rethinking homework

homeworkIt’s the first night of school and my tenth graders already have homework… lots of it. My daughter, once she got home–at 7:30–from a school volleyball game, estimated she had three hours of homework to do. Her twin brother, home at 5:00–he does debate-was just finishing up his homework at eight. Their teachers told them to expect 30 minutes to an hour a night of homework per class. Neither of them is taking any AP classes–this is the workload for the average tenth grader at their school.

I’m not going to write about the many conflicting studies about the efficacy of homework. Nor am I going to discuss the troubling tradeoffs that kids make to do well in our competitive high schools. (I will confess to having seen and being moved by Race to Nowhere, a compelling movie about the rat race that is high school for many American students.) No, today I am asking a question: Why can’t high school teachers assign homework a week at a time?

My daughter’s math teacher, a stellar teacher she had last year, gives the kids their assignments for the coming week each Friday. My son’s Latin teacher does the same thing. It’s such a gift to the students in their classes. Kids can organize, plan, and arrange their work. This skill set, interestingly enough, is often cited as a justification for homework.  Many believe that homework teaches kids to be responsible, to work independently, and to learn how to manage their time. If those are benefits of homework, surely giving kids a week to plan would additionally sharpen those skills.

I have talked to many teachers and students about this option. Students universally think this is a great idea. Teachers, those who choose to assign homework daily, say that doing so makes it more likely that they assign the right work at the right time. I hear them–and I have the deepest respect for educators–but I think the benefits for students of teachers assigning work a week at time outweigh this concern.

What do you think? Should we ask high school teachers to be more like college professors and move more toward a weekly syllabus? Do you have high school kids with too much homework? Too little? Or, and if this is the case I envy you, just the right amount?

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13 Responses to “rethinking homework”

  1. maggie b. says:

    I have a really hard time with our current public education system. I feel it benefits teachers far more than students, which is utterly ridiculous and counter productive.

    I, for one, would like to see a syllabus such as I received in college. That would enable everyone to know where they should be at at any given time.
    It would allow the student to plan for large assignments accordingly. It would help parents know what was happening and how they should be helping.

    What I often see instead is disorganization, last minute planning by educators, inconsistency in the district as a whole (with one 10th grade teacher right on schedule and another two chapters behind with yet a third “improvising” and exhausted students who have to scramble to figure out what the hay is going on.

    The only solution I can think of is start hiring college professors to teach at the HS level. They keep office hours, work through the summer – and most importantly know how to plan a semester at a time!

  2. Brooke says:

    It is more difficult for high school teachers to stick to a syllabus than it is for a college professor. A professor just keeps moving along, not caring whether the students are “getting it.”

    A good high school teacher is constantly adjusting their pace. It may end up taking more time than they planned to teach a difficult concept based on the ability level of the class. This is the same reason that different teachers of the same subject might be progressing at different speeds.

    As for large assignments, I suspect that many students know about these assignments long before their parents do. The parents usually become involved when the students hit panic mode, realizing that a paper assigned a month ago is due the next day and they haven’t started yet. As a high school librarian, I see that all the time.

    Many teachers now post assignments on the school’s web pages and parents who are interested in keeping up should ask if the teacher has a web page.

    As for the comment about office hours and working in the summer. I met several times this summer with a teacher who was preparing to teach a new class and wanted my suggestions on her research assignments. And many teachers in my building are willing to meet with students after school – if you can get the kids to show up.

  3. delia says:

    After teaching middle school for 3 years, I also have a hard time with the state of public education. I would argue, however, that is not teachers who benefit from the current system but administrators, central office, and politicians. The district provided a curriculum, lesson plans, tests, and pacing guide to keep teachers on track. I could plan out the entire year if I wanted and would have loved to do that but several things got in the way.

    1. No Child Left Behind and the Almighty AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress): Each school has its own goals according to NCLB and woe be unto you if your school fails to meet them. If you work in a failing school (which I did), you have to meet extremely rigorous requirements with an inordinate amount of paperwork. It’s just a fact of life if you’re a teacher so I’m not complaining about that. However, it was not uncommon for administration or central office to send us several different forms to fill out or data analysis to run on a weekly basis…sometimes several times a week in an attempt to prove to the state and the feds that we were doing the best for the kids. Many times these forms and data analysis necessitated a complete change of lesson plans (some times in the middle of the week). It wasn’t because I had written my lesson plans incorrectly but that they wanted to me to include something else in them.

    2. New teaching strategies: As a part of profession development (and to prove to the state/feds that we’re doing our best for the kids), every week we were given some new strategy to teach kids because it was the latest and greatest thing that would magically fix our students (I get mad every time I think about this b/c there is no magic band aid. Hard work, time, persistence, encouragement and practice are what’s needed. Yes, there are strategies that are helpful but not the way it was often presented in meetings). Those new strategies were required to be in my lesson plans or I faced professional consequences. This often required changing lesson plans, moving around content to different days or even moving/changing assignments to meet the new requirements…even if it wasn’t the beginning of the week.

    3. ratio of SPED and ESL students: Classes with a larger percentage of SPED and ESL students move at a slower pace because the material has to be broken down to a level that the students can be successful. I’m not saying the students aren’t bright or capable but sometimes it takes more time if there is language barrier or a learning disability. That’s not something you can plan out because you never know what students will comprehend immediately or not.

    4.Student absence: Because I taught social studies (not math or reading which are tested for AYP), students were often pulled out of my class to get extra practice for these exams…sometimes with little to no warning. What was I supposed to do if over half of my class was gone? Move on and leave the rest behind? If they’re struggling in math and reading, then they sure aren’t doing well in social studies or science which both require reading and math skills. Needless to say, I often had to reteach lessons which put me behind. How are students supposed to do homework on something that they didn’t even learn that day?

    5. Homework: I worked in a district that required that all students do homework but you couldn’t give them a grade, force them to turn it in, or do anything punitive if they did not turn it in. Talk about extremely frustrating. Homework in my classroom consisted of 2 things: reviewing notes/vocabulary and finishing class assignments/project that were not completed in class. I do not advocate for a large homework load. 15 to 20 min per class max. Excessive amounts of homework do nothing but make students tired and uninterested in learning. Most nights, my students were to review vocab or notes; that takes 10 to 15 min. On the nights they had to complete an assignment/project, then I would expect that to take a little longer.

    I normally posted assignments and projects online (most school districts have some type of online program) for all students and parents to check. Projects normally had a 2 to 3 week completion time where students know the due date from the beginning since it’s on the assignment, posted in my room, and posted online. At that point, it was the students’ and parents’ responsibility to monitor assignments/due dates and to plan accordingly.

    Did I mention that I worked for a district who had a policy that students could turn in any assignment (and I couldn’t mark off for lateness) until the next to the last day of school? Guess when most of my 120-150 students turned in assignments/long-term projects? That policy wasn’t for my benefit as a teacher; it kept the parents, administrators, and central office happy. The students didn’t learn anything about planning ahead or time management.

    I could provide so many more stories about problems with the system and homework but I’ll spare you :) I think that many teachers would love the luxury of providing a syllabus or even assignments a week or two at a time, but it’s often out of their control.

  4. maggie b. says:

    Delia,

    Your experience certainly sounds like a horror story. Most especially the part about having to implement new teaching strategies. What’s unfortunate is that much research has been done on this and most shows that sticking with a single basic strategy is what works the best. How unfortunate your school didn’t believe in it.

    I can understand your frustration at having students pulled out of the classroom to catch up on other work. Back in the old days we could do that at home but these days, with so much homework, that is simply impossible. That is one reason why I am so against heavy homework loads. It gives no time to students who are behind to catch up or for students who need extra study time to achieve it. They are already so overloaded they can’t squeeze out extra time.

    When I went to college I was terrified. It turned out to be the best learning experience of my life. I went from someone who hated school to someone who rushed to class. When I switched my son to a university based high school he became a much better student as well. There are probably lots of reasons for this but one of them is the fact that you are given the work and the opportunity to learn it at your pace. There are no surprises, no time wasters (like building a castle with cardboard and tin foil which took us hours during fourth grade). Because the teachers teach from the book there is no missing information – it is there, in a solid form for whenever you need it.
    I’m not sure what my school was preparing me for but it certainly never resembled college.

    I am glad I had the option to send my son to a school that was more university based. I feel like it has better prepared him for a university and for learning in the real world environment.

    Our public school system is plagued with so many problems. I don’t think there are easy solutions. I just know that what we are doing doesn’t work.

    maggie b.

  5. Lynn M says:

    I would be very interested to know how countries with successful and improving school systems handle homework. I know that in many places, students have longer school years which allows teachers to spread out the learning over more days. Logically, it would seem to me that this would result in less homework on a nightly basis for students as well as more time to complete major projects. I know that extending the school year is a huge hot button issue for teachers and politicians, but it sure seems like one solution that might be in the best interest of stressed out and overloaded kids.

  6. Blythe says:

    Having just watched my ninth grader spend 2.5 hours on a math assignment, I’d have to agree with Dabney. Though I looked at the homework, which WAS planned out ahead of time; the same paper listed the next several assignments. Still, it seemed like an awful lot of problems to me. About half as many would have made sense to me.

  7. Jennie says:

    I honestly felt like weeping, reading all these posts. I went through school mostly in San Francisco and got a decent education. I never had homework until the 8th grade. Only had homework after that for all classes that could be done in study hall before I ever went home.
    Now I see little kids piling off the school bus with backpacks so heavy they are bent over from them. The poor babies are not much bigger than those backpacks. One little boy especially tugged at my heart as I watched him stagger to his front door, his dog was jumping up and down and doing the doggie welcome dance. The poor kid was so loaded down and so tired he barely could reach out and pat his dog. I’ve been a die hard anti homework addict for a long time now.
    They need to quit loading these kids down with what I call (insert bad word here) and let them be kids. A lot of learning is just done in play and hanging out with friends and family. I don’t know of any person that works all day and then wants to go home and do another few hours of work. That is total b.s. Teachers, students, and parents need to band together and put a stop to this abuse and harassment. The kids are not learning half what they did years ago. They can’t make change, they can’t carry on a simple conversation or exchange thoughts. They are clueless on geography, history, and many other subjects. You must change this system yourself by forming groups online and getting support. It benefits no one as it is now. All the schools are doing is churning out puppets for McDonald’s.
    I could not disagree more than I do with Dalia about time wasters. Those wonderful maps we made with flour and salt, those huge hall long banners we worked on, the little skits of history we did were all things I now remember the best and learned the most from. Those projects were more fun and we learned where countries were and states and capitols. Much more interesting than memorizing dull stats. I still remember all I learned in 3rd or 4th grade about the 13 colonies because we made costumes, put on skits and had fun with it.

  8. Jennie says:

    I honestly felt like weeping, reading all these posts. I went through school mostly in San Francisco and got a decent education. I never had homework until the 8th grade. Only had homework after that for all classes that could be done in study hall before I ever went home.
    Now I see little kids piling off the school bus with backpacks so heavy they are bent over from them. The poor babies are not much bigger than those backpacks. One little boy especially tugged at my heart as I watched him stagger to his front door, his dog was jumping up and down and doing the doggie welcome dance. The poor kid was so loaded down and so tired he barely could reach out and pat his dog. I’ve been a die hard anti homework addict for a long time now.
    They need to quit loading these kids down with what I call (insert bad word here) and let them be kids. A lot of learning is just done in play and hanging out with friends and family. I don’t know of any person that works all day and then wants to go home and do another few hours of work. That is total b.s. Teachers, students, and parents need to band together and put a stop to this abuse and harassment. The kids are not learning half what they did years ago. They can’t make change, they can’t carry on a simple conversation or exchange thoughts. They are clueless on geography, history, and many other subjects. You must change this system yourself by forming groups online and getting support. It benefits no one as it is now. All the schools are doing is churning out puppets for McDonald’s.
    I could not disagree more than I do with Dalia about time wasters. Those wonderful maps we made with flour and salt, those huge hall long banners we worked on, the little skits of history we did were all things I now remember the best and learned the most from. Those projects were more fun and we learned where countries were and states and capitols. Much more interesting than memorizing dull stats.

  9. delia says:

    Jennie: I think the point maggie b was making about time waster projects has more to do with projects that don’t have any reason or curriculum tie in than doing something that is actually relevant to class. There is nothing more frustrating in school (esp. middle and high school) to be given an assignment that really has no purpose but to keep you busy. I loathed those types of projects as a student.

    I would agree that projects are important especially ones that use multiple learning modalities (sight, hearing, touch, etc) and learning intelligences (kinetic, visual/spatial, mathematical/logical, verbal/linguistic, etc). The more parts of your brain you use, the better you remember. I assigned projects with every unit because I think they teach important academic and life skills. However, any project that is assigned needs to meet curriculum standards and further a student’s learning process. Sure it’s great that a student can build a castle and maybe even name parts of it, but that’s not really what’s significant. Can the student articulate the 7 W’s: who, what, when, where, why, w’how, and w’significance? (Yes, I know the last 2 sound silly but it helps my students remember to include them.) That’s what a child should take out of every project or assignment. If an assignment/project can’t do that, then it’s waste of time. That’s just my two cents worth :)

  10. Jennie says:

    Thanks Dalia, I didn’t know they have kids doing projects that weren’t relevant to a course lesson.
    I don’t remember that we ever made a castle or did projects not related to our studies. Why would they even do that? I know that’s a rhetorical question. lol If they were doing something from that time period it might be ok.
    I am always surprised when chatting with younger people (most everyone now is younger) They are constantly saying they never knew that, or they don’t believe it. I ask what the heck were you doing in school, sleeping? Things I learned in grammar school they don’t know today. Recently I was talking to a young man of 21 that moved in across the street and he can’t read. I’m astounded. He can make out enough for simple things and he tries to sound out the words. It’s heart wrenching. I have no idea how to help him learn to read.
    While doing some genealogy I was reading some newspaper articles from 1913 and confess that they used words in the articles I have never even heard in my life and had to look up. I have an extensive vocabulary thanks to my mother and a good public school education. But those old papers showed me that our ancestors had even better educations. So it has just slowly gone down hill.
    I don’t blame the teachers as there are few that are truly bad. I blame what was posted above about the government taking over and making all these silly rules and standards and tests. It started some time ago when the government decided that too many districts and states had schools doing poorly from lack of funds. So the made the states turn over tax money to them and said they would redistribute the wealth so the poorer schools would have more money. You know the rest of the story. lol

  11. Christopher Foisy says:

    Nobody really knows what Google is thinking. We get a few hints every now and then from people like Matt Cutts but other than that it is all pure speculation.

  12. Shila Gobeyn says:

    Paula I have two more questions. I started a generic shopping blog focused on a wide variety of niches. My first question is when you said…”When you start seeing sales for one of your product reviews, only then should you start writing another product review.” should I only focus on that 1st product review? and the second question is can I use some of the same content from one of the other reviews for another review of a similar product? i.e. The “What to Look for” Section for elliptical trainers.

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