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A new way to talk about homework: with facts

March 1, 2013

I guess this is Part 2 of a series on homework policy, started last week with The dog ate my homework policy.

Homework is one of those issues that brings out plenty of heat but absolutely no light. Discussions on homework policy are a fever swamp of moral grandstanding, where a fact would be out of place. Here is how the discussions go (and I know because I have had them):

MORAL GRANDSTANDER (condescendingly): The student is responsible for getting his homework done.
ME: But what if the student doesn’t meet his responsibility?
MG: Then the student has to accept the consequences.
ME: What are the consequences?
MG (beginning to get annoyed): Getting a zero, I guess.
ME: What if a zero doesn’t particularly impress the student?
MG: Well, then he will fail.
ME: You mean fail the homework? The marking period? The year? His life? Is that really what we want to do? Is that acceptable to you?
MG: Well.. (first hesitant, then smugly) Ultimately the parent is responsible.
ME: But what if the parents don’t meet their responsibility?

It is there that the conversation normally fizzles out. But the TRULY committed moral grandstander will then puff him or herself up say:

“Well MYY-Y child…”

Then you know you are not in a serious conversation. But yet that is how we talk about homework.

What works
I propose – actually I INSIST on – a new way of talking about homework based on facts, data, and actual experience based not just on your child. Oh sure, we can still talk about our moral theories about responsibility – but that’s not a legitimate way to build a policy.

A homework policy should be based on what works. And we don’t know what works. We don’t even know if our current homework policy is causing harm – and there is good reason to think it is.

I think there are a large number of children who are failing in some measure, whose failure started with a series of missed homework assignments, or maybe a string of failed tests, or a drop in grades that isn’t big enough to trigger our normal intervention metrics. And I think in many cases, this ongoing failure is traceable back to a handful of missed homework assignments that nobody followed up on, that remain missing to this day.

Find those assignments, and you find the time and place where that student gave up on education.

Use the scores, Luke
Since 2004, Red Clay has been collecting detailed data on homework and student performance (via eSchoolPLUS). We have a gold mine of data on homework and performance, but we never do the analytic work to turn it into useful information – to identify where our failures or successes are happening, and why.

It’s hard to get educators and district administrators to understand the high value of this data. At first their eyes glaze over. Then if I do start to get through to them, they perceive it as “more work,” or more unfair performance evaluation, and immediately start casting about for reasons why it shouldn’t be done.

So here it is: Before you approve a new homework policy, do some analysis work to find out what has really been going on with homework for the last five years or so. We have an expensively collected database full of years worth of assignments. The reporting work can be done by a junior programmer either at DSC or DOE.

How many of those assignments were not turned in – what is the student’s homework completion rate? For that matter, what is the homework completion rate for the teacher? For the school? Are some homework completion rates better than other? Can higher rates be tied to higher performance? Can higher rates be tied to specific practices?

If some schools or some teachers are getting better homework completion rates across the board, shouldn’t we all be doing what they are doing? (This is the point where somebody brings up special education. That would have to be looked at case by case).

Run a report that looks at each failed test, and then checks to see if it was preceded by missed or failed homework. Isn’t that really the point where the failure began? Are there patterns? Maybe we need a policy to do an intervention as soon as homework is missed but BEFORE the test.

Take a look at when each assignment was entered into eSchoolPLUS (thus publishing it to students and parents). Do the assignments entered BEFORE the due date have better completion rates than those entered AFTER the due date?

Most of all, we should be looking at the gradebook records of students who have demonstrably failed (by whatever standard), and see if they were doing their homework or not. Trace it back to when the struggles began. Then figure out what the teacher’s homework policies were at that time for that student. What was the cause? Were there any flags that should have been caught sooner?

These are just some ideas off the top of my head. I’m sure a qualified researcher could come up with many more. A junior programmer from DSC or DOE could easily not only run these reports, but create a general script that could be used to run new queries devised later.

I’m going to stipulate these premises:

1. Students who are academically successful also complete their homework.

2. Students who aren’t completing their homework will improve academically if they begin completing their homework.

I think these are obvious, but if anybody can find research to contradict them I’ll be happy to rethink it.

To me, this means that policy should be focused on getting students to do their homework, not on making them fail if they don’t.

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