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Dealing With Missing Homework

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In the spring, a young teacher’s fancy turns to thoughts of . . . homework? That’s what happened in the TLN forum discussion group last week, when a fifth-year middle school teacher asked her colleagues: "What’s your feeling about students who won’t or don't do work outside of school?"

She went on to explain:

I carefully plan my class so that the homework I give is meaningful. Basically, I ask students to continue the reading process we begin in school. Home reading is a valuable habit for them to develop, and practical since I can't devote enough class time to silent reading for my students to get through books in a timely manner.

Much of the time they have chosen their own books and by October most of my students are reading in class and for homework. But I have a few students who just hold out on me. They read in class, but no matter what, it seems they won't read at home. These are students who also don't do any work outside of school in any of their other classes. It's true they go home to chaotic environments and some have lots of household duties. But does this mean they truly can't work outside of school? Or are they simply refusing? Is it okay? How hard should a teacher push on this?

My close colleague grew up with both her parents working long hours and she basically raised her four younger brothers and sisters. She was exhausted, but she did her school work despite it and she excelled in school. She is a great teacher and has no sympathy for students who don't do work outside of school. She believes it’s necessary for students to take responsibility for their education and she refuses to "make excuses for them." She has the highest number of failing students in the building. Nonetheless, students say they learn a lot from her and come back to visit her, saying she prepared them for high school (we both teach 8th grade).

Where do you stand on students working on assignments outside of school? What about those few that don't?

A suburban high school English teacher replied:

There are a variety of aspects to consider: the students' ages, individual circumstances, the expectations of the school and department, the expectations in their high schools, and any relevant standards you operate within.

I'm sure you appreciate the importance of communicating one-to-one with these students and showing that you value them and want to understand the relevant factors that prevent them from doing work. At the same time, you can use that interaction to communicate the importance of what you're asking—how it will serve them well in the future, that it's not an arbitrary requirement you cooked up to torture students. Beyond that, I'm not sure what the consequences should be for that age group, in your context.

Working with high school students in the context that I do, I have a clear expectation, consistent with my department, school, and district, that students must do work on their own outside of school. Like you, I aim to keep it relevant and valuable—no busy work. When students don't do the work, I talk to them, and offer support and flexibility on the amount or timing of work as warranted—but there's not much chance of getting around the basic expectation of reading and writing outside of school hours.

When students say they just can't do it, I'm comfortable saying that they also can't expect a grade of C or higher in the class. I try to present it as a matter of providing evidence. They may very well be capable of satisfactory completion of a high school English class, but if, for whatever reason, they can't demonstrate it at this time, the grade is unfortunately reflecting that there's no evidence to warrant a more desirable grade.

Another middle school teacher, in a small midwestern town, wondered: "Should failure be an option?"

I teach 7th grade math and try not to assign homework as such. However, math is very skill-oriented and there are assignments each day. Students who use class time wisely usually have little or no work to complete outside of class. I plan my assignments so students can complete them during class time because I want to be available to help them if they are struggling.

Unfortunately, the students who struggle most tend to be either slow workers or those who care very little about their grades anyway. These students seldom finish their assignments in OR out of class, and consequently, their grades suffer. I have a fairly liberal grading policy. Homework not turned in does not count against students. However, students who do not complete daily work have little chance of being successful on assessments.

I am not sure what the solution is. I have tried working with individual students, writing contracts with parents/students, offering to stay after school to help, whatever. But for some students (and their parents) school is simply not a priority. While I understand that other things interfere with students and time to complete assignments, I also feel that school should be their number one priority right now and somehow we need to make them understand this.

An upper elementary teacher in New York state wrote:

I see great value in the concept of meaningful homework for a variety of reasons. Obviously, it’s valuable for the transfer of content and strategies along with the positive effects of practice and reinforcement. I also think it is a perfect way to provide opportunities to build character in terms of responsibility and personal accountability—skills that can go a long way in life.

A high school teacher in the rural deep south remembered:

I once visited the home of a student who almost never did his homework. I discovered that he lived in a trailer (not double-wide) with five siblings, two cousins, and three adults. There were two light bulbs in the entire trailer: one in the bathroom, the other over the kitchen area. I started making arrangements for him to do his homework in my room after school or early in the morning.

Our local youth ministry operates a homework club that provides space and support for members to do homework a couple of nights each week. We have many parents who are illiterate or semi-illiterate. Some push their children to get an education; others are intimidated by anything from school and embarrassed that they can't help their children. Consequently, I've become much less rigid about work done outside of school. It's always optional, although I stress the value of it for the doer.

A teacher in California questioned whether there is evidence that homework actually improves learning.

I recently read an article stating that homework had little or no impact on student achievement in content. Other research I've read supports that thinking as well. It's one of those sacred cows that would be worth discussing and learning more about.

Do my kids do work at home? Yes. But mostly they do it on their own terms based on what they need in order to accomplish projects by a certain date. Reading is an expectation too, but it's always their choice of book. Work completion and quality have risen since I ceased assigning "homework," and I see how much more serious they are about the work we do in class together.

Rick Wormeli, a TLN forum member who writes and speaks about homework issues frequently as a professional development consultant, had this to say:

Some teachers see homework as evidence of learning. This is true, but it's formative evidence at best. As such, it is never to be used in the final summative grade, or if used, it should be used with an extremely small influence on the overall grade—2 percent, 5 percent, or similar. Most experts will cringe even at this concession. We should use any evidence gained in assessing homework assignments to provide feedback to students and revise instruction, not as the final declaration of what a child knows and is able to do regarding a standard or outcome.

Homework is definitely practice. In fact, in my middle school classes, we called it what it was—"practice." The phrasing I used was, "Students, your science practice tonight will be...," or, "For practice tonight in English, please do the following...." This kept both students and me mindful of homework's true role in learning (and its weight in grading) and removed a lot of the emotional baggage associated with the term "homework."

Nowhere else in the world do we grade practice. We don't give the gold medal to Olympians who trained well and worked hard, we give it to those who achieve the highest results. Homework is the time to practice and wrestle with the ideas, try out hunches, and explore the topic. If the score on our practice work counts for much of our grade, we don't have the freedom to explore without fear of labeling and rejection.

This, perhaps, is the change in metaphor we need to consider: Grades are not compensation. They never were. Grades are reports of what happened—that's it. They are communication, and as such, they must be accurate.

If we include such factors as homework performance; the number of days he used a quiet, indoor voice; whether she brought her supplies in a timely manner; if she completed tasks assigned, met deadlines, or brought in canned food for food drives; or a host of other distorting factors, we remove all validity in the initial report of what the students knows and can do regarding the standards/outcomes. Now the grade can no longer be used to inform academic decisions, document progress, or provide accurate feedback. Our enterprise is undermined.

Some suggest that doing homework builds character and therefore should be counted in the grade. I agree that doing assigned tasks, meeting deadlines, managing time, and sticking it out to finish an assignment when you'd rather be watching television all have their place in building character. But responding with inappropriate grading policies is not the way to build moral fiber. Hold students accountable for doing homework and following through on requests from the adults in their lives, but don't do it through your grading practices. Grades are very poor teachers.

One last thing: There are numerous research reports regarding the impact of homework on student achievement in school, and the correlations are nothing or next to nothing for primary and elementary grades. In middle school there is a small bump, and in high school a slightly higher bump, but the correlation is still stunningly low. We have to accept the fact that while homework is one tool for learning a topic, it is only that—one tool. We have hundreds of other ways to teach students.

If the homework door is closed for whatever reason, it's not the end of learning. Consider how you would teach if you didn't have homework assignments to rely upon. When I did this earlier in my career, it changed what I did the classroom. My instruction improved as a result.

So how about you? Is homework important? Do you include it in your grading system? Have your views changed over time?

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