direct prodding, however, my student was able to write a question that — although not perfect — will be a solid one for tomorrow’s discussion.

Sure, I could’ve checked his question tomorrow, but that would’ve been last minute. My student would’ve gone into the discussion without confidence.

Now, both my student and I can rest comfortably. He feels prepared to contribute, and I know that every student will have at least one solid question to ask. favicon