Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

"Down With Homework!"

"Down With Homework!"

I can't believe I've written 12 blog posts already and not once did I begin with a clip from "The Simpsons." I'm horrified. Allow me to rectify that by letting Bart Simpson introduce this week's blog post:

And down with uniforms! Sorry, I got caught up in the moment and let my inner Simpsons fanboy come out. If left unchecked, this blog could easily turn into just a Tumblr of my favorite 10,000 Simpsons quotes ("My eyes! The goggles do nothing!").

But I digress. After all, this is a blog about education, not the greatest television show of all time. In fact, this week’s post is the first of a 5-part series I’m writing on education reform—specifically, the way we assess our students. By the way, the sound you’re currently hearing is 80% of my readers logging off their computers and vowing to never return to my website. Sorry, West…grappling with heavy issues on education reform is not how I want to spend my 6.2 minutes on the toilet every Thursday morning!

A fair enough point, but I think I’ll press on, anyway.

Jerry Seinfeld once asked, “What’s the deal with homework?” (this is 100% true…I looked it up) and this week, I want to pose the same question to you. Why do we give homework? If you ask any sample of teachers, I’m sure you’d get one (or more) of the following five reasons:

  1. This is how we assess student learning! I teach students, and they go home and do the work to prove they’ve mastered the skill!
  2. Homework teaches students how to manage time and meet deadlines!
  3. The students need the practice!
  4. If we don’t give students homework, they will get into mischief at home!
  5. Because that’s how it’s always been done! Why do you need to try to change everything?!

So let’s address these arguments one at a time, because, frankly, far too many educators use them as a way to avoid the difficult task of reforming their teaching practices. It’s like how the women on The Bachelor deal with their self-esteem issues. Yes, they could identify the root of the issues and reconcile them in a mature and healthy manner…but why do that when, instead, you could get drunk and cry on national television while a good-looking stranger deems you unworthy of a single flower that’s been sitting in the closet of the props department for the last six months? It’s just easier than making real, long-lasting change. Much easier.

1) THIS IS HOW WE ASSESS STUDENT LEARNING! I TEACH STUDENTS, AND THEY GO HOME AND DO THE WORK TO PROVE THEY’VE MASTERED THE SKILL!

Like the song “Despacito,” I’ve heard this one a lot, recently. Probably too much, to be honest. And just like hearing “Despacito” for the first time, this oft-used reason for giving homework leaves me with many questions—questions like: What is Justin Bieber doing in this catchy song? Why is Justin Bieber ruining this catchy song? And, why do I now hate this incredibly catchy song? Is it because of Justin Bieber? It’s probably because of Justin Bieber, isn’t it?

Whenever an educator or parent says, “this is how we assess student learning,” I always first reply with this question:

What specific academic skills (not behavioral skills) are assessed through homework that aren’t already assessed in the classroom?

And on the teacher’s end—apart from the super-excited feeling we all get when we take home a huge stack of papers to grade over the weekend—what is the benefit of assessing the learning in our classrooms, only to assess the same learned skill through a task completed without our supervision? Seems kind of redundant to me.

2) HOMEWORK TEACHES STUDENTS HOW TO MANAGE TIME AND MEET DEADLINES!

Hey, here’s a fun fact: deadlines given during class time also teach students about managing time and meeting deadlines! Hooray! But, to be fair, homework does teach students important lessons—like how little sleep the human body needs to get between Sunday and Monday before it starts to shut down.

3) THE STUDENTS NEED THE PRACTICE!

So, ostensibly, there are two rationales behind this way of thinking. The first is that the lesson a teacher has created was so effective that students will go home and immediately forget everything they learned that day in school. This is absurd, of course. The second is that the academic concept is so big, so important, so foundational, that students will need the extra time to work on it at home—and also, practice is never a bad thing! There is actually a third rationale that has to do with pacing guides that move at breakneck speeds, but I already went over my thoughts on how to manage pacing guides in my mailbag post, so I won’t bore you by repeating what I’ve already written about.

The second rationale, however (that practice is never a bad thing), is actually a really great argument. One that I won’t argue over. Like, at all. Practice is an important part of the learning process and one that cannot be overlooked or eliminated.

But wait…I thought you said you were all “down with homework?”

Oh, but I am, fictitious reader who never ceases to interrupt me…

Practice is not something that should be graded. It’s part of the learning process. Applying grades to practice turns the concept of learning into a Miss America pageant—where you have to appear to be perfect at every step, despite the fact that it takes years of hard physical training and trying out hundreds if not thousands of nipple tape brands before you finally feel ready for that big stage.

Consider this: If we applied grades to a baby who was learning how to walk, that child would be considered a failure because of all the times it fell during the learning process (regardless of how well it can walk now).

So yes, students need practice and we should encourage them to practice at home. But to apply a grade to it is not just a bastardization of education, it’s also culturally insensitive. Which brings us to this doozy of a rationale…

4) IF WE DON’T GIVE STUDENTS HOMEWORK, THEY WILL GET INTO MISCHIEF AT HOME!

Allow me to respond to this insanity with a letter I’ve drafted on behalf of everyone else:

Dear Teacher who thinks this way,

Thank the good lord that your homework assignments are keeping kids off of the streets! I had no idea how many potential gang members we avoided creating because you gave our children 20 long division questions every night! Our neighborhoods thank you. While you’re at it, childhood obesity is at an all-time highwould you mind assigning fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy dinner for homework, too? It would really help us a lot.

Sincerely,

Society

Snark aside, I want to be real about something: If you think your graded homework assignments can offset bad parenting, you’re living in a fairy tale. If you think your assignment matters more than a child’s family, you have an over-inflated sense of self.

I had a student who was an absolute grade gunner. She took six (SIX) AP classes her senior year. However, when she got home (immediately after school), she had to take care of her two sisters (2 years old and 9 years old) because her mom worked both night and day to support the family. She would make sure the 9 year old did her homework, then would make and feed both of her sisters dinner. She would then have to stagger putting the kids to bed (one at 8pm, the other at 9pm) because it was too much to handle when they woke up at the same time the next morning. So she would finally put the kids to bed at around 9pm (in her room, because they lived in a 2-bedroom apartment so she (a 17 year-old) had to share her room with her two sisters) and would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up the house (because, have you seen what a 2 year old and a 9 year old can do to a place??). Only after the kids were asleep would she be able to start the homework that she received from each of her seven classes (again, SIX of them being AP classes). So from 9:30pm - 1:00am-ish, she’d do her homework and then go to bed…only to have to wake up at 5:30am with the 2 year-old. So yeah, tell me how homework kept this girl from “getting into mischief.” And while you’re at it, explain to me how giving homework is culturally sensitive to students from all walks of life and all socioeconomic standings. 

5) BECAUSE THAT’S HOW IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE! WHY DO YOU NEED TO TRY TO CHANGE EVERYTHING?!

Ahhhh…this is probably the best and most honest response you’ll ever get. It’s also extremely unlikely you’ll get this response (only one person has ever said this to me) because most people aren’t brave enough to tell you the real reason they don’t want to reform their teaching practices: They are afraid of change.

Change is scary. Change represents a loss of comfort, a loss of familiarity, and a loss of control. What’s amazing to me is that we welcome change in pretty much every other aspect of our society (seriously, when is the new iPhone coming out?), yet we CLING to the old ways of education the way my toddler clings to her pacifier. And just like my toddler, making this change and moving away from what we’ve grown accustomed to will be very difficult (and each transition will bring about many tears, I’m sure), but it’s totally necessary if we want to grow and evolve. Imagine if your doctor came to check on you and suggested putting leeches all over your body to cure you of the flu because, “That’s how it’s always been done! Why do you need to try to change everything?!” You’d probably find a new doctor. Yet, here we are, holding fast to systems that are over a hundred years old “because that’s how it’s always been done!

So yeah, I’m pretty down on graded homework. I think we have better things to do with our free time than to assess the skills we’ve already assessed in class. I think we can teach life skills without allowing these lessons to affect our students’ academic grades. And I think that if we are only doing something because it’s familiar and because it’s easier than changing, then our educational systems will be remain broken and we will continue to let down generations of children. But hey, if you disagree, let me give you a homework assignment: Write an equal response proving me wrong.

I’ll even give you a grade, if you want.

Next week in part 2 of my series on education reform, we’ll discuss how teachers value formative and summative assessments. I may or may not have a relevant Simpsons clip to lead that discussion. Until then…

Do you agree or disagree with my take on homework? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Formative & Summative Assessments

Formative & Summative Assessments

Not Half Bad!

Not Half Bad!