July 21, 2011

Ugh. Homework. What's is Worth?

Darren over at Right on the Left Coast is discussing LA Unified's new homework policy. In the original policy, which has recently been canceled anyway, homework would count for only 10% of the grade. My administrator would support the idea that we teachers cannot control what happens at home and students have varying levels of support at home. Darren supports this idea, too, but he correctly predicted that policy would make it more difficult for students to earn good grades. Placing value on homework is more than a numbers game.

Over the years, as I try to fairly assess my students and attach a grade to what they do, I've struggled with what this homework business is all about and what it is worth. (A few months ago, I anguished over how to squeeze the blasted work out of students.)

In the past, I counted homework as 10-15%, and assignments that were considered homework are assignments completed totally at home, such as independent reading. If an assignment was started in class but needed to be completed at home, it was considered classwork (formative assessment), which was 35-40%. Assessments (summative) counted for 50%.

Sometimes I just couldn't get that 10% = homework to make sense, though. Throughout the year, students had projects and major reading and writing assignments that require more time at home than in class to finish. In fact, many independent reading projects were done completely at home. Technically, that's homework. However, those were worth a lot more than 10%, and often they were considered an assessment in the end. I always had to be explicit with students that just because it is being completed at home, it was worth a lot. I'm not sure if they were even paying attention to the weights of the class, but some students had to be reminded that doing assigned work at home is very important.

Ultimately, I have had difficulty justifying assignments that were worth a mere 10% of a student's grade. Sometimes we would go weeks without an assignment that was technically considered "homework." Everything required of them was very important! Even when students were asked to do small tasks that might not add up to be worth much in time and points, the completion of those tasks was usually integral in the students being able to participate in classroom activities and move forward in learning. Is it really necessary give points to every little step along the learning continuum? In the big picture of assessment, I say no, but students are used to being rewarded often for their work.

When my students struggle--in my class and in others--it usually comes down to this concept of homework. My colleagues and I use homework as a means for students to practice and extend their knowledge or prep for upcoming classes. In my class, that means that students should have rough draft writings completed so they can receive feedback for revision and have time to practice in class. In algebra class, that means students should practice the newly assigned concepts so they may apply them to the next lesson. In geography, that means students should read the textbook and add to the notes/concepts that were discussed or will be discussed in class. This is not busy work.

When students do not do their homework, no matter what the value of the grade it is worth, they are not taking responsibility for their learning, and that translates into a lack of performance extends throughout the rest of their work. So when we tell parents, "Your student needs to do his/her homework," it's a pretty big deal.

Is this where the argument about how not all students have the same support at home comes in? Not all parents are home to give help on homework. Some students have to care for their siblings after school. Some students have too many extracurricular activities. Maybe we should not even have homework, right? Hmmm. Maybe. Maybe some some students want to do well and require more time. Maybe those students have no problem with working at home. Maybe the students need time to process their learning, and that time is not afforded during the school day. Perhaps we could lengthen the school day! Yeah, that will happen.

Maybe...it comes back to the responsibility issue. Students must take responsibility for their learning. There are wonder students who do this innately, but usually do need all the support they can get from school and home, especially in the early years as they are forming habits. Yes, some students live in heart-breaking circumstances that make it difficult for them to find the support at home. That problem cannot be fixed with a certain percentage of a grade being attributed to homework when homework is part of a learning process.

Oh! Some might say that perhaps homework should not be part of the learning process. No, it's not crazy. I mean, where are we going with the concept of placing a mere 10% of a grade on homework? We could have a big debate on that alone. But think about it. What are your goals for students? Does homework enhance student learning? Is homework that important?

I know in my classroom, homework will not go away. A specific grade for it might, though. I will continually strive to make homework valuable for my students, for without it, they just cannot progress as quickly as they are capable of doing. Now, if I could drive this point home with my upcoming students...


Darren said...

There is a very real difference between homework and "busywork", and I'm glad you made the distinction. Having kids fill out a crossword puzzle or do a word search or draw a picture is busywork and shouldn't be assigned anyway.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Darren's point that homework doesn't mean busy work. To your point, Happy Chyck, I agree that homework is a responsibility measure. How should it be graded, if at all? I definitely think it should figure into the overall performance assessment. Many students have overcome overwhelming odds, and somehow managed to get the homework completed, and completed well. So, I am not sure that we can factor this in. I believe in giving students a break, giving more time if needed, but waiving it completely? I don't think so. As you point out, when students do the work, they benefit from the learning and practice it provides.

I think teachers and administrators need to have informed conversations about homework, taking into consideration their clientele, and the available research. We also need to talk with students and parents about homework - no so much from the standpoint, "Is it necessary", but what helps kids learn, and, how much is needed in order to help kids learn?