Homework and the Achievement Gap

When I reviewed the many sound initiatives in the Achievement Gap Plan (AGP), I came to think that a piece was missing.  The plan addresses the need for our teachers and schools, our community partners, and our parents all to do their part to assist in the academic achievement of our students.  Nowhere in the plan, however, do we acknowledge the basic fact that ultimately our students are the ones responsible for their own learning.

The only way students who are behind will be able to catch up is by putting in the time and effort necessary to expand their learning and increase their skills.  It’s pretty simple.  If we are to narrow the achievement gap in the sense that we expect students of color to achieve at the same level as white students – and not merely expect that a higher percentage of students of color will achieve proficiency as measured on standardized tests – then the students of color will have to work harder than the white students in order to make up the ground between them.  There is simply no other way.  The white students aren’t going to just sit around and wait for the others to reach their level.

I have heard from a number of teachers and volunteers in schools that the most common reason students fail classes is that they simply don’t do the work that’s necessary to pass.  Students may be bright and actively participate in class discussions, but if their attention to the subject begins and ends during class time, they are unlikely to do well.

This holds true for all students, of course.  But our students of color are doing markedly worse than our white students – that’s what the achievement gap means, after all.  So it is indisputably the case that it is more common for students of color to be holding themselves back by skimping on the necessary effort outside of class.  We need to be thinking of ways that this might be changed.

This got me to thinking that we as a school district do not seem to have any established expectations as to the amount of work that we expect our students, and particularly our middle and high school students, to do outside of the classroom.  To state the obvious, students are unlikely to be successful unless they study for tests, do homework, and write papers on their own.  We ought to acknowledge this fact and put some structure to it.

A 2006 Duke University study concluded that homework does have a positive effect on student achievement and the positive correlation was much stronger for secondary students — those in grades 7 through 12 — than for those in elementary school.  “With only rare exception, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant,” says the report in the spring 2006 edition of “Review of Educational Research.”

A common rule of thumb seems to be that first grade students could be expected to do ten minutes of homework a night and the amount should increase by ten minutes for each grade.  So, an hour of homework a night should be expected by sixth grade.  Freshmen in high school should be looking at an hour and a half and seniors should be putting in two hours a night.  This makes sense to me.

I think it would be useful to adopt a district policy spelling out homework expectations for our students that are in the same ballpark as the ten-minute rule.  Parents want to help their children succeed in school but often feel they don’t know how they can be helpful.  Having a sense of how much homework their children should be doing would help parents know how to structure their encouragement.  As President Obama has urged, parents could turn off the television and carve out time in the evening for homework. The ten-minute rule could serve as a rough guide for how long that homework time should last.

Teachers of course would play an important role in this as well.  They need to assign homework, make it useful rather than busywork, and make it appropriately challenging.  I am probably not the only parent whose child complained of high school homework that entailed the use of crayons.

Teachers also need to provide feedback on the homework their students do so their students will know that the work matters.  It would be helpful for teachers in the same grade to collaborate so that the work is spread out fairly evenly rather than big assignments in a number of classes all coming due on the same day.

Returning to the achievement gap plan, I understand that exhorting students of color to work harder falls a tad short as a strategy. We should be looking for ways to ease the obstacles to successfully completing work outside of the classroom that many of our students of color face.

Specifically, we should do our best to support our community partners, like the Boys and Girls Club and neighborhood centers, that offer after-school homework help to the students they serve.  We should support “community school” initiatives to keep some of our schools open at night as hubs for community activities, including tutoring and assistance with homework.

We should support programs like AVID that promote the expectation that students will put in the time outside of class that is necessary to excel and that help students figure out how to get that done.  We should expand AVID to the middle schools, as the AGP recommends, so that students will have developed their work habits by the time they start high school. (We know that ninth grade performance is critical to high school success.)

We should crib a component from the Madison Prep plan and try to make sure that identified teachers are available by phone in the evening so that students who are stumped by their homework can call for help if they don’t have parents or others around who can assist them.

We should support a Parent University, also proposed in the AGP, that offers useful and realistic information for parents about what students need to do outside of the classroom to be successful and how parents and others can support their students’ efforts.

The achievement gap is a complicated problem and we have to pursue other strategies as well, of course.  We need a big push to help all students read by third grade since students can’t thrive if they lack the basic tools of learning.  We need to make our curriculum more engaging, particularly for students of color.  We need to diversify our work force.

But we don’t need to overthink the homework point.  If students want to do better, they’ll have to work harder.  A lot of that work has to take place outside of school hours. We ought to be clearer on what we expect in the way of homework and then figure out ways we can help all our students – and particularly our students of color – live up to those expectations.

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40 Responses to Homework and the Achievement Gap

  1. How wonderful it would be if kids who are disadvantaged did their homework. But this might take a residential school. For kids who are not getting supper and who live in dysfunctional chaotic homes where there might not even be a parent present much of the time, homework is not high on the list of priorities. It is also not culturally affirmed. At Thoreau I saw little kids who were moved from one school to the next by transient, mentally ill caregivers. Many times the kids wouldn’t come to school due to missing the bus and other chaos (having to coordinate getting THEMSELVES ready on time while a parent lay stoned from the party the night before or from illicit work). This issue is not so much about motivation and homework. It is a civic/community problem with the end result falling on the schools. These problems need to become more prominent as community problems and addressed as such. The problems start with who is (or isn’t bothering to) take care of these kids. The caregivers need support (job training, drug rehab, etc) and accountability. Valuing homework is way down on the list of basic needs for these children.

  2. Arnold says:

    The assumption that “poverty is the problem” expressed by “nextlevelchallenge” is nothing less than an excuse. As a former teacher in majority minority, low-income schools I know that kicking the can down the road until every social ill is solved is an easy way out of doing some heavy lifting. If “social problems” were the barrier…drug use and family distances at elite private schools would prevent success. The distinction between an allegedly “mentally ill” low-income parent and an absentee partner at a law firm parent is not too distant. I applaud Ed’s call for high expectations, ownership of learning and belief that all students can succeed. #classism #excuses

  3. Matthew Morris says:

    “Hey, look kid, you’re falling behind and so you need to step it up a notch, okay?” I don’t think this mentality is helpful at all, sorry. It is kind of like the whole blaming the victim thing, you know? This whole debate really comes down to nature vs. nurture. If you want to claim that a particular set of kids are falling behind the others because they are inherently incapable then you must either set up a proper environment for these ‘special’ kids to learn in or just allow them to fail. If you want to claim that a particular set of kids are falling behind the others because of environmental circumstances, then again, you must either set up a proper environment for these kids to learn in or just allow them to fail. And since I highly doubt you would feel very good about allowing these kids to fail, then which ever side you stand on, nature or nurture, there is only on way to move forward which is to appropriate an environment specifically for these kids.

    Now, wasn’t there just a proposal at your feet a short while ago addressing specifically the need to establish a more appropriate learning environment for these kids, a proposal that was bundled along side an in depth community engagement plan? I sure thought so. And if I remember correctly, I believe you voted “no” on it. So what’s really going on here Ed?

    • “Blaming the victim”? Gee, I don’t think so. Rather than blaming our students, I’m paying them the respect of believing in their capabilities. I suspect that you are referring to Madison Prep in your final paragraph. As anyone who followed the issue knows, I came to support the Madison Prep proposal but believed that we needed to delay it for a year. A big part of the appeal of the proposal for me was that it was based on high expectations for all students and evidenced serious thought about how to lessen the barriers to achievement for students who faced obstacles.

      • Matthew Morris says:

        I don’t know, maybe I am misreading this blog post. If so, I apologize.

        “So it is indisputably the case that it is more common for students of color to be holding themselves back by skimping on the necessary effort outside of class.” Followed by, “This got me to thinking that we as a school district do not seem to have any established expectations as to the amount of work that we expect our students, and particularly our middle and high school students, to do outside of the classroom.”

        Now, if I am not mistaken, this sounds like you are saying that kids of color are short-changing themselves by not putting enough effort towards homework. Well, this sounds nice but I don’t think it is very compassionate wording, nor realistic, considering the circumstances these kids grow up in. As Mark has stated, white or black, homework is not a very high priority for kids in general. Add in factors that some kids, of all colors, are dealing with at home and this whole idea of mandatory timetables for homework by grade becomes just another obstacle in their ability to see school as enjoyable and worth while. Learning should be fun, after all, it is one of our most innate desires. This group of kids you are addressing are already having a difficult time seeing it as such, and for good reason. To add more obligations on to their daily academic schedule seems it would effect more of a deterrent than an attraction. Just my .02.

        I understand you put forth some recommendations and/or ideas of how to make these kids surrounding environments more academic friendly, insofar as your recommendation to teachers to hand out more worth while homework, instead of mere “busywork”. That is great. All I am saying is that I think this sentence sums of this blog post nicely: “Returning to the achievement gap plan, I understand that exhorting students of color to work harder falls a tad short as a strategy.”

        I do agree that this issue is a complicated one, and I do thank you for being someone who is at least spending time brainstorming on possible solutions. That is honorable. I guess I am just tired of watching people in decision making positions stall potential solutions so more rhetoric can be displayed. I do think there are enough people in this community who have their head on straight, and are in the know of how to approach these dilemma’s, that we can now move forward with implementing truly meaningful action.


    • Mark says:

      Matthew, IMO you totally misread Ed’s post. He wasn’t blaming the kids at all, as I read it. Let’s face it, there are VERY few kids (mine included) who will regularly homework without prompting. That’s my job — every parents job– to do the (never-ending) prompting. In my household, I’m very lucky if a whole week goes by without some kind of battle over this subject. Whether the kid shows up with homework done typically falls on the parent. It’s almost always the parent who sets educational expectations in a house hold; very few children are born into the world self-starters, they need to be shown (have forced upon them) the way, until it (eventually, hopefully) becomes internalized as habit.

      No, if Ed is calling anyone out here, it’s parents. As is appropriate, there are a gazillion studies showing a correlation between parent involvement in/valuing secondary education, and student success. You got Ed’s point backwards, Matthew.

      Since you brought up Madison Prep: this was always on of my concerns with it. It was explicitly set up so that ONLY kids with parents heavily committed to involvement in their child’s education would be accepted/allowed to continue — or even be willing & able to jump through the hoops to apply. The parents would even need to take classes themselves, remember? Those are the kids who are most likely to succeed in the first place.

  4. I don’t understand why we are so often trying to reinvent the wheel here in Madison. There are schools in this country that have been innovative and successfully educate the low income and disadvantaged populations. If we can overcome our provincial pride and investigate what OTHER places have done successfully, we might have a chance.

    And in addition but along the same lines, we need a real therapeutic day school that is large enough to accommodate violent mentally ill children who not only are not learning without a real therapeutic program but bring violence and chaos into the regular classroom regardless of how many aides are in there with them. I am talking about elementary school kids. Most cities with as large a school population as we have have therapeutic day schools.

    • @nextlevelchallenge

      I agree with much of what you wrote in your first comment, but find offensive the unfounded assertions in the second comment that in Madison and elsewhere it is pride or a lack will on the part of Board Members or educators from implementing programs that are assured to work. I’ll even agree that a lack of will to tax sufficiently to pay for things the do help many students is part of the problem, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

  5. Two things for now. First, an increased reliance on homework can and often does result in struggling students falling further behind. In the simplest version, think about the 10 minutes per grade rule. Assume that the 10 minutes is for the average student at that grade level, but a struggling student will need much more than 10 minutes to complete the work assigned. If they only do the 10 minutes, then they will be further behind. This difficulty is often compounded by home circumstances that make finding the time and doing the work more difficult, leading to frustration, failure and dropping out.

    Second, nextlevelchallenge, can you be more specific about which “schools in this country that have been innovative and successfully educate the low income and disadvantaged populations” you are referring to?

    • Mark says:

      Thomas, I second your request of nextlevelchallenge. But at the same time, I ask the same of you & your first point – can you share with us the evidence where a district that did something (what?) to compel doing homework out side of class, & providing “teachers on call” as Ed proposes — which to my simpleminded POV is akin to additional instruction) — led to increased rates of failure & dropout? Especially where initiated early in the secondary career (sometime during elementary). Thanks.

    • Regarding which successful schools I was referring to, there have been a number of articles and PBS documentaries over the years (some articles regarding this have been shared on SIS, such as the school for street kids in Boston) and I would have to dig through to see their names. But that is not my job, researching these is what MMSD should be doing.

      • Some vaguely remembered journalistic reports. Nice. Maybe some of these are described in greater detail here: http://miracleschools.wikispaces.com/

        • Snark as usual from you TJ. I know you think you are the board of ed member that never had to campaign for a seat, but I realize I am not on the board, and as a parent, am frustrated that those who really are on the board do not do the research and review of schools that could lead them to successful models. We don’t have to come up with these things ourselves.

      • Mark says:

        nextlevelchallenge4all, though I questioned some things Thomas posted earlier, I have to take his side here. I have seen *so* much propaganda about the “miracle schools” which, once you scratch beneath the surface, turn out to be mostly smoke and mirrors (see: Chicago Prep) that I also have little patience for claims that “the be-all-end-all solution’s out there & well known, it’s been all over the news, I just can’t find a link right now, and hey it’s not my job to do that anyway — though I will take time to post complaints it’s not being done to blogs by my local board member.”

        If you think Thomas is unhelpful, I find it at least unhelpful this presumed assumption on the part of some parents that this is a problem that has an easy solution, and the ONLY thing between our at-risk students and success is lazy board member and somehow incompetent or defective or uncaring schools and staff. Seriously, that attitude is at least as big an impediment to a solution as whatever you feel Thomas Mertz is guilty of.

  6. Nothing directly today (maybe after some research), but a couple of indirect things:

    “A word of caution The data suggest that when it comes to using homework to improve student achievement, there is a point of diminishing returns. One study found students’ inability to understand and keep up with assignments contributed to their dropping out of school. After studying homework for seven years, researchers Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman suggest it’s time to shift the focus from quantity to quality. ”

    “Expecting homework to improve performance may threaten equity, since some children do not have the parental support needed to bring results. But encouraging parental involvement – working with children at home and actively participating in school activities – does improve results. Schools that foster participation by parents, and help parents to support their children in their school work tend to have better outcomes.”

    I also have some doubts about the efficacy of “Homework Hotlines.” I’m reminded of the “nurse on call” that my HMO has. The more complex the issue, the less helpful they are and 9 times out of 10 the “answer”is to go to a clinic/urgent care facility, or to make an appointment with your doctor.

    I have similar concerns about the reliance on volunteer tutors and non-professional tutors. If this is something that is important to our community, let’s pay qualified tutors/educators to do the job right. It might not be the feel good, community partnership approach, but it makes sense to me. The volunteers and nonprofessionals should supplement, not supplant.

    • For what it is worth (probably not much), some of my skepticism also comes form my experience as a parent when my children have struggled and have taken an hour or more to finish assignments that were tagged as taking less than 20 minutes, and when we have hired fully professional tutors because giving them the help they needed was beyond us.

    • Mark says:

      Thank you Thomas for the followup. Reading your links, for the first one (the “A word of caution …” excerpt), that point of “diminishing returns referred to in your quote appears to be 30-60 minutes for 4th grade, and for 11th grade it’s something beyond 2 hours per night. Based upon my experience thus far in MMSD, I don’t think we are in danger of exceeding that, especially for the at-risk kids. But the point that quality is more important than quantity, I suspect no one would disagree with that, including Ed.

      One of the components where I thought MP might be on to something was their long school day (I think til 6pm?). I always assumed that the extra hours would not be filled with further instruction of new subject material, but review & exercises of material already presented. AKA: homework. Just not done at home. But because not done at home, it’d be be more likely to get done, period. With subject matter experts on hand to assist one-on-one. I might have been wrong, but I hope not. That was the one thing about MP that I thought held promise.

  7. mmsmom says:

    I question added hours for students that do not take advantage of the school day they have. Students that want to do their school work stay late or spend their lunch time with their teachers (who are working during their duty free lunches) to get extra support. An extended school day does not address kids that skip class, kids that sleep during class, and kids that come to school mostly for the social experience.
    MP looked at an extended school day, with the option of excluding kids that couldn’t meet or maintain criteria. That means the unmotivated remain in the general public school setting not meeting criteria. Over time, through attrition of kids not meeting the MP expectations, the more disenfranchised and unmotivated students return to their home school, leaving behind the average and above average students who are motivated to meet the expectations of the IB curriculum, wear uniforms, and stay in school for 10 hours a day. Withing 2-3 years, programs like the MP proposal become elitist schools, leaving the students they claim to want to support trapped in areas like Great Gray and Allied Drive, without transportation to attend. An extended day does not solve the homework dilemma, it only makes the adults feel better. Spoon feeding homework only perpetuates a student’s dependence on the system. Access to information and assistance in an extended learning environment is great, but the purpose of homework is not for new learning; it is for the reinforcement of skills learned in the classroom.

  8. Frustrated Teacher says:

    “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
    I’m a middle school teacher, and the topic of homework makes me want to smack my head against the wall.
    Do you think we haven’t struggled to get kids to the homework?
    Do you think we haven’t given incentives?
    Do you think we haven’t tried to make the homework meaningful?
    Do you think we haven’t discussed the importance of homework with the kids?
    Do you think we haven’t discussed the importance of homework with the *parents*?
    Do you think we haven’t spent countless hours trouble-shooting this?

    We have the fact that, developmentally, teenagers are not intrinsically motivated to do homework. When you’re talking about Achievement Gap kids, we have the fact that don’t have the time/skills/option of helping/guiding/forcing kids to do their homework. We have the fact that there are *serious* base-level needs that aren’t being met for these kids, which makes expecting them to give two shakes about homework somewhat ridiculous. We have the fact that–under the new-ish Standards Based Report Cards framework–homework cannot be used as a “summative assessment” (i.e. “It doesn’t affect the final grade.”), which takes away both the carrot and the stick and leaves the teacher saying, “Please pull that cart. Pretty please?”

    The locus of control is *not* with the teachers or their schools. We can bark orders at the wind, but it won’t change the way it blows.

    • Frustrated Teacher says:

      Fixing my own post: “When you’re talking about Achievement Gap kids, we have the fact that THE PARENTS don’t have the time/skills/option of helping/guiding/forcing kids to do their homework.”

  9. Erin Proctor says:

    As an SEA in a Madison middle school, I see the achievement gap everyday. Biggest problem? Kids in one class that range in ability from Kindergarten to High school. One teacher (sometimes with room support) trying to teach curriculum to this diverse a group. Can’t happen. I have seen that the biggest behavioral problems are kids that are failing in class, and that makes sense; If a kid acts out, disrupts, gets kicked out of class, they don’t have to risk being called on, and not know the answer. Kids want to be smart. Kids want to achieve. My teacher team, took the radical idea to our administration to try one quater to group our kids for two classes, by grade from the first semester. Passing kids would be in one class, with one teacher. Failing kids would be in the other class, with the other teacher, and SEA and room support. The administrators flat out refused, saying that was tracking and kids learn better with their peers.
    The bigger point is that 90% of the failing kids were African American and Hispanic. Do you think administration was afraid to face that fact? When I asked students if they would be interested in a class split like this, so they could have extra help and the chance to catch up, There only concerns were the split was a grade based decision on what class you were in, and not race; and would there be more homework than the other class. I said yes and no. Every student in that group (all failing students), said YES! When I asked if their parents would like that? They all said YES!
    Hmmmmm. Missed opportunity I would say.
    Erin Proctor

    • Erin, this is so frustrating. What you describe is an example of people who are actually working with the kids wanting to apply common sense and practicality being trumped by what looks good on the outside and being politically correct. And Frustrated Teacher, your point about homework being low on these kids list of needs is what I was trying to convey in my first post as well.

  10. I think that MORE homework is exactly the wrong way to go, and I said as much in an essay I wrote for Isthmus back in 1999. It’s entitled “Designing for Failure”:

    = = = = = =

    Designing for Failure

    by Richard S. Russell

    Let’s say you work for the Deep Thoughts Corporation (DTC). It’s mainly office work, Monday to Friday, 8 am to 5 pm, with an hour off for lunch. It’s been that way for years, and most people can comfortably get their jobs done in the time allotted. Oh sure, there are some crunch periods where people come in early or stay late or work weekends or take work home with them, but those are the exceptions.

    But now the DTC is faced with a fiscal crunch and decides to tighten its belt by shutting the company doors 2 hours earlier each day. The nature and amount of your work doesn’t change, and you get paid the same, it’s just that you have to leave the office at 3 pm.

    The result is what you’d expect. Some (few) people use this event as impetus to completely rethink their jobs and find a way to get them done in 6 hours instead of 8. Some (not many) decide to give up their lunch hour and try to accomplish 8 hours’ work in 7. And, at the opposite end of the scale, there are people who were only doing 6 hours’ work a day to begin with.

    But the bulk of employees end up taking work home with them. And the differentiation process begins.

    The driven, the dedicated, the diligent, the desperate–they continue to perform as before. Others start out by thinking they’ll put in a couple of extra hours a day at home, but soon find that there are all sorts of reasons and excuses for not doing it on a regular basis. And some people just blow it off altogether, figuring, “Hey, if the company really took the work seriously, they’d make time for it, so if they don’t, why should I?”.

    As time goes by, the problems start to accumulate. Previously reliable employees start missing deadlines. This wreaks havoc on group projects and leads to bad job evaluations. Productivity declines. Morale nosedives. A few of the lowest producers are let go. Criticism mounts. The very best workers start bailing out.

    In reality, the DTC is the biggest enterprise in Wisconsin: the public-school system. And, while any fool can see that a business would have designed its system to fail by not giving its workers enough time to do their jobs, we seem curiously blind to the fact that the schools’ expectations for homework are the exact equivalent of this.

    Educational research tells us that kids who do their homework regularly perform better in school. And employees who put in 8-hour days churn out more work than those who put in only 6. Duh!

    The situation is even worse than I’ve painted it. Employers screen out poor prospects at hiring time; the schools admit everyone. Workers at an actual company have a monetary incentive–called a salary–to get their homework done; students don’t. Adults have presumably picked up self-discipline somewhere along the line; kids famously have not.

    Ignore for the moment how perverse it is to expect kids–even little kids–to put in 9- and 10-hour days when we don’t expect the same of their parents. Focus instead on how much of that work is purposely off-loaded into an environment over which the schools have absolutely no control.

    Kids leave school and hit the streets or the malls, or go to work, or go home to listen to their CDs or watch TV or babysit younger siblings. The less fortunate hang out with gangs or try to avoid flying crockery as the folks duke it out. Let’s not even get started on drugs and guns.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if every child had her or his own space–quiet, spacious, well lighted, stocked with reference materials, free of distractions–in which to study? Plus adults who made sure that it happened?

    We do–in the schools!

    School buildings are a scandalously underutilized resource. If they opened their doors early and kept them open late, kids would have safe, inviting, effective places to do their schoolwork. And if the buildings stayed open right through the summer–on a regular basis, for everyone–we’d get even more return on our investment. (Most teachers will testify that the first 2-3 weeks after summer vacation are spent relearning what’s been forgotten.)

    But it’s not enough just to provide table space. We already do that with study halls, which often end up being just warehouses for slackers. We know that the classroom learning experience must be interactive–emphasis on the “active”–to be effective. That same approach must suffuse the entire time the children are in school.

    And then it’s time to put away the books and go home. Empty-handed.

    The major effect of homework is to accentuate the difference between rich and poor, between the privileged and the disadvantaged. By insisting that homework is necessary to success in school, we have purposely designed a system which guarantees that many children–perhaps most–will fail.

    It has been said that a time traveler from a century ago would instantly recognize only 3 institutions in modern America–the churches, the saloons, and the schools. We can and must change the schools. We should start immediately by eliminating homework.

    • Mark says:

      Richard – though you might not agree, what you suggest isn’t really that different than what I was saying in my earlier post:

      “One of the components where I thought MP might be on to something was their long school day (I think til 6pm?). I always assumed that the extra hours would not be filled with further instruction of new subject material, but review & exercises of material already presented. AKA: homework. Just not done at home. But because not done at home, it’d be be more likely to get done, period. With subject matter experts on hand to assist one-on-one. I might have been wrong, but I hope not. That was the one thing about MP that I thought held promise.”

      When you say in your first sentence “I think that MORE homework is exactly the wrong way to go,” IMO you are getting too hung up on that word “home.” Can we just call it “independent learning reinforcement exercises” and agree we are talking about the same thing, just leaving the location unspecified? The value of independent “doing” work (in those studies Ed cites) I doubt lies in what building it’s done. Just that it *is* done.

  11. Joyce says:

    Maybe there should be more school work done in class. Every teacher assigns homework like they are the only class the kids have. There’s to much home work. They also spend to much time spent on “busy work” that’s not helping them in the real world. What about teaching them more about finances; paying bills; insurance policy’s, etc. You also have students that are hands on or learn better by some one talking to them in class rather than reading a book.

    • Frustrated Teacher says:

      A few observations from my end as a middle school teacher…
      1) Most teachers I know don’t assign homework like they’re the only ones, but some don’t have the luxury of a small enough staff or common planning time to *know* what is going on elsewhere. In the past, when parents have made that complaint about the team I work on, it’s often turned out that the student has “stockpiled” homework over a period of time.

      2) Many teachers–especially Math and Science–have their hands pretty well tied as to what they can assign. Their curriculum is pretty tightly controlled. Household math (bills, checking, etc.) is *very* important, and often used to be taught in Family Consume Ed classes… which have been cut in many/most schools due to budget.

      3) When I myself have assigned “busy work” as homework it’s usually been because I’m being pressured to assign X amount of homework, but only 50% of my students do it. If I make it integral to my lesson for the next day, that means my lesson plan doesn’t work for 50% of the class. The “busy work” satisfies demands for more homework without crippling my curriculum. It’s not a good situation, but teachers are often left not knowing what else to do.

  12. A Madison teacher contacted me in response to my post and raised an interesting point about whether the standards-based report cards used in MMSD middle schools may contribute to new ninth graders being unprepared for the rigors of high school. Here’s what she wrote:

    “I recently read your blog regarding homework in MMSD middle and high schools. As an 8th grade English teacher in Madison, I have seen a significant drop off in homework completion for all kids since we moved to the 1, 2, 3, 4 standards grading system. It does not allow for us to grade homework. The philosophy is that we are grading only what we actually see kids produce so that we are getting an authentic grade based on their work.

    “In reality, not all work can be completed within the short school day. Kids who are internally motivated or have guardians, tutors, or coaches who help them manage to get it finished will be more prepared in the long run. However, many just now see homework as ‘optional.’

    “While teachers stress the importance of homework for independent practice of skills learned in class, most adolescents aren’t developmentally at a place where they do it because they understand the long range benefits. When grades were assigned, they viewed it more seriously.

    “The high school teachers have told us repeatedly that incoming 9th graders don’t have proper homework habits. The jump from 8th to 9th grade has always been significant in many ways for kids and I feel we don’t have enough realistic transitioning for them with our current grading system. I’ve done short lessons on what a zero can do to a grade in a class but unfortunately, they don’t quite believe it until it happens to them. The tragic part of this is that it is so hard for a freshman to recover from a low GPA. I tell kids that every grade in high school opens or closes a door for them in the long run. The 1, 2, 3, 4 system does not prepare them for the percentage system they encounter in high school. A grade of a ‘2’ meaning “partial understanding” could really equate to anywhere from a ‘D- to a C’ leaving kids with a really loose view of where they really stand.

    “I’m sorry to be so long winded but your blog really spoke to me in a lot of ways. The learning that takes place away from school (or not) during the year and over the summer can be quite significant. We want to raise a generation of learners who can practice reading, writing, and math with increasing levels of independence. Homework helps them do this. I appreciate your raising the issue.”

    Any teachers out there with further thoughts on this?

    • Frustrated Teacher says:

      The concept of the Standards Based Report Cards had some real merit, but it’s execution was seriously flawed and rushed out before the district had done the groundwork needed. It’s really been kind of a debacle.

      The amount of work that can be accomplished in class is a serious issue. If I assign a 5 paragraph research essay, and *all* the work must be done within the confines of my class if I’m to use it as a summative grade, just how much of a single quarter is going to be eaten up by the entire process (prep, research, notes, planning, multiple drafts, editing, typing…)? Can I really afford to do that, looking all the standards I’m supposed to hit in a year?

    • Mark says:

      I’m not a teacher, just a parent of a child (our oldest) entering HS this fall, but the comments of this teacher really resonated with me. My son is bright, on the honor roll & all that, but still we are are extremely nervous if he is adequately prepared for the rigors of high school

      My experience with MMSD so far is that the teachers in our elementary school did a great job of setting expectations for independent (home) work, and communicating to us when there were issues, but all that seemed to go out the window when our son entered middle. If anything his study habits have regressed over the last three years. Our son actually spent far LESS time each evening doing homework over the last couple years than our younger elementary school child. In 6th grade I thought he just had a bad teacher — and he did, it was apparent even the administration realized it, by their subsequent actions — but it became clear over the next two years there was more to it than that. We never knew for sure he was doing all the work he needed to do. One class in particular (math), I was astonished to learn that the teacher never collected or corrected homework even once, apparently he wrote the answers on the board (not even a handout!) & expected the kids to check their own work & take initiative to inform him they were struggling. That sounds more like college than middle school to me. I thought my son was making this up, but I confirmed it by talking to the teacher. When I asked him if my son was doing his homework regularly, he told me he didn’t know!

      This may not bother the parents on this blog who question the value of homework in the first place, but for parents like us that do, it was very frustrating. Periodically I resorted to checking and “grading” his homework myself, in an attempt to keep him honest (and had to do the problems myself, since I had no answer key). Thankfully they at least provided Infinite Campus updates on the assignments. I’m the the first to agree that ensuring homework is completed is primarily a parent’s responsibility, but I guess I’d expected more support from the school than this! The math class I described was an advanced course, so maybe the thinking was that these kids are self-starters or something, but the reality was (according to my son) that by Thanksgiving most of even these high achieving kids were supposedly skipping multiple homework assignments each week.

      I’m actually relieved, not frightened, by the comments of the teacher that emailed Ed Hughes, that 9th grader teachers see and confront this issue. It at least tells me high school the teachers check if their pupils are doing this work & we won’t be left to continue fighting the battle alone! I always expected the middle school years to be the least productive due to “hormones”, etc., but this experience fell short of even my pessimistic expectations.

    • Laura Chern says:

      “As an 8th grade English teacher in Madison, I have seen a significant drop off in homework completion for all kids since we moved to the 1, 2, 3, 4 standards grading system. It does not allow for us to grade homework. The philosophy is that we are grading only what we actually see kids produce so that we are getting an authentic grade based on their work.” This is the excuse my kids used to get out of doing homework. When homework isn’t graded, it gives the impression of busywork.

    • mary battaglia says:

      I’m late to this discussion but myself and about 8 teachers went to see Dan Nerad about how we felt the standard based report cards were going to not work. I got the concept…the problem was the staff was not required to go to a summer training and the grades were not standardized until two years later. It SHOULD have been piloted at one school and worked out. I went to a parent meeting that was used to explain the new system and get our feedback. The feedback given to the School Board did not in ANY way reflect what the parents said. I would firmly say that is when I quit participating with MMSD and trying to improve the schools. When an agenda is developed cause its the new cool thing and the administration keeps telling parents we are to stupid to understand the concept and you push it forward anyway….then my participation is no longer needed. I did my research and asked everyone of my two middle school students teachers what they thought a 1 meant, 2 meant, 3 meant, 4 meant,…..and they were honest to tell me they had no idea and when they tried very few were on the same page. To make matters worse the kids found it a joke. I now have a senior and a freshman in high school and I can tell you the report card, standard based in middle school, did them NO favors. It is and was a bad idea, just like Jefferson’s no walls community room was the new bestest thing and guess what, it was a disaster. The money spend to change those stupid cards….were not worth the time spent. Middle School is the problem in MMSD. The reason MP was a bad idea is it started with kids that would already be done, lost and tainted. I elementary MP, where kids are less transient easier to influence makes so much more sense…..but what do I know, I’m just an over educated parent.

  13. Madison Teacher says:

    I have heard so many people take the “if only they worked harder” stance without really thinking about the underlying issues. To me, this is not productive. It addresses going at the behaviors of students without looking at what is causing them. The students I have who “work hard” share some things in common that can’t be ignored. They are generally interested in the learning that is taking place, see themselves reflected in the curriculum and have a sense of self efficacy. Some students arrive in my classroom who do not see themselves as learners, it is not a part of their identity. This can be changed, so there is hope. However, it is important to look at the reasons for this. Most often, it is a message they received somewhere early on or a history of negative experiences and failures in their school setting.

    Students receive messages about their identity as a learner from the minute they step into that school. Before that, these messages come from home and from the media. When talking to many people about their educational messaging, it is clear that a lot of people who go onto further education were in situations where they knew early on that it was an expectation. That doesn’t mean that this message can’t come at a later time or from a source outside the family. It can. But, that doesn’t take away the fact that some benefit from this messaging early on and buy into education as a result.

    One of the assets of programs like AVID is that students who are a part of that program are pinpointed as students who will go to college. By labeling kids as college bound, you are sending them the message that learning is for them. However, the pitfall of this is that the groups that are truly at-risk don’t make it into this program.

    It also doesn’t address the fact that are schools and programming are better suited for certain types of learners or certain types of students. I’ve seen this in my classroom and frequently find ways to adapt. Research has shown early starts aren’t beneficial to the adolescent mind. So, if I have a class that is early in the morning, I get them up and moving. Research has shown that people need a couple minutes of reflecting and processing time for every 7-10 minutes of lecturing. Skilled teachers chunk their time accordingly. However, these are workarounds. Schools, for the most part, maintain a similar structure that is continued because it is what people expect or it is a part of routine. To make significant changes, we would really need buy in from society at large and currently our society undervalues and under-funds education.

    Homework cannot take the place of quality instruction. It is only meant to practice and reinforce what was already learned. It is not going to solve the achievement gap. However, many teachers invite students into their classrooms after school to work on homework. These types of one-on-one interactions reinforces the fact that the work is important and that the student is valuable. When I call parents to ask them if a student can stay after school and get caught up on their work, they are generally delighted. Homework completion matters to parents, no matter what their income level is. This type of communication is invaluable. But, practicing and reinforcing is not an intervention and it will not solve the achievement gap. It will help students hold onto what they learned in the day and prepare them for the next day of learning.

    The decline in homework completion happened long before standards based report cards arrived. And the kids who do their homework are the same kids who are driven by grades. So, to point the finger at the report card format doesn’t make sense. I have found the one way to keep kids working is to keep in communication with parents. This means seeing the parents as a partner and not discounting anybody’s home experience. Yes, some people have things a lot harder. That is a societal issue that cannot be fixed by the schools, but to then discredit and undermine the parents as a result is absurd.

    I find this blog falls short of providing any explanation for why certain groups of students excel in our schools and others struggle. Doing more of the same is not an answer when the status quo is not working. We need our community on board with this problem solving and as long as we are pointing fingers and finding scapegoats, this cannot happen.

  14. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    I know it sounds like a broken record, but I applaud you for the blog and your posts. Details and rationale behind your views draws much greater respect – regardless of whether or not an individual agrees with the views.

    You ignited a bit of a fire here on this post. As a parent of two children that are progressing their way through MMSD, I can share my view as a parent.

    Bluntly – the lack of homework is a joke. And as pointed out above, the reduction in homework predates the changes is grading. Whether the following is true, I can attest that it is accurate: I have spoken with several teachers in the District who have stated that they are precluded / prevented / strongly pressured not to give homework to a classroom. The reason stated had to do with the belief that not all students would be able to complete the homework, so why single those children out. At the elementary and middle school levels, my wife and I have asked for homework to be given to our children – work outside of the normal school load. Some educators did this for us, others did not.

    I do see and agree that the challenges with homework is more than just “assign the work and do it.” There are struggles that families in our community have that – to be candid – mine does not. My children know they will get fed for dinner. My children know that this dinner will be more that just “pop open a can of X and warm it up.” My children know that their parents will be home to either help them with school work or get them focused to actually do the work. And my children do not suffer from the stress of a home life that exists in struggling households.

    But children need to be exposed to a school / classroom / educator that will expect more from them than they themselves believe possible. Think back to an educator in your life that made a difference. Did they let you skate? Were they strict in their expectations of you? Did they want and demand the best you could do? Those educators that I think made a difference for me all shared those traits. Funny thing is – this is also true with my children. Calling out Tom Hardin at Memorial here – high standards, doesn’t take “gruff”, is viewed as a tough teacher and is respected beyond belief. And he gets the kids to respond. I know there are many others in MMSD – I simply use this as an example. And to see my children respond to that is amazing and inspiring.

    I cannot help but think that we should expect more from our students. In fact, we should demand more. And demand more from parents and teachers.

    Homework is critical in the learning process. Think in your own life – have you ever attended training only to forget a substancial part of the training because you didn’t use it? You learn something and by repetition it becomes second nature. Sorry for the example here, but if I want to get better at a sport I see an instructor, take a lesson and… practice. My music teacher in middle school many years ago would write something on my sheet music – LOP. Lack of Practice. He knew I didn’t practice and simply let me know that he had greater expectations. He did not embarrass me in front of a class, but he let it be known that he expected more.

    Repetition and practice.. Assign homework. Please.

    • Memorial Student says:

      Tom Hardin teaches an honors-level class, and rarely encounters students who weren’t “driven” before they entered his classroom. I’d like to applaud Ms. Neil, a Freshman English teacher at Memorial, for her ability to inspire kids of all different backgrounds to work hard and to get the most out of her class. She holds high expectations for her students as individuals, because she understands that while people are born equal, life gets pretty unequal after that point. Students in her class grow tremendously and learn to question the world around them, and she does this not by setting a blind bar for her students to reach, but by being compassionate and believing in her students at the same time.

      Hats off to a really excellent teacher.

  15. I finally had time to read through all the comments. Without getting into specifics, I am gratified by the interesting and provocative thoughts that folks have taken the time to share. This kind of exchange is always what I hope for when I write about something school-related that’s been on my mind. These kinds of comments tend to expand my views and remind me yet again about the impressive quality of our teachers and the equally impressive level of engagement of many parents and community members in our educational enterprise. Thanks all around.

  16. mary battaglia says:

    I could not agree more with the teacher who is concerned about the middle school grading system. Myself and about 10 parents met with Dr. Nerad who inherited this disaster grading system, and expressed our concerns. This system was set into place during my third child’s entry into our middle school. The grading system is a joke. (not to mention incompatible with IC) It was implemented without REQUIRED staff training, without being piloted, and quit frankly the downtown staff implementing it were delusional in their approach of how it gave parents so much more information. I could not be more confused. When I spoke to our middle school staff they had no real feeling what a 2 or 3 or 4 meant and many interpreted it differently which was apparent on my son’s grades. I feel the staff after 3 years have finally come to terms to the new definition but now my biggest problem is some very innovative and creative curriculum were eliminated because it was not part of the standards and the teacher was no longer allowed to utilize her curricula, for example a mock trial had to be greatly reduced as it was not a part of the standards. Also what was graded, the work sent home was greatly reduced. My daughter was the first to have this system in 8th grade and the shock of 9th grade was awful. I made my 8th grader take 9th grade math, knowing he would have to retake this course, just so he would have an idea of what will be expected of him next year. The expectations in Middle School ( or mine anyway) are a joke….not just academics, but showing up late, talking back to staff, not doing work. The positive behavior model is not working at my middle school and this system is not doing these kids any favors.

    That said, I do not believe in 2 hours of homework a night. My kids are active in extracurricular activities and frequently do not get home till 7 p.m. Not many adults go to work all day, go work out (or work on a play/music) and then come home and work 2 more hours. You read all the time your child should be involved in activities, working, volunteering, etc…..but when! Either allow kids to utilize their PE/art credits for extracurricular activities so they can get homework done at school and have an extra study hall or or better yet have 7th hour as credited sports/art classes. Most of my nieces and nephews out of state, get PE credit for playing a school sponsored sport, and music credit for being in the school band. There is a lot of wasted time at school…..like backyard!

  17. Leta says:

    It certainly would be helpful for parents and students raised without high educational expectations to have a guideline for how much time investment is expected of them outside of school. While time may not be the only factor, a student/parent could at least measure their “investment” against an obvious standard. And while high school is certainly not the place to give grades based on effort (rather than achievement), it might also help educators to better encourage and help struggling students if both are aware of how much time students are giving to the subject outside of class.

    That being said, two hours a night is a huge expectation–even with multiple concurrent AP classes, we didn’t spend that amount of time in study. And for a student that works, takes care of siblings, or participates in sports, there may just not be enough time left in the day. Thus it would be helpful if teachers kept the homework useful, on point (dioramas? really?), and routine. Perhaps they could even include estimates for the students (and parents) of how long each assignment should take so kids can better budget their time. And certainly, the suggestions to expand or support after school and community efforts in homework help go farthest to help struggling students meet these expectations. Thank you for the thoughtful post and the plain talk.

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