I Don’t Do Homework

Our school had its second Back to School Night. Attendance was spotty. I don’t judge. As a parent, I rarely attended.

But boy oh boy, could four sets of parents generate some excitement. I had a genuine culture clash.

It all began when I was going through my brief dog and pony show for my second trig class.

“Student grades are 80% tests and quizzes, 20% classwork. But I don’t grade classwork. Students get a B or A- just for showing up and working, which bumps their grade slightly.”

Until recently, I weighted homework for 10% and classwork for 15%–but not really. More accurately, if a student did most of his homework in a relatively timely manner, he’d get a little more of a boost. He couldn’t get the boost by “making up” missed homework; nor could he get the boost for just a couple homework completions. But if he didn’t do the homework at all, no harm no foul.

A few of my students got the boost, and they came from all points on the ability spectrum. I always remembered to assign homework through the first semester, then I’d fall off. For my first five years of teaching, homework had always completely stopped at some point in the third quarter.

“But last term, I suddenly realized that the end of the first semester was weeks away, and I hadn’t been assigning homework for a very long time.”

Remember my mentioning it had been a busy first term? Well, yeah.

“Most of my kids don’t do homework. So this realization just reinforced my awareness that I was only engaging in the homework ritual because I didn’t want to stray too far off the beaten path in comparison to my colleagues. But once I’d given up homework by accident, it seemed natural to make it official.”

The fact that I got that glorious tenure email and didn’t have to worry too much if my colleagues complained may have played a teensy, tiny part.

“So if you’ve got one of those kids who gets an A on tests but pulls his grade down by ignoring all homework, he–and it’s a usually a he–has probably mentioned it by now, and worships at my feet. I accept Starbucks cards or sixpacks of Diet Coke in tribute.”

One parent raises his hand.

“But don’t you find that homework ensures the students will get more practice? They need practice, just as we did when we were kids. I think it’s best for students to genuinely learn the math with practice.”

Uh oh. I take a deep breath.

“My students have always been graded overwhelmingly by what they do in class and the learning they demonstrate on tests. Homework was always optional, and I didn’t assign enough of it for students to practice fluency.”

“But I want my son to have practice material.”

“Well, I use the book pretty regularly, and there’s plenty of relevant practice material in there.”

“But do you think that’s how we all learned math?”

“Well, we weren’t all required to take advanced math. Look, I want to be clear: my method is the ultimate in hippy dippy squish.” Two parents laughed.

“I’m not trying to pretend that it’s normal for a math teacher to abandon homework. The whole homework ediscussion is basically a religious issue–and I don’t mean Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. People have strong ideological beliefs about the best way to achieve academically. However, the research on the intellectual impact of homework is very weak. But no research has shown that doing homework is the cause of comprehension.”

A mom spoke up with a, er, very pointed tone. “I am so happy that you grade based on their work in class. So much better than to have them confused with nothing more than busy work after school. They can’t ask questions, they feel lost, and then they get discouraged.” Another dad nodded.

Original dad: “But the confusion is part of learning. Then they can come in the next day and ask for help.”

“They learn in class. If I take the bulk of one class to explain something, then they spend the next day working on that concept. I ensure students demonstrate their understanding, to the best of their ability. They won’t be able to copy the work from someone else; if I spot them not working, I work with them until I can see them understand it. If they’re talking or goofing around, they move to a different seat. My kids work math while they’re here. And ninety minutes of working or thinking about math is plenty.”

“But shouldn’t the students be practicing at home? Couldn’t you go through the course much quicker if they did?” the original parent is not to be discouraged.

“Again, they are welcome to work additional problems of their choice. But in my experience, students forget a lot of what they ‘go through’. My goal is to ensure that if they do forget material in this course, at least they really did understand at the time, rather than just follow through on some algorithms.”

“Exactly. I want them to understand the math.” said the first mom.

“One last thing: I follow my students’ progress in subsequent classes. For the most part, they are keeping up and doing fine. I teach some of those subsequent classes, and so am able to compare my students to those given a more traditional course, and they’re doing fine. Many of my students go to junior college or local public universities, and I track their placement results as well. They, too, are ending up just as I’d expect. The weakest ones need some small amount of remediation, but most are placing in college credit courses. Meanwhile, they have far more accurate GPAs and weren’t forced to retake courses and slow down their progress simply because they didn’t do homework.”

And….the bell rang. Saved!

The dad came up to me and asked, “You will assign my son additional homework?”

I smiled at his son. “All he has to do is ask.”

(He hasn’t.)

I decided to describe my policy change thusly because, well, the story happened and it was fun. All parents were respectful; I did not feel insulted or bothered by the dad’s concerns. If I have in any way seemed contemptuous of the parents involved it’s unintentional.

That said, ethnic stereotypes will prove helpful in deciphering the anecdote.

The reason for the change is as described—I was busy, suddenly realized I had stopped assigning homework, decided it was time to cut the cord.

I usually just pick holes in everyone else’s arguments, but math homework is a teaching issue I have strong feelings about. Grading homework compliance is hurting a lot of kids, and all it does for those who comply is give them higher grades, not better academic skills.

Administrators understand this more than most, as they’re the ones putting additional math sections on their master schedule to accommodate all the kids with reasonable test scores who nonetheless flunked for not doing their homework. That’s the impetus behind all those stories you read of a district limiting homework’s percentage on the grade.

So as I wave goodbye to homework, let me take this opportunity to urge my compatriots to consider a similar policy, particularly if their classes look something like this:

The class opens with a warmup, designed to either review the previous material or introduce a new concept. Teacher reviews the warmup problem, then lectures or holds a class discussion on a new concept, works a few problems, has the class work a few problems, assigns a problem set, and those problems are called “homework”. Your basic I tell, I do, we do, you do.

The kids have the rest of the period to work on the problems, while the teacher is available to answer questions. If they finish in class, no “homework”! If they don’t work in class or do work for some other teacher, no big deal. It’s just time-shifting. They’ll turn in the work tomorrow, maybe do it with their tutors, maybe just copy it from friends who did it with their tutor.

Or they won’t do the problem set, either because they don’t understand, can’t be bothered, or just forget. The teacher will encourage them to come in and ask for help, or go to after school tutoring. Some of them will. Many of them won’t show up. Then they’ll get a zero, or turn it in late for a reduced grade, or stop doing homework altogether until they flunk. Or maybe their parents will call a conference and the teacher will be persuaded to accept a bunch of late homework to help the student pass the class.

How many high school math classrooms does this describe, with the occasional variation? A whole lot.

Notice that it’s only “homework” for those who can’t finish the work in class. The kids who don’t understand the material have to struggle at home. The students who really understand the material and could use more challenge get the night off.

High school teachers borrowed this method from colleges fifty years ago or more, a method designed for highly ambitious 20-somethings with demonstrated ability and interest. Today, our well-meaning education policy forces everyone into three years or more of advanced math, regardless of their demonstrated ability and interest. The college model is unlikely to work well with many students.

So go ahead and sneer at me for being a softie who skips homework, but understand that my students work to the bell. More often than not, my introduction is 10-20 minutes or even less, so the students are working the entire class period, taking on problems of increasing challenge. On those occasions where I have to explain something complicated, they focus on the relevant concepts for another day or more. But all my students are getting 60-90 minutes each day actively thinking and working about math, and my student engagement level has always been high. Strong students who finish early just do more problems. The student who treats my class as a study hall for her other homework because she has a tutor will experience teacher disapproval, often for the first time, and I’m a cranky cuss. She rarely makes the mistake twice.

When I did assign homework, I didn’t just continue from the same classwork problems, but created or selected much easier problems, designed for students to determined if they understood the basics of that particular concept.

Most education debates are tediously binary and thus wholly inaccurate. And so the math homework debate becomes “teachers who want to challenge their kids assign demanding homework” vs. “teachers who want to coddle their kids neglect their responsibility to prepare kids for college.”

In my classroom, kids are working pretty much non-stop, usually much harder on average than in the classrooms where kids are left to their own devices to finish their work. But somehow I’m the squish because I don’t engage in the great morality play known as homework. Are there teachers who don’t assign homework and also allow their kids to discover their pagh? Sure. That’s why the binary debate is a waste of time. The reality of classroom activity requires many additional points on a compass–not a bi-directional spectrum.

Finally, none of this really has anything to do with the actual teacher quality. Many teachers are doing a great job explaining math in those I do, etc lessons. Nor would any observer consider me hippy dippy or squish, which is why the comment always gets a laugh.

I was going to end with a joke about being a Unitarian in a Calvinist world. But hell, that plays right into the wrong sterotype.


About educationrealist

28 responses to “I Don’t Do Homework

  • RationalExpressions

    I do not believe that homework should count toward a student’s grade. But when I’ve made that a course policy I too have found many students and parents freak out over losing this security blanket. So now I make it 15% of their grade, but spend practically no time dealing with it. If it’s turned in, full credit, 5 seconds of my time to record. And I’ll take it late for full credit. This seems to keep everyone happy – I don’t waste time on something I don’t believe in, parents don’t get confused, students who like to do homework (and they exist) or who need extra practice have something to work on. Kids who do well on tests but hate homework figure the game out quickly and turn in something they copied to get the free points. Then I can focus my time and energy on the important things – prepping, teaching, helping and truly assessing.

    • educationrealist

      You are encouraging copying? Why would you do that? Why would you make it a game? Just don’t count it against them if they don’t turn it in. And then don’t take it late.

      • RationalExpressions

        Copying is not encouraged. I just never know who really does work outside my presence – tutor, friend, parent, Internet, app, etc. So I treat it as such. If it were entirely up to me I would never grade homework, but my school district has instituted grading policies that require it. I would rather have all graded work done in my presence.
        Oh, and you probably already know this, but the best way to stop kids from cheating on tests is to sit right behind the class while they’re taking it. Freaks them out when they can’t see you but they know you can see them. And you can get work done.
        Love your blog. As another late starter in a Title I school it has always resonated with me.

      • educationrealist

        I bet your school doesn’t actually require you to grade it, or even count it. Check and see. Thanks for the kind words.

  • anonymousse

    I have a question that is tangentially related to this post, though not directly. I am a parent, watching education from the other side (i.e. not as a student living it, but an observer ‘critiquing’ it). In reading your post (just like every other discussion of education-you are not unusual or good/bad at all), it really looks like education is just a game. Discussing the grading policy (x classwork, y% homework z% tests) is just an arbitrary exercise in statistics (with each teacher having different combinations of x,y.z).

    I as a parent really only think one thing: does my kid understand Trig/Grammar/social studies/classsubject? I don’t care if he juggles x,y,z to get a certain % for the class (which translates to a certain grade on his piece of paper). Has he learned what the class is aiming to teach him? Has he learned it well enough to take the next class (Trig2/History2/etc)?
    And so on.

    In other words, I don’t care how my kid achieves understanding (homework, inclass practice, quickstudy absorbtion, whatever). Grades are grading technique-but I care about knowledge. If a kid(mine or anybody else’s) can do no work, and ace the tests, he deserves an ‘A’-he knows what he needs to know. He should move on to the next class.

    I’m coming from the perspective of being very open to alternative education (homeschool, unschool, private school, personalized education, and so on). But, like the homeschooling movement, I really question ‘traditional’ education (not saying I homeschool personally). I’m also not implying you are doing it ‘wrong’, or you are especially good/bad in any way. I’m just reacting to the speech you gave at parent/teacher conferences, and as an outside observer, noticing what an arbitrary game it is.

    I incidently agree with your homework policy: my own belief is that the kids are in school 7 hours a day: if they don’t learn what they need to learn in those 7 hours, the school is doing it wrong (I personally spent less than 7 hours a day on college/graduate school in topics as diverse as arts and sciences and engineering, so 7 hours a day should be plenty to learn high school math/english/etc).

    Any thoughts?


    • educationrealist

      Good comment. To be very specific, the reflection of educational achievement through grades is entirely a game.

      In the recent era, parents have also cared about the grades game because, for the past 15-20 years, grades have profoundy affected a student’s abiity to get into a good public university. That time may be changing; in my state, I have been shocked at the rejection metrics from our mid-tier schools–kids that only a decade ago would easily have gotten into a mid-tier 4 year school are now rejected. I think that’s the China effect, and it’s hitting all decent quality schools all over the country. So grades may start to play less of a role–if kids are all going to 2 year schools regardless, they may stop getting so fussed. Except Asians, of course.

      Depending on the mix of students and teachers, it’s possible for students to learn nothing yet get an A, or learn a great deal and get a C. Then of course there’s the racial and ability mix of the school. My A is probably lower in achievement than an A at a purely suburban school, particularly in math. And grades in all black or all Hispanic high schools are largely inaccurate in any real sense. That’s what test scores used to be for, until we started ignoring them because of the racial imbalance.

      Is education itself a game? No. Kids mostly learn what they learn, based on their ability and interest.

      • anonymousse

        I will disagree with you on one point-and it is an important point.

        “…grades have profoundy affected a student’s abiity to get into a good public university.”

        This is essentially not true. There are plenty (i’d guess even the majority) of ‘good public schools’ that are effectively open admissions. This is especially true of Midwestern schools. There are exceptions, of course. I am always shocked at how competitive the public school of the University of Texas and the schools in California are, for instance. And I am sure there are others (I’m guessing some of the big-name southern schools are). But it is generally possible to get into a decent public school without worrying that much about grades (another example: Virginia. UVA is a very good, competitive school. But in Virginia, there are plenty of 2nd tier, nearly non-competitive schools. And people become engineers/doctors/businessmen out of all of them).

        The point is this: competitiion is not there to get into a decent middle class school: that can be done with little effort. Competition is there to get into a higher-tier school: Ivy League as well as top schools in the aformentioned competitive states.

        Which means: a great deal of education policy is aimed at a very small segment of the population. Perhaps 1/2 of kids go to college (and only 1/2 of them graduate, which means around 1/4 get bachelor’s degrees). Of that 1/4, the overwhelming majority are attending ‘minor-state U’ with minimal enrollment standards. Grades, the testing regimen, standardized curricula and testing: all are aimed at maybe 5% of high school graduates, who are competing for the truly competitive schools.

        In addition, there is competition for scholarship/grant money.

        But I personally believe one could replace all grades with pass/fail, and fulfill the requirements of 90-95% of high school graduates. Elite schools (and scholarships) would have to come up with some ranking system to determine who gets in, but that shouldn’t be the public’s (and every high school graduates’) problem.


      • educationrealist

        Actually, Virginia’s public universities have been under constant tension because of their admissions policies and the relatively low preference they give local students.

        If you are in a state that has a competitive public university (and that’s about half the states) then this is an issue. If you are in a state that doesn’t have a competitive university, then a good number of the parents in that state are looking outside the state for precisely that reason, because historically they wouldn’t consider those schools “good”. So your rebuttal seems a bit…innocent to me. You don’t appear to really understand what it’s like for parents these days who have a very bright kid and want him or her in a good school. Parents who are “eh, he’s bright, he’ll do great at University of Nebraska” may be correct, but they aren’t even remotely typical. And these parents are universally white parents who aren’t dealing with Asians. Again, that’s less and less typical.

      • Mark Roulo

        “This is essentially not true. There are plenty (i’d guess even the majority) of ‘good public schools’ that are effectively open admissions.”

        This must be done per-state, mostly, right? Because out-of-state kids don’t pay in-state tuition.

        It also depends on what you consider “good” or “elite.” If ASU is considered good enough, then, yeah, probably getting in for in-state kids isn’t so hard. ASU take 80% of applicants. ASU is also ranked 129th by USNWR in the “National Universities” category … so is maybe the 300-400th best university in the US (there are also categories for Liberal Arts Colleges and Regional schools … for undergrads the University of Santa Clara is pretty comparable to UCSB, but Santa Clara isn’t part of the national rankings).

        UCSC (one of the lower ranked UCs) comes in at 85th and takes about 50%.

        Iowa State is 106th and takes 85%.

        But Texas (53rd) only takes 40%.
        Michigan (29th) takes 33%
        UCLA (23rd) takes 20%

        You can get fine educations at places like Iowa State and UCSC, but if your plans involve grad school you have almost taken yourself out of the race by going to one of these as an undergrad.

      • Mark Roulo

        “if your plans involve grad school you have almost taken yourself out of the race by going to one of these as an undergrad.”

        To clarify … you can still do graduate school, but you won’t get into one of the top ones and this will *REALLY* hurt your chances for an academic career.

  • lemmy caution

    I have a kid who doesn’t do his homework. It is a huge hassle. Wish you were his teacher.

  • anonymousse

    Funny you say that. I happen to be alum at University of Nebraska. The vast majority of my friends are from UN. They have scattered throughout the country. Many of their kids return to UN, because they are tied to the state. My friends are universally upper middle class (engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc) as well as solid middle class (teachers for instance).

    UN (and Iowa State, and Arkansas, and New Hampshire, and Wyoming, and West Virginia U, and George Mason University in VA, and on and on) is far more typical of successful* people in this country than Cornell/Michigan/Harvard/Stanford. You may bump into East Coast folks who are worried about getting into the best Ivy League school they can (or West Coast folks who want into UCLA/Berkely/Stanford rather than SDSU). I understandf the pressure that Californians and East Coast elite are under. But that pressure isn’t typical of most high school students, most future college students, or even most future professionals (engineers, doctors, accountants, and so on).

    There are alot of solidly middle class people in this country who aren’t thinking about Harvard. They want to avoid community colleges, and they want to avoid bad schools, but generally State Universities are good enough.

    “Parents who are “eh, he’s bright, he’ll do great at University of Nebraska” may be correct, but they aren’t even remotely typical.”

    Au contraire, these folks are typical-in fact, you know this intuitively. Decent State schools outnumber elite schools by probably 10-1 (there are alot more Nebraska/Kansas/New Hampshire than Ivy League + Stanford, MIchigan, and Duke). There are 20 million students in colleges. Perhaps 500,000 (100,000? 50,000?) of them are in ‘elite’ schools. (thus, 19.5/19.9/19.95 million aren’t). Which population is ‘typical?’


    *by successful, I obviously don’t mean elite. I mean middle class. Elites are competing for the elite schools-and our entire educational system is aimed at making it easier for those schools to pick and choose.

    • educationrealist

      It’s not “funny” as in coincidental, since it’s perfectly obvious from your posts that you come from a predominantly white state. I just wasn’t sure which one. And as such, your comments are only relevant in mostly white states for people with relatively few money worries.

      No, you aren’t typical and in a few years you’ll realize that. Until then, enjoy your life in the bubble. You just might want to realize you’re in one!

  • anonymousse

    ‘Everyone I know is trying to get into Harvard or Stanford. Therefore, everyone is trying to get into Harvard or Stanford.’ You sound like Pauline Kael. Bubble indeed.

    • educationrealist

      I said no such thing. Nor do I think such a thing. My demographic range of knowledge is considerably wider than yours, however, both income and race-wise.

      • Lagertha

        I get Anonymousse’s point and yours, of course, Ed. And, since I live in the “elite school” east, I can say with frustration, that the GPA is SO often a consideration/cut-off with many universities/colleges here. I wish I did live in a bubble!

        The problem with both coasts & their schools, either boiler-plate state U’s, elites, small private and Catholic U’s, is that the population is much larger/denser throughout the region than in individual mid-west states. There are not enough spots for B+ students who formerly, easily (like 20 years ago) were accepted to flagship state’s, Catholic U’s, NESCAC schools….forget the Ivies, they still only take ‘A’ students unless you are a state champion/national champion of a sport…even that is no guarantee.

        Middle class & lower income students, especially, are locked-out of many regional U’s even if they have decent test scores if their GPA is not above a 3.4 or something. U’s that formerly accepted such students, reject them now.

        Middle class students with high test scores are applying more and more to schools in the mid-west, south and the west….and they are seeking out the U’s with low OOS tuition since they may not get into their local state school. Merit money for high SAT/ACT scores are attracting students farther out of their home states.

        And, this is the other conundrum: a lot of students (just talking about east coast) don’t like to leave their home states and regions (just like A talked favorably about Nebraska) but can’t find enough choices (tuition at small private schools that are just “moderately selective” have much higher tuition in New England than other regions) to apply to since many U’s are now expecting higher GPA’s. And, if your family’s financial situation doesn’t allow you to go and seek your education out-of-state, your choices are limited. And, even if you qualify for financial aid, traveling back and forth to another state is expensive. The game of “musical chairs,” at least out east, is harder than it was 20 years ago.

        And, competition from foreign students and immigrant groups/URM’s is much bigger on both coasts. Although there has been much discussion about elite U’s and their mystical admissions process, I do believe that success is not dictated by acceptance to an elite school…performance is, in whatever school you finally wind-up attending.

        And, to add to Mark’s comments, I’m not so sure having your degree from an elite U is absolutely necessary for undergraduate work anymore…since I know many Ivy & Co. professors who received their B.A. from a wide variety outside of Ivies & Co…some from boiler-plate state U’s or small LAC’s that are not necessarily the most selective. Plus, it is a small minority of students who wish to go on to academia…academia is not attracting as many people since, duh, adjuncts seem to be popping up like mushrooms in the rain in large numbers at U’s.

        Kids with heavy loans are more and more majoring in economics, STEM and business. But, to go full circle, the GPA is messing up the chances for a lot of excellent students, big thinkers, atypical creative ones who can not get that perfect 4.0 or even a 3.8 for admission (probably hated homework) to a U that formerly accepted such students…FORMERLY, being the point.

        Here’s a few factoids I recall (maybe outdated now) that might be interesting for you all: 2 colleges that have the wealthiest alumni who consistently give back to their U: Lafayette College and Washington & Lee – believe me, the Ivies are fascinated how they do this. The U that produces the most CEOs: Penn State….which also has the largest alumni network in the country. If you’re laid-off, you immediately contact this vast network where you are part of “the family.” Penn State attracts a lot of NE kids since they are generous with merit money.

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  • Michael

    I share the same sentiments. I have 80 minutes of class time and most of it it is spent by kids (the workers) doing problems. That should be enough math for one day. I still have issues with the non workers being active inside the classroom, but if they wont work in school, then they certainly wont work out of school.

    My school is switching to 60 minutes next year and I doubt I change my policy.

    • educationrealist

      Yes, I did the same thing with 60 minutes. At the time, I was giving the nominal homework, but I would not see any problem with dropping it completely. I haven’t had as much problem with non-workers, but then, I don’t teach algebra and geometry these days. Time for PTSD flashback.

  • ganderson9754

    Interesting stuff. While I teach on the east coast, I am in a white bubble- very few Black, Asian, or Hispanic kids. Having problems available for kids to do at home (if they’d like) makes sense to me. I also like your notion that if a kid demonstrates that they know the material- what does it matter how they do on (or whether they do) homework. What are your thoughts about homework and social studies classes? I teach in 82 minute blocks- I do assign homework, mostly reading, not generally of the writing variety, and my goal is for the kids to learn the material, not do their homework. I often give my kids class time to read, look up terms, etc. Some of our high achieving kids are doing huge amounts of HW- to no apparent benefit, unless one calls the ability to go without sleep a benefit!

  • Foolish Pride

    As someone who’s in college and remembers high school, homework is my bane. I always struggle/d to do it yet I always did amazingly on tests. Well in high school at least. I got A’s on nearly every exam I did in school but I was a C and B student overall. I find this concept very interesting because my school always put a lot of stock into homework, clearly operating under a different paradigm than yours.

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    Just came across this post. No one else commented on it, but I loved your Universalist/Calvinist point at the end. 😉

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