Homework is an educational tool that has always been a part of schools. It affects every member of a school community: students, parents, teachers, administrators and board of education members.
For the most part, as a practice, it is completely outdated and largely misused as a means of impacting student learning and achievement. Research generally does not support the benefits of homework, yet homework is assigned at almost every level, it is rarely questioned and some people think our students should get more of it. Although never proven by research, parents assume an automatic relationship between homework and future success.
Homework was a topic that was never “covered” while I was working toward my teaching degree. As a classroom teacher, I received no training or professional development on the topic. Homework was rarely discussed on a professional level among colleagues or by my administrators; rather it was something that I believed I was required to give, and for the most part, I assigned many ineffective assignments, as I was simply assigning typical assignments that I experienced while going through school (i.e. doing what was done to me).
Once I became a principal, my approach to homework was not much different because it truly was an afterthought being rarely discussed, except when parents complained. When I noticed in a teacher’s lesson plan the absence of homework for a period of time, I would simply suggest that the teacher assign some. The issue regarding the quality of homework was hardly ever addressed, as I too considered that if homework was assigned, learning must be occurring. I share the above because I believe my experiences are not unique, but universal in our profession.
Once I became a central office administrator with a district perspective, my views about homework began to change. I quickly saw how dangerous it was having teachers do their “own thing.” Some teachers gave a lot of homework, some gave none, some graded homework and those grades counted heavily towards the students’ final grade, while others did not grade homework or gave little or no weight to homework grades.
Some teachers were giving some effective assignments that encouraged thinking and others were assigning busy work that promoted very little learning.
Some homework assignments were large projects that required materials to be purchased, and parental support – some so much, that it was evident that the work was actually parent work – but resulted in a positive grade for the student. Therefore, the homework further perpetuated the achievement gap between those who have support at home and those who do not.
Finally, I began to ponder the purpose of some homework assignments such as a word search, diorama, mobile or writing spelling words multiple times. How do they promote learning and what evidence of learning do they show?
As a new superintendent for the Freehold Township School District, I was immediately called to examine how teachers were using homework as part of the learning process.
It began as a very quiet Thursday in July, and I was settling into my new role, being quite proud of the transition plan that I was finalizing. My first three days were eerily quiet, as we sometimes find in the summer before schedules and class lists are released, but on this day the phone began ringing with zeal. There were eight parents who requested a return call from me, so I knew there was a pressing issue at hand. Most of the calls were similar in nature, “Dr. Kasun, I am confused why my son/daughter is being recommended for Basic Skills, as he/she had straight As on his/her report card.”
My response was, “Let me look into it further and I will get back to you.” After conducting some research, I found that, in fact, the parents were correct, that their child had received As on the report card. However, these students scored Partially Proficient on the New Jersey ASK in math or language arts; thus, they were recommended for our Basic Skills Program. Further, after digging deeper, I found that most of these students did not score well on our district-wide assessments or classroom tests; yet, they received As in their classes because they completed all the assigned homework, and it was weighted so much that it altered the student’s grade. Equally as alarming, I found that we had several students who scored perfect 300s on the NJASK and did very well on district assessments and classroom tests, but had Cs and Ds on their report card, as they were penalized severely for not completing homework.
As the topic of homework can be as polarizing as religion and politics, and can evoke such emotion connected to one’s own personal experience with homework (if we polled parents, half believe that there is not enough and the other half think there is way too much), I knew as a new superintendent, I needed to tread very lightly on making any policy or practice change.
Our district had already embarked on the implementation of differentiated instruction, so I decided to focus the year on assessment and grading in the differentiated classroom based on Rick Wormeli’s work in his book, “Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom.” Trying to solidify our understanding of how to best institute differentiated instruction, we tackled such issues as the difference and importance between summative and formative assessments. As a staff, we were able to agree homework performance is not an accurate portrayal of final proficiency or mastery. It’s the path to learning, so it is a formative assessment. We grade students against standards, not the routes by which they achieve them. Homework is practice and not a determination of mastery and grades are saved for declarations of mastery. Thus, we began to question how much homework should count toward a student’s grade.
We also examined the practice of zeros and how detrimental it can be to a students’ grade. Douglas Reeves, founder of the Center for Performance Assessment in Boston, pointed out in 2004 that a zero on a 100 point scale is mathematically inaccurate, and does not fix the problem of students not completing homework. When students fail to complete homework, we tend to approach the problem more like a discipline problem than a learning issue.
We began to change our ideas and focused a conversation based on the fact that homework should not be about compliance, but rather a tool to support learning. We are faced with the irony that a policy that may be grounded in the belief of holding students accountable (giving zeros) actually allows some students to escape the accountability for learning.
Changing the Homework Policies
The following summer with support from our board of education, we changed some policies and practices regarding homework and grading. Thus, we made immediate and universal changes for the 2012-2013 school year. Although we know that top-down mandates usually fail, we knew that it was critical to change, as we had no way to address a challenge from a student or parent. Homework and grading policies were not consistent across district classrooms, and our grades were sometimes not an accurate measure of a student’s mastery because they were influenced (either inflated or deflated) based upon whether a student (or his/her parents) completed the homework. The most significant policy/practice changes were:
Homework shall only be weighted as 5 percent of a student’s final grade.
- Grades have to be a measure of what students know, compared to a standard. They are not about compliance. We chose 5 percent because, although it has some weight, it is small enough that if a student does no homework, but aces all tests, that student still gets an A. Grades are not necessary for learning to take place; in fact research indicates that grades tend to interfere with learning.
- Once the threat of grades is taken away from homework, homework becomes a safe place to try out new skills without penalty, just as athletes and musicians try out their skills in practice or in rehearsals.
No zeros. The lowest grade is a 50.
- Traditional practices of giving zeros and not accepting late assignments allow students to escape the accountability for learning. Learning is not about compliance, and we do not teach responsibility with a stick and carrot. It is not “learn or I will hurt you” (if one wanted to really hurt, one could give a “minus” grade, like “-200” for not completing an assignment). It is not about control; it is about learning.
- We need to assign work that is relevant and connected to the classroom, so that students see a reason to complete it, and not solely do it because they fear getting a bad grade. The homework assigned should be so meaningful that students need to complete it.
We established maximum time limits of 10 minutes per grade level, per night.
- Examples: third grade would be 30 minutes, fifth would be 50 minutes, eighth would be 80 minutes, and twelfth would be 120 minutes.
- It is very dangerous for a district to have some teachers not assigning homework and other teachers, sometimes at the same grade level, giving hours of work.
- The time limits shall not be based on the three smartest or quickest students in class. Teachers for each subject should tell students how much time an assignment should take and tell students to stop (draw a line) at this point.
- The quality of the task is as important as the amount of time required.
As with any change, we faced some resistance and pushback from some staff and a few parents. The first challenge was that some believed if we do not put a grade or significant weight on homework (now only counting of 5 percent of a student’s final grade), students simply will not complete it. This is absolutely a false premise, and learning can occur without grades. In fact, those students who tend to do all homework will and those who do not complete usually will not regardless of the presence or absence of any grade. The second challenge was that some teachers posed the notion that we teach responsibility and time management by giving homework. This is also an incorrect idea, as homework does not reinforce time management if adults have to coerce children into doing it; if children are coerced, they are not in charge of making decisions about the use of time. The third major opposition was that some argued that giving students 50 for doing nothing is not fair. To address this point, we went back to the mathematical inaccuracy of giving a zero on a 100 point scale. We pointed out that even in our teacher’s observation model, Danielson, which uses a four point scale, a score of one is the lowest score (no zeros), as zeros when averaged in are usually not recoverable.
Professional Development on Homework
Equally important, at the same time as changing the above policies and practices, we began providing professional development regarding homework, and made it a topic for our new teacher academy. With the “new” mandated evaluation models and all the professional development that we were providing to our teachers, our classrooms had dramatically changed to be more student-centered, technology-infused learning environments. However, our homework assignments, for the most part, did not follow this shift. In our classrooms we realized and accounted for the fact that students differ in readiness and developmental levels, and all the children don’t learn in the same way, but most homework assignments were a one-size fits all.
We asked teachers to use the same understanding about how children learn and factors that influence learning (research about the brain, motivation, persistence and learner difference) that was clearly visible in our classrooms and transfer this knowledge to homework assignments. As Dr. Bill Daggett suggested during his presentation at a 2015 NJSBA conference, we made a point of stressing during our professional development sessions with staff that relevancy makes rigor possible. We reminded our staff that rigor does not mean more work; students are not going to get ahead by completing hours of meaningless worksheets or packets. Key points in our professional development were:
The purpose of homework is to foster learning.
- Just as we do in our classrooms, we need to let the students know the objective of the assignment. The ultimate goal of the assignment- pre-learning, checking for understanding, practice or processing- should be clearly communicated to the student.
- Quality tasks are related to classroom learning. If it is not tied to classroom learning and there is not a clear objective, it is probably not an assignment worth assigning.
- As we want to foster learning so that it is stored into long-term memory, a very simple, yet highly effective, homework assignment is to ask students to summarize in writing what they learned, include one question they still have, and rate themselves as far as their understanding on a scale of 1 to 5. By requiring students to reflect on what they learned, it helps move information into long-term memory, and it quickly lets teachers know what students understand. Just as in our classrooms, students must have opportunities to self-evaluate, to reflect on their learning and to set their own goals.
- We cannot give points to students for bringing things in (paper towels, tissues, etc.), getting parents to sign logs, tests, etc. We cannot penalize or reward a student for what his parents sign or what his parents can buy, as this has nothing to do with learning.
Flipped Learning is an extremely effective approach for home learning
- Short instructional videos created by the teacher provide information to the students that is clear, correct and concise.
- Students can view the instruction multiple times and revisit it to gain understanding. It can also be viewed by parents adding them as partners in learning.
- Flipping learning frees up class time, so that teachers can work with students as a coach and mentor and provide individualized learning.
Teachers need to assign homework that students can complete on their own
- We should never assign something, such as a new math concept that students have to figure out on their own. To undo learning that occurred incorrectly is practically impossible.
- Students should never have to start a homework assignment by asking parents- how do I do that?
Collaboration and personalized learning are paramount
- Tools like Google Docs, classroom blogs, etc. that we use to foster collaboration in the classroom are just as effective for home learning. Best learning practices should not end at the end of the school day. Students use these tools as part of their daily life, so it is often how they learn best.
- The same intuitive software that we use in our classrooms can be assigned at home to create personalized learning that meets each student where he or she is.
As a district we are still on our journey to improve our homework practices. The policy changes supported by the board have ensured that grades have become an accurate measure of what students know and understand and not inflated or deflated due to work done at home, which has diminished parental concerns and grading challenges. Our teachers’ lesson plans show more effective and meaningful homework assignments, which include learning objectives. Discussions and notes from our team meetings demonstrate that teachers are planning, sharing and discussing home “learning” assignments, which improve learning rather than merely assigning busy work. Feedback from staff, students and parents demonstrate that home learning assignments are more meaningful, consistent and relevant. A change in our homework practices have provided more opportunities for students to engage in flipped and blended learning assignments that are tailored to their personalized learning needs.
Boards of education and administrators have an obligation to challenge and change practices that are outdated, even if they carry the weight of tradition. Some homework practices fall into this category.
We often find it easier to address policies when students’ health and safety comes into view. All districts have concussion policies, smoking and substance abuse policies, and districts are quick to adopt policies and practices to protect the children in their care. We must be equally as vigilant and have the courage to address practices that can be harmful to the learning process like ineffective homework. Boards of education and administrators should proactively challenge all existing practices to understand their core intent, and to determine if they are actually fostering the learning process or not. In some cases, long-standing, ineffective routines have persisted out of tradition, and are superficially justifiable or suitably innocuous enough to escape scrutiny. These processes may be creating impediments to learning as well as wasting time and discouraging students, and the source of the negative impact may be difficult to discover. The rote assignment of questionably valuable or effective homework is a widespread example of this, and should be one of the first areas that educational leaders address.