The school district in which I teach (the second largest in the U.S.) recently announced a new policy limiting a student's homework liability to 10% of his or her term grade.
I understand the good-hearted intentions. I know what life is like for many of our students in this city.
They go to jobs after school and on weekends, sometimes exceeding the legal limits of child labor laws to earn money on which their family depends; they live in overcrowded apartments with no quiet place to work or even think or in group homes or cars or the streets or they bounce around from place to place, they are the caretakers of younger siblings and sick parents and grandparents and they live in neighborhoods too dangerous to travel in after dark from school or the local library.
I don't know what percentage of our city's students face such challenges but in the area where I teach the number is substantial -- as is the drop-out rate at many of the schools.
We -- teachers, most of us anyway -- are not insensitive to the circumstances of our students. We try (when we can) to work with children facing such challenges -- but the most important way that we can help them is to prepare them to live a better life as adults, to go to college and succeed there and beyond, and many of them enter my class quite deficient in the skills and knowledge they will need to do so.
Our school district, short on funds from the state for the past few years, has had to reduce the school year. The state and district have -- like states and districts throughout our country -- further reduced the instructional time we have with our students by mandating weeks of standardized testing.
This new homework policy will further hamstring efforts to provide a college preparatory curriculum. We can assign as much homework as we deem appropriate and necessary but can only count it as one-tenth of a student's grade. Some students will do their homework regardless of any calculations. They will do it because they understand the value of what they are learning, and wish to be prepared for college, and because they will want a good college recommendation letter from their teacher (and hopefully the district won't place restrictions on the degree to which we can refer to homework on those), and some students will even do all their homework because they don't trust teachers or the district to enforce this new policy.
But others -- students who are not yet self-motivated, who are relying on adults and the rules we place upon them for guidance -- will make the calculations (it will be possible to do no homework at all and get an A) and they will elect to disdain our assignments and their skills and knowledge will suffer for it.
Graduation rates will probably rise. So will AYP and API -- into which student grades are calculated -- which makes it difficult not to believe that this policy is data driven: driven by the politics of showing numeric improvements.
The new 10% rule demonstrates a lack of understanding about the integrated role of homework in an effective instructional program. If, for example, I test students, in class, on something they were assigned to read outside of class, how does the grade on that test factor into my 10% cap?
Advocates of such homework restrictions have said, "Varying degrees of access to academic support at home, for whatever reason, should not penalize a student so severely that it prevents the student from passing a class." But nor should the solution lower our expectation for all of our students who will not merely be competing against one another after high school. I want the students I teach to measure up with students from more affluent school districts and from private schools everywhere.
There are ways to address the challenges our students face without diluting the integrity of our curriculum. Let students who need to attend school part time and give them an extra year or two to finish. Assign some of those education reform millions to build dormitories for students whose home lives stand in the way of their progress, charter evening shuttle buses from schools and libraries in bad neighborhoods.
At least let's start by believing in all of our students and motivating them to find ways to overcome their challenges and master high school level academic work. Twenty years in the classroom has taught me the profound impact we can have on children when set our expectations high and never let students talk us out of those expectations. Keep believing in children until they believe in themselves.
Students are always trying to get us to assign less homework -- they'll plead and gripe and even scowl -- but they almost always, ultimately, appreciate those of us who are strong enough not to give in to their expressions of weakness.
Now the entire LAUSD has caved like an untrained rookie.