Now that Gov. Larry Hogan has seemingly done what the state legislature has refused to do despite overwhelming support from Maryland residents and ordered all public schools to start after Labor Day (which, despite outcries from school boards, shouldn't be as hard to reconfigure as they claim, even with teacher contract mandated professional development days included, just a little sacrifice around spring break), let's turn our attention to addressing an even longer standing school tradition: homework.
A few weeks ago, a Texas school teacher named Brandy Young went viral on the internet when a parent shared a letter she sent home announcing her new homework policy: There wouldn't be any assigned, unless it was work your child was unable to complete in class. She instead asked parents and students spend their time after school doing things like eating together as a family, reading to and with their children and getting kids to bed early, all of which have a proven impact on student success.
I wish Mrs. Young had been my teacher. Homework was the bane of my existence as a student, especially in high school. Generally, I was an A and B student (with the exception of Spanish and calculus classes, where I did all the homework and still didn't get it) and the classes I received B's in were usually the ones where teachers assigned what I thought was an overabundance of homework that was heavily weighted toward your final grade.
My 11th-grade chemistry teacher was the worst culprit of this. I received low B's all four quarters that year, despite acing most of the tests and assisting other students in class to understand their lab assignments (more than she did, a few will tell you). A few years later at college, I helped the girl who later became my wife pass her chemistry class, the one course she struggled with mightily despite otherwise breezing through her science classes and labs on the way to a pair of degrees in biology and environmental science. (She's way smarter than me.)
So why did my high school chemistry grade teeter on the B-C line every quarter? About a third of your overall grade in that class was based on whether you completed the homework assignments. Not even how well you did on them, just that you completed them. Half the time, she didn't even collect them, just walked around the room and checked whether you did them. Of course, as you can probably tell, rebellious 16-year-old me only did them about half the time anyway, because I thought it was a waste of time then, and still do now.
To me, that was lazy teaching. By no means was I a chemistry prodigy (and, in fact, if I had to take a chemistry test right now, I'd probably flunk it, since it has no practical application to my day-to-day life) but I think it was safe to say I understood the content.
Homework should be to reinforce the concepts being taught in class so that students better comprehend them. In the case of my 11th-grade chemistry teacher — who I do think was an exception rather than the rule — homework was a participation trophy. As long as you turned it in, you got credit. Several of my friends who did up to an hour of homework every night for that class but needed my help to understand how to do the labs ended up with A's. What does that teach?
Homework does have a place, though. When I was in second grade, I was terrible at math. We used to have "timed tests" where you would have to do several math problems in three, four or five minutes. You were graded by how many you got correct and, if you didn't get to them, they were considered wrong. I struggled mightily with this, and it was the one time I recall my parents getting called for a meeting with the teacher.
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The teacher gave my mom several copies of timed tests, and my mom bought a small hourglass. We worked on them every night until I got better and, before you knew it, I was getting 100 percent on every test and finishing them before most of my classmates.
In that case, I needed reinforcement of the concepts and doing additional work at home did that for me. By the way, my teacher never collected nor graded any of those extra assignments. But the initiative paid off and resulted in straight A's in all future math classes. Right up until calculus, anyway.
Ridding the world of homework, while it would probably make a lot of kids happy, probably would be detrimental to their learning. But I do think teachers should think a little harder about their own homework policies such as how much they are assigning each night and how much impact it will have on their students' grades.
A University of Phoenix College of Education poll of 1,000 K-12 teachers showed high school students get an average of 3.5 hours of homework each night, or more than 17 hours per week. Assuming the typical high school student gets home from school at 3:30 p.m. and immediately cracks the books, they aren't done until 7. That doesn't count an hour for dinner or any extracurricular activities that might not allow them to get started until 5 or 6, or even later.
What are we actually hoping to accomplish with all this homework? While some outside projects aren't unreasonable, I think we would do better to make daily homework assignments optional for extra credit for students who are struggling with the material being taught in class. And let's not just give a check mark for homework completed. If you're going to assign it and kids take the time to do it, grade it so students can see where they actually need to improve before the test.
Let's not assign homework for the sake of assigning homework. Let's make homework meaningful.
Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at 410-857-7878 or email email@example.com.