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Sanity discovered in Red Clay: an interview with Dickinson’s Ninth Grade Academy team

April 26, 2013 1 comment

At John Dickinson High School, ninth graders who don’t do their homework don’t get zeroes. Instead, they get extra support to learn and finish the homework. How did something so sensible take root in Red Clay?

Here’s the policy:

If a student fails to hand in a homework assignment at the specified time, the student will be given until 7:27 a.m. the following day to complete and hand in said assignment or he/she will be scheduled for 5th Block after school on that day. The student’s parents/guardians will be contacted to inform them that their student will be returning home on the later bus. If the student hands in the assignment by 7:27 a.m. on the following day after it was due, the student will not be required to attend 5th Block. If a student hands in partially completed work, the teacher may use their professional discretion to determine if the student must attend 5th Block. Zeros (0) are not acceptable for a student grade on any homework assignment. If these two methods do not accomplish this, please have the student see Mr. Kohan or Mr. Miro in M201.

This policy is part of Dickinson’s Ninth Grade Transition Academy (NGTA). NGTA is part of Dickinson’s remarkable turnaround, which is worth a whole post itself.

But mostly I wanted to write something about 5th Block, which seems to be largely unknown in the district. The Grade Reporting committee is right now drafting a major overhaul of Red Clay grading and homework policies, and I would hope they would take 5th block as a model. I’ve posted before on homework policy:

The dog ate my homework policy
A new way to talk about homework: with facts
The Pontius Pilate homework policy
A school where giving up is not an option

When I first mentioned 5th Block at a PTA meeting as a possible model for our middle school, the principal got a big kick out of it. He said “Fifth Block? Is that like a cell block or something?” and the PTA parents joined in the laughter, and that was the end of the conversation. But it was a very serious suggestion on my part. I was a little surprised I had heard of it before and he hadn’t, especially since his job is to send kids to high school.

But I did wonder what was the difference between 5th Block and detention! I imagined a drab classroom full of Sweathogs slouched in their seats. But it turns out it’s nothing like that. Instead, 5th Block is held in each teacher’s classroom after school, two days per week. In other words, if you are behind on Math homework, you report to your math teacher’s room after school. According to the team, there isn’t really a punitive feel to it, and there is almost an enthusiasm. Reportedly a lot of tenth graders miss it and ask for it to be implemented in tenth grade! (it’s being considered).

Apart from the homework policy, other key innovations of NGTA are 1) Students are located in a separate wing of the building, 2) Freshman Seminar, which is a mandatory course that meets briefly every morning to teach life and school skills, 3) Double math instruction (two courses per year).

Disclosure: My son will be attending Dickinson next fall, so I will probably be posting more about it then.

So a few weeks ago I sat down with two members of Dickinson’s NGTA team to find out more about the homework policy: Cbris Kohan, who is NGTA Headmaster (as well as Director of the IB program), and John Melidosian, NGTA Coordinator (and math teacher).

Interview
Before I asked about the homework policy, first I asked the team to tell me about the origins of the NGTA and Dickinson’s overall turnaround effort. Mr Kohan began telling the story in true raconteur style.

In 2008 and the years after, a shadow was hanging over Dickinson. The news regularly featured dismal stories about Dickinson, the dropout rate was reportedly the worst in the state, teacher attrition was out of control, and enrollment was dropping with no end in sight. AYP was not being met for minority groups, so Dickinson was required to restructure in those pre-RTTT days.

So teachers took matters into their own hands, starting with the ninth grade: “All of the debate and planning on the NGTA took place at our SLRT meetings (School Level Restructuring Team), said Kohan. “The SLRT still exists and functions as Dickinson’s Leadership Team. I really think the success of the first year of the NGTA in 2009 kept us open and bought us time to allow for the redesign.”

Kohan elaborated: “The NGTA was never presented to the BOE. It was just a reallocation of resources in the school.”

Now this is the part of the story that I just can’t get enough of: Kohan described how in June 2008, the SLRT took the rare opportunity to go to lunch at a local restaurant, in a kind of come-to-Jesus meeting. Planning the new NGTA was the ostensible purpose of the meeting, but it just didn’t feel that success was assured. There was something missing.

So with a sense of impending doom, the teachers brainstormed in a very existential mode, asking things like “Why are we here” and “What is our mission,” eventually getting down to more practical questions.

Kohan elaborated: “The meeting was about planning for the NGTA, and we had all taught 9th graders before. Unfortunately that also means teaching repeat 9th graders. And repeat-repeat 9th graders. It did not take long until the idea of students failing because they did not do any homework came up. 5th Block was our best attempt at a solution to that.” Kohan said they weren’t satisfied graduating students with D’s. They wanted more.

“It did not take long until the idea of students failing because they did not do any homework came up”

Kohan continued: “We asked ourselves: Do we really care if the student learns the lesson on that particular day? And the answer was no, we don’t. The main thing was that they learned it.” That was the kind of root-cause thinking that drove the creation of 5th Block.

Another important feature of NGTA (which doesn’t seem to have made it into writing) is that if a student doesn’t do well on a test, teachers have the discretion to make up a new test and let the student retake it until the teacher is satisfied the student has done their best. That is the level of commitment needed for broad educational success.

The basic outline of 5th Block was recorded on a paper plate right there in the restaurant (Kohan still has the plate). I urged him to save it for posterity, as a reminder of what teachers can come up with themselves instead of waiting for top-down solutions. But I am not sure every school has teachers and leaders who would be able to accomplish this. I have to hand it to the Dickinson teachers and especially the SLRT, who were able to think about their school and their craft as true intellectuals, and then based on their analysis, move toward practical implementation.

A new principal
As of July 2008, Dickinson had had four principals in eighteen months. But by August, Byron Murphy arrived, stolen away from Appoquinimink. From the Hockessin Community News in 2008:

Red Clay schools’ chief, Dr. Robert Andrzejewski, was looking for the right man to become the “turnaround leader” at struggling Dickinson High School. He tapped former Middletown High School assistant principal Byron Murphy, who has a strong mathematics and engineering background — and, experience in turnaround work.

I have to emphasize the stability and loyalty inspired by Principal Murphy. I decided to choice my son into Dickinson largely on the basis of speaking with Mr. Murphy several times during RCPAC meetings (RCPAC meetings rotate among schools, and Murphy is one of the very few principals who always attend at his school). The first time I met Mr. Murphy was at my first RCPAC meeting, where I gave a (probably too long) soliloquy on the underuse and the potential of eSchoolPLUS and HAC. Murphy was one of the few in the room who got it and engaged with me on it. I didn’t know at the time that Murphy and his team were actively looking for new ideas to support the turnaround. Next year he’ll have to deal with me full-time!

Kohan described in part how SLRT works (paraphrased): “Byron is the idea man, coming up with plans ranging from the innovative to really-out-there. I’m usually the guy who plays devil’s advocate – but sometimes we all switch roles.” That sounds like a creative team in action.

“After 4 principals in 18 months, we had one who wanted to be at Dickinson.”

I asked Mr. Kohan if RTTT had been in effect, if Dickinson would have been forced to choose one of its three turnaround models rather than inventing their own. “I am sure that we would have,” Kohan said. “I sat in several meeting with Byron where the discussion was on which of the three models would work best. It is sad to report that some of the people we met with did not understand that would mean replacing Byron as Principal. After 4 principals in 18 months, we had one who wanted to be at Dickinson. And step one would be to get rid of him. I am not sure that I would have stayed if that had been the outcome.”

Phase 1
Even as change was underway, 2010 was Dickinson’s annus horribilis, with a dropout rate over 12% and enrollment at 644, almost at its lowest-ever point of 610 the following year. In January, Principal Murphy gave this presentation to the Red Clay Board, proposing Phase 1 of Dickinson’s new STEM Academy. “Those were dark days,” said Kohan. “Every day was more fear that Dickinson would be shut down in favor of some other entity occupying the space.”

But apparently it worked. The next year, the dropout rate was cut nearly in half. In 2012, DCAS scores are up, consistent with receiving double math instruction.

“I really think the success of the first year of the NGTA in 2009 kept us open and bought us time to allow for the redesign.”

I wondered how much this all cost, and Mr. Kohan said there were a lot of variables, but basically there were two extra teaching units required (almost but not quite the same thing as “teachers.”) I’m not sure now exactly which grades or programs this figure applied to, so I’ll have to post a follow-up in the future.

Kohan explained that NGTA teachers were so enthusiastic they often forgot or refused to log their extra hours – which made it very difficult when he had to explain how much the program cost!

Dickinson also received essential support from the District in other areas that were critical to its turnaround. The targeted hiring of Murphy and the support he received was the first thing. In addition, programs that would normally be pulled because they couldn’t justify their existence, were instead supported so they could recover and catch on during the turnaround.

As of this year, Dickinson has cut its dropout rate nearly in half since 2010, enrollment was up to 726, DCAS scores are up, and the school is meeting its AYP targets, plus a number of other performance measures are rising.

I have to apologize to Mr. Melidosian, who was at our meeting and did actually speak, but Mr. Kohan’s narrative was compelling, so Mr. Melidosian didn’t really get quoted here. And furthermore, I didn’t mention the new programs and work being done in other grades. But I promise I will write again about Dickinson and the role of Mr. Melidosian as well as other teachers.

For more reading on Dickinson, the inimitable Kilroy has been covering it all along, here and here among other posts.

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A school where giving up is not an option

March 13, 2013 Comments off

Principal Steve Pearce has a no-nonsense approach to homework: He doesn’t accept excuses. At Jane Addams Junior High in Schaumberg, Illinois, students who don’t do their homework must accept the consequences.

And at Jane Addams, the consequence of not doing your homework is… you have to do your homework. Addams offers a system of mandatory study halls, extra time, and additional support that makes sure students have completed the work and learned the material.

The venerable and failed practice of awarding a zero and copping out doesn’t exist at Jane Addams. Everyone on the staff accepts responsibility for ensuring students learn. Giving up on students is not permitted whether by the student or the school.

Mr. Pearce has figured out that making sure homework is completed can stop failure where it begins. Pearce:

I’d wager that most middle grades teachers spend incredible amounts of time dealing with students and their homework issues. I’m also willing to bet that homework plays a major role in student failure at middle schools and high schools across our nation.

I suggest everyone go read Mr. Pearce’s article right now (it’s brief): No Excuses for No Homework. Here is the foundation of the philosophy that was necessary to implement:

At Jane Addams, we believe:

  • The purpose of our school is to ensure all students learn.
  • It is our responsibility to create the conditions that promote high levels of learning for all.
  • Completing homework is essential to students being successful in their learning.
  • Therefore, we will insist students complete their homework, and we will create systems to ensure they do so.

So simple, but so hard to accept, for educators who are invested in the Pontius Pilate model of homework. Awarding a zero and washing your hands of it is just so much easier! And besides, it’s the way we’ve always done things, right?

So I asked Mr. Pearce how the program is working out today. He replied:

The program is always evolving, but what we do now is very similar. The bottom line is that we make the students do the work instead of “teaching them responsibility” and allowing them to not turn it in.

I’m pleased to let you know that our achievement data in standardized tests is in the top 10% statewide for ISAT and nationwide for MAP. Our homework policy is not the sole reason for this obviously, but it does play a part in it.

In addition to standardized tests, Mr. Pearce also sent me some data showing marking period (trimester) failures in his school decreasing from 188 F’s in 2008-2009, to only 14 F’s in 2011-2012.

The Pontius Pilate homework policy

March 6, 2013 2 comments

Homework policies tend to follow the Pontius Pilate model: If you don’t do the homework, you get a zero and the teacher washes his hands of it, free of responsibility. (see more posts on homework policy).

The student goes on to fail the test, never having mastered the lesson of that homework. You see where this is going, right? After a few cycles, we have a demoralized, fatalistic, unsupported student who no longer believes in school or the adults in it, and is a strong candidate to fail or become a dropout.

There is every reason to think this process is behind a large number of our failing and dropout students. Or even students who aren’t failing but have dropped from A’s to C’s, undetected by our wide-toothed intervention metrics.

And I suspect it begins in middle school, and by high school is nearly irreversible. Delaware has all the data needed to confirm or disprove this, but we refuse to do the analytics, or even to understand this data is important. And this despite winning $150 million for promising to become data-driven.

“It is the student’s responsibility to do the homework…” Every time I hear this, I imagine the teacher daintily drying his hands on a towel. Or the district administrator, or the smug parent of an honor student.

Sometimes the Pontius Pilate policy is stated as “It is the parent’s responsibility…” (towel).

But in Delaware, HALF our schoolchildren are classified as low income. We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of society. There are a LOT of parents who are not capable of supporting their child academically.

Yes, often the parents can step up to turn around a failing student, but we know many won’t. Are we really going to make that the last chance before failure? Are we going to accept that as an excuse for schools not to step in?

Schools assume evening hours are a vast sink of time when everything can get done, assisted by educated and infallible parents. But most of us aren’t the Cleavers anymore, and policies must be updated.

I am sick unto death of homework advice from schools that repeats ad nauseum to make quiet time, a comfortable place to work, and get enough sleep. Is that all they have to offer? What if that can’t happen? Take a look at your students who aren’t doing their homework and tell me – Is that advice enough? Are their parents even capable of delivering it? Are you satisfied with the results of delivering that advice and then washing your hands?

And then there are the students who for whatever reason have “extra time” accommodations. Are they STILL getting grade penalties for late work?

If the homework isn’t getting done at home, it must be brought back inside the school, and not blown off by teachers and principals who issue zeroes and wash their hands of it. Tell me how many cases you have of students whose performance was turned around by receiving zeroes. “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Bringing it back inside the school is a major cultural change for a school. Policies and attitudes must be changed. It means every adult must accept responsiblity for the student getting the homework done. Teachers can’t do it alone – they will need to be supported by their leaders in a holistic, whole-school effort.

It will at first be difficult for those who are invested in the “moral responsibility” theories on the part of the students or parents. Sorry schools, it is YOUR moral responsibility. That will be the hardest part to accept, but it must be done. The parent and student responsibility will never go away, but we must never again use it as an excuse to allow children to fall between the cracks. They’re minors – what’s YOUR excuse?

In the next post, I will describe what implementing this kind of policy takes, and introduce you to a principal who has successfully done it and was rewarded with the kind of improved school performance we all want.

A new way to talk about homework: with facts

March 1, 2013 Comments off

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.

Stipulations
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.

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.