Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Homework Saga Continues at PCS

The Watertown Times article "Potsdam School Limiting Homework - Parents Complained - 30 Minutes of Math Deemed Enough" re-ignites the homework/grading controversy that just never seems to go away. Why? The inherent problems with how homework is handled have not been eliminated. There is no overarching district-wide philosophy on homework that fosters student learning.

Unwise and ineffective homework/grading practices have been noted and discussed between BOE members and administrators in recent years and yet little seems to change. Among the problems...

  • Many teachers were grading practice homework - not a wise educational strategy. (While practice homework needs to be gone over and corrected in class, it should not receive a grade. Why? Students are still learning the material and students learn at different rates. Grading comes once teachers believe students have had the time and practice to master the material.)
  • The Grading of "practice" homework clouds reality for teachers: Grading practice HW encourages students to get answers from parents or more able students and then not feel free to tell the teacher that they did not understand the assignment. Teachers will feel their lesson must have been highly effective because so many students did well on the HW when, in point of fact, this may not be true at all.
  • Teachers Had No Idea How Much Time Was Being Spent on Homework: While a very able student might fly through an assignment, other students would surely struggle with it (and spend much more time on it) - leading to high levels of frustration and defeat for the latter group. The time limitations on homework could not possibly work for this reason. 
  • In lieu of effective classroom management strategies, some teachers had implemented irrational and punitive grading practices. (Ten points off for students who failed to put their names on the assignment, more points off or a zero for leaving the HW in a locker, detention for failing to pick up the HW assignment that is left by the teacher in one place in one class and another place in another, etc.) Students had to live up to a standard that the teachers could not. It would be interesting to see what would occur if principals implemented equally harsh penalties for teachers who forgot their pens, who came a little late to a meeting, who chatted quietly with a neighbor during a meeting, who forgot to pick up needed paperwork for a meeting, etc.) 
  • Social Inequity: Some students were going home to highly-educated parents who could give great help with homework assignments. On the other hand, many students went home to households where parents had a more limited educational background and, thus, the parents were in no position to assist their children with difficult HW.
  • Completed HW Assignments Not Returned to Students in a Timely Fashion or At All. 
Years ago, school officials knew of the homework and grading problems, now exacerbated by the Common Core and student testing requirements, and did nothing until the Grading and Homework Committee I formed forced the conversation. (The then BOE deserves credit for unanimously voting for policy change that was beneficial to students.) Basically, I told the supt. that we were either going to study homework and grading (with all constituent groups) or we were going to discuss publicly the many problems surrounding it that had been shared with various BOE members.

It is rather astonishing that last month a BOE member asked if students who failed to complete their assignments were being punished. Board members should know this especially if they've had children go through the system. Another BOE member didn't know students' HW was, by policy, limited in the amount of time students should devote to it.

The problem with Boards of Education is that they can be like that old toy, Etch a Sketch. All former work done can be erased in no time - just like it never occurred - putting Boards, time and time again, back at the starting line - which, unfortunately, is just where some people want them...uninformed and ineffective. An experienced BOE member once said to me, "Every time we try discuss how to improve education for students, they embark on a building project so all the Board is discussing is roofing materials and leaky faucets." While capital improvements are necessary, educational improvement is vital.

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