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The dog ate my homework policy

February 23, 2013 4 comments

Almost three years ago, Red Clay’s Board Policy Review Committee (BPRC) reviewed the Homework policy (Board Policy 7010). The policy was removed from the Board website pending completion of the review, and it’s stayed that way ever since.

What on earth is going on here? Homework is too important a part of educational success to let our policy flop around in the wind. And yes, some teachers are taking advantage of the vacuum in policy and lack of enforcement. The policy was weak even before it was pulled.

Explosion in a filing cabinet
There are pieces of homework policy scattered throughout all sorts of Red Clay documents, including the Parent Handbook, various administrative memos, and even the Code of Conduct. It’s like an explosion in a filing cabinet. Those all need to be gathered together and updated into a coherent policy. Leaving it like this is disrespectful and irresponsible, not to mention ineffective.

I suspect the lack of a strong homework policy has been very damaging to student success. We could track this – we have the data – but we aren’t even bothering to measure the effects.

It’s time to update the homework policy for the digital age, and take into account the school’s responsibility for communicating schoolwork to students and parents. Where’s the transparency, where’s the public conversation?

Start over, with parents this time
To Red Clay District brass: Don’t even THINK you’re someday going to restart the review process in the middle (as if no time had passed) and get it quickly through the Board. I’m watching closely. Three years later, it’s time to start from the beginning of the process (starting with the first public reading) and make sure parents are fully involved. There is NO WAY I am going to sit back while this critical policy is worked out in back rooms and rushed through the Board.

In fact, take a look at the BPRC process and unpucker that stingy time window for public comment. Get some discussion going in multiple parent forums. Consult teachers, parents, students, research, and independent experts, and let their opinions be transparently added to the discussion.

What happened?
From the BPRC minutes for March 24, 2010:

The Committee agreed to recommend that Policies 7009 and 7010 be placed on hold pending further internal review to ensure alignment with Policy 7002. Dr. Broomall stated that per the Committee’s recommendation, those three policies will be reintroduced for review at a later date. Ms. Green said she will redistribute Policies 7009 and 7010 when the updated versions of the documents are available for review and comment.

Where is the policy now?
I recently asked Red Clay where the Homework Policy was. The first answer: “It’s under review.” So I refined my question: “OK, I know that. I don’t care what it’s status is, I want to see the most recent version of it!” Then the answer surprised me: “It’s in the Red Clay Parent Handbook.”

The Red Clay Parent Handbook is that printed calendar that you might get distributed to you at the start of every school year. It’s a twelve-month calendar with helpful parent tips and other information on the backs of each calendar page. It turns out Board Policy 7010 is under the “Homework” heading on the backs of December and January (pages 14 and 16).

My all-time favorite quote from the Homework Policy (any Red Clay educators ever heard this rule before? It tends to come as a surprise):

Each school in the Red Clay Consolidated School District has the obligation to present to students and parents written homework assignments.

Full text of Homework Policy 7010 as it appears in the Red Clay Parent Handbook

Homework
Statement of Purpose
Homework is an essential complement to the educational process by which individuals learn to reason and make judgments necessary to function effectively in society, as noted in the Red Clay Consolidated School District Statement of Philosophy.
Homework is a natural extension of the educational program. It serves to reinforce and enrich daily class work. A reasonable amount of homework helps students achieve better in school. Parents are encouraged to provide quiet, well-lighted places for children to study. Specific homework policies may vary; therefore, you should contact your child’s teacher if you have questions.

Homework is not necessarily a written assignment. It may be planned either to offer the necessary practice in fundamental skills, or to provide practical experience of an activity nature. Homework offers an opportunity for the student to apply what he/she has learned in school. It is planned to foster and increase a skill with a familiar process, rather than bring about a struggle with a new process, which is not clearly understood.

Homework may be assigned in order to:

Reinforce concepts and skills taught
Develop and accept responsibility
Organize and apply knowledge, understanding and skills
Inform the home of what is happening in the schools
Develop study skills
Increase self-confidence
Teach independence
Provide opportunity for creativity
Offer a challenge
Expose students to community resources
Evaluate and analyze facts learned
Complete work not finished in class
Give individualized practice on skills
To prepare for the next day’s lesson

Requirements
Each school in the Red Clay Consolidated School District has the obligation to present to students and parents written homework assignments. Parents should be requested to acknowledge their awareness and understanding of the requirements. Frequency and amount of homework will vary according to the needs of the student, the subjects involved, and the teacher’s requirements.
Students are expected to have homework assignments in all academic subjects on a regular basis, and in other subject areas when required for a particular activity. Whenever possible, teachers should correlate assignments so that students may not be overburdened one day and have no assignments another day.
Homework assignments, for the average student, should follow the suggested time allotments listed below, four or five times each week.

Grade Time Grade Time
Kindergarten 20 minutes 5-6 1 hour
1 30 MinutesHrs 7 1-1/2
2 40 Minutes 8 1-3/4 Hrs
3 [4]5 Minutes 9-12 2 Hrs

Special assignments, such as term papers and long-term projects, will require additional time.

There should be a direct correlation between the amount of homework assigned to high school students and the individual needs of the students. The appropriateness is related to the course of study, and is to be measured qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

Students in grades 3 and above should be required to use cursive writing when preparing homework. The exceptions would be older students who have typing skills or where printing is required for a special project.

Format
A homework format is to be established with all students. All work is expected to be neat and include name, date, and subject information.

Grading and Reviewing Homework
There should be recognition for the completion of homework. Students and parents are to be told how much credit is given for homework in determining the total grade of the student.

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Some DCAS tips

February 22, 2013 3 comments

One interesting thing WordPress shows me sometimes is the search terms that were used to find this blog. One of the more touching and compelling search terms I saw was “how to improve your DCAS scores.” To whoever was searching for that, have no fear – there are things you can do. Asking is the first step.

Practice
First of all, PRACTICE. Put down the XBOX controller and go to the DCAS test site at https://dept.tds.airast.org/student/Pages/LoginShell.aspx. There aren’t a whole lot of tests there, but there are enough. Do all the questions for your grade, as many as the system lets you. Do them for one grade behind your current grade too. You’d be surprised what a difference it can make.

Secondly, did you know you can take the Spring DCAS TWICE and the lowest score doesn’t count? Never mind for the moment it is still winter – the current DCAS testing is the “Spring” test (it’s a long story). It’s a fact of testing that usually you get a higher score the second time you take the test.

So if you just took DCAS or are about to, make sure you take the second test even if you got a 4 on the first test. It can’t hurt, and it’s a great opportunity to take a live DCAS test with no risk, But first go take some practice tests!!

Reading
For reading, there’s only one thing you can do to get ready: READ!! I don’t know how much you can help yourself this year, but if you increase your reading time significantly RIGHT NOW and keep it up, by this time next year you will see a better DCAS score for Reading. If you don’t have a library card go get one now. Find out where your nearest used book store is. If you can think of a book or story you want to read, google for “book name full text”. Maybe you can read it right on your computer. Make a point of reading the news articles you don’t normally read in the newspaper. Stop and write down any words you don’t know and look them up. Go back and figure out any complicated sentences (hint: it’s usually not your fault – they’re just badly written. But you have to understand them anyway).

Oh and by the way, if you are still doing vocabulary or spelling homework, pay attention! These will be the easiest A’s you will ever get, because it is straight memorization, and will help your reading DCAS score. If you are getting less than 100% on this homework, raise your game. If you have vocab or spelling due at the end of the week, don’t save it for the night before. Write all the words down every day until you have them memorized and can write them perfectly. Why do you think they give you so much time to do it? Writing something down repeatedly is the best way to memorize it (for some people it might be reading it out loud).

Math
For math, just make sure you do your homework on time, and each day if you don’t understand your math homework, ask someone for help and figure it out before another day goes by. That’s really the only thing you can do (and pretty good advice anyway). Depending on what grade you are in, make sure you memorize the basic geometric formulas for circles and triangles. There’s only a dozen or so that you really need to know, so you can easily memorize them (see “memorizing vocab” above). But if you’ve been doing your homework you will already have them memorized. Oh yeah – first make sure you understand them and know how to use them. In the summertime, get a math book like last year’s (or similar) and do some problems in the back of the chapters. Or if you’ve already got a handle on last year’s book, start on next year’s book. Really, just do at least 25 per week and it will make a difference, especially in the summer to keep in shape.

Take back RCPAC Monday 6:00 at Mote Elementary

February 22, 2013 Comments off

Red Clay parents, I know you’ve got an inner Parent Advisor somewhere. Let him or her out! Come to the Red Clay Parent Advisory Council (RCPAC) Monday 2/25 at 6:00 pm at Mote Elementary. There’s no requirement to join but members and non-members alike please be sure you have the floor before speaking.

Your voice is needed!

Mote is off Kirkwood Highway west of Greenbank Road (turn right at Burger King onto Edwards Lane). Click here for directions. Agenda is here.

Monday’s main speaker is Pati Nash, who is the Public Information Officer for Red Clay. Pati will be showing off Red Clay’s new TV station and production facilities at McKean, as well as the long-standing radio station. I’ve heard them both; they’re great! On Super Bowl morning, I watched a great video on preparing Red Clay Turkey Chili, which was made with healthy ingredients and looked delicious! I haven’t made it yet but I am planning to.

EDtv – Comcast channel 965
EDge – WHMS 88.1 FM

Close enough for government work

February 20, 2013 5 comments

Last Sunday I got a phone alert that my son could have his two DCAS tests anytime up until the end of the month. Seriously? How am I supposed to know which day I have to give him breakfast? 🙂

If I’m not mistaken these are the notorious tests covering stuff that hasn’t been taught yet.

What Component 5 did for me (maybe)

February 19, 2013 3 comments

For the most part, I agree with the criticisms of Component 5, especially with the idea of non-Math/ELA teachers sharing in accountability for subjects they don’t teach. But let me just share my own anecdote, which is admittedly unscientific and possibly not completely fair.

If you’ve been reading me, you know for years I’ve mostly despaired of getting my son’s teachers to send me his assignments in advance, in fulfilment of the policy in the Red Clay Parent Handbook:

Each school in the Red Clay Consolidated School District has the obligation to present to students and parents written homework assignments.

Is that clear enough?

It is obvious to me parents need this information in order to become engaged with their child’s homework, which is a huge predictor and determinant of educational success.

I’ve asked teachers to simply enter the assignments in their electronic gradebook (eSchoolPLUS) before they are due instead of after, where I can immediately see them in the Home Access Center. That seems to be the easiest way to do it, and they eventually have to do anyway when they grade the assignment. I have heard all sorts of reasons why this can’t be done, but for the most part, the teachers just look at me as though I had asked them to flap their arms and fly to the Moon.

But this year, the year teachers started to have some accountability for the ELA and Math scores, things are different. This year, two of my son’s teachers religiously publish their assignments in advance, while the others do not. The two teachers? The ELA and Math teachers.

Sometimes you just have to reach down and give that extra 2%

February 18, 2013 6 comments

Charter School of Wilmington has 55 educators, and 56 responses recorded for the Tell Delaware survey. Damn overachievers 🙂

The survey has been extended a week, so I suppose we could still see more responses from CSW.

Vote early and often!

Update 2/18: I thought this discrepancy was likely innocent and was more amusing than scandalous, but apparently DOE took it seriously enough to contact me with some very reasonable explanations. Namely, the initial count may be slightly off, or teachers work in different buildings but voted in another, and that the counts will probably be corrected later. Of all the things DOE chooses to take seriously on this blog!

Newark Charter takes advantage of open source software for cheaper, more reliable computers

February 13, 2013 8 comments

One aspect of charter schools is that they can be laboratories of innovation, developing new methods that can be replicated for the benefit of traditional public schools. Newark Charter School (NCS) has done just that in one area at least: stretching its computer dollars to make more computers available, with the bonus that they are also more reliable.

NCS runs a significant number of its computers with a system called the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). With LTSP, the connected computers are thin clients. That means they don’t have an operating system of their own (like Windows, Mac, or anything else). Instead, each time you start up the computer it downloads an operating system from its central server (onsite at the school).

ltsp

In fact, LTSP computers (terminals) don’t even need their own hard drives. The operating system it downloads is a version of Linux, complete with all the educational software needed, including a web browser, word processor and other business applications, and it runs DCAS and eSchoolPLUS. It even can run Windows applications, depending on your setup.

The advantage of LTSP is that you can use older computers that are too slow to run current versions of Windows. Your current aging computers will probably work just fine, or you can acquire plenty of appropriate computers for free or cheap. In addition, maintenance is drastically reduced, since all configuration is done on the central server, and you no longer have to go to each computer to configure it individually (a common problem with Windows computers). Viruses and spyware are virtually non-existent, although still possible.

Last month I called Jeff Donaldson, Technology Director at NCS, and he graciously agreed to talk to me about their LTSP system.

NCS has a mix of computers, including traditional Windows PCs, laptop carts, and even a Mac lab. The LTSP terminals are used to extend the number of computers and maximize availability. According to Donaldson, LTSP powers around 150 computers at NCS, including most of the teachers’ classroom computers. In addition, NCS has been able to populate three computer labs stocked with LTSP terminals, including the library. In addition to being general workstations for the labs and the library, terminals are all capable of running DCAS and provide plenty of seats for testing.

Support for Windows programs is supported at NCS by running another server, this one a Microsoft product called Windows Terminal Server. From your LTSP screen, you can start up a Windows program by clicking the program’s icon. Transparently to the user, the program just starts up normally, even though behind the scenes it is running from the Windows server. This setup will work for any Windows program you have installed on the server. For example, at NCS, teachers can start Microsoft Internet Explorer in order to use the electronic gradebook (eSchoolPLUS).

The terminals are older computers, mostly Dells with Pentium 4 processors, and up to 512MB memory. This configuration would be painfully slow running Windows, but is fine for LTSP. The computers themselves are obtained through Partech, a state agency that reconditions older computers and provides them without charge to Delaware public schools.

According to Donaldson, the NCS system is powered by two LTSP servers, which are much more robust computers with more memory. These are likely to be the largest expense of setting up the system (other than labor). The central servers run a version of LTSP called Edubuntu, which is an education-specific version of Ubuntu Linux (more geeky details here).

The NCS system was initially set up by a predecessor, but Donaldson has expanded the system and performs all maintenance himself. LTSP and Ubuntu are well supported by its online community, and it is a task that can be done by one administrator.

A computer lab with 25 LTSP terminals can be set up for less than $10,000 (my estimate), and perhaps as little as $5K. By contrast, one school’s PTA is holding a fundraiser to buy a new laptop cart (Windows) at $20,000. (Of course, the first one will take additional time depending on the experience of the administrator).

Newark Charter’s LTSP experience is a great example of a practice that could greatly benefit our traditional public schools. By acquiring the skill and experience to quickly deploy low-cost LTSP labs as needed, our schools can greatly reduce their shortage of computers for testing, and take some of the cost burden off the technology budget.