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.”
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.