Ten to Teen: Homework: Friend or Foe?

By Richard Wiesenthal
Principal, January/February 2015

As educators, it is our responsibility to determine where students are, find out what they need, and provide it—all in the time we have them at our school. But like many schools across the country, New Paltz Middle School, which is located in the scenic Hudson Valley of New York state, has struggled with the learning that is supposed to happen at home: homework.

Homework is a contested topic in education today, with strong supporters and detractors. Studies at the elementary level generally show that appropriate homework can help develop students’ study skills and habits, as well as keep families in the loop about their child’s learning. At the secondary level, appropriate homework is associated with greater academic achievement. Time-on-task often makes a difference—assuming the task is appropriate, based on student needs.

But, on the other hand, homework raises difficulties. In our school, for instance, a student’s grades might be based on a formula: 80 percent quizzes, tests, and other assessments, and 20 percent homework. What if a particular student never completes homework, but receives a perfect score on the other 80 percent? This means that such a student could only receive an 80 percent for a given marking period. What, then, was the purpose of the homework? It was certainly not a contributing factor to the information learned. What was the point of the grade?

Our staff decided to take a closer look into the homework cauldron. We scoured college and post-graduate course offerings without any luck, and found that there seems to be a lack of workshops or conferences focused on homework. Information about homework— including its impact on academic success, how much to give, how long it should take, how often to give it, how or if it should be graded, who should grade it (student or teacher), and if it should be done at home or at school—is scarce.

A New Homework Strategy
Based on the research we could find, our teachers developed an alternative plan to assess what we then called homework. Students are now given Prep Tasks (formerly called homework), as the teacher feels appropriate. Prep Tasks must be focused, thought-inducing, and connected to previous or future learning. Prep Tasks, like homework, are usually due the next day and are reviewed in class. In class, students can make changes to their Prep Tasks as needed. This is part of the learning process. Prep Tasks are ungraded and can take 10-20 minutes to complete.

At some point later in the week, the teacher gives a Skills Check, which is a graded assessment of the previous learning. Sometimes, students can use their Prep Tasks during the Skills Check.

When explaining the new strategy to students and parents, we use the example of band or football practice. The practices or rehearsals prepare individuals for the concert or the game. If you don’t attend the practices, success at the game or concert is unlikely.

After our team developed this original plan, we presented it to the entire faculty. Staff members asked questions and made changes to the overall homework plan. We planned to pilot the program and then look at achievement data to gauge its effectiveness. Early in the process, we shared information about the initiative with parents and our PTA.

This change in homework aligned with another one of our ongoing programs called GOAL (Go Out And Learn). Prep Tasks are not optional, they are required. If students don’t complete their Prep Tasks, they are invited to GOAL, an after-school work center housed in our library where students can complete their Prep Tasks. Students who stay for GOAL must call home, let their parent know what assignment they need to complete, stay to complete the work, and then take a late bus home after school. GOAL is staffed with tutors from the local college.

Results and Future Steps
The new homework system has produced positive results for students, parents, and teachers.

Students: Students like the idea of being able to update their answers when they review their Prep Tasks. They also know that effort applied to Prep Tasks will help them on upcoming Skills Checks.

Parents: Parents have been supportive of the change. They want their children to complete the Prep Tasks and appreciate additional programs that we have in place to support Prep Tasks completion, such as GOAL. Parents also appreciate the tutors who work with many of the children. We track all of the students’ achievement data, and we are able to meet with parents and share information on how many Prep Tasks their student completed leading up to a given Skills Check.

Teachers: Teachers are now more focused on the learning and less focused on the homework. Teachers had previously spent hours grading homework assignments that may or may not have been critical to student success. Now, teachers see that students know that the Prep Tasks work will be connected to a Skills Check. This makes the purpose clear in the students’ minds.

Next, we are going to examine the many challenges of grading. But, adding Prep Tasks and Skills Checks to our routines has moved us in the right direction. It has helped students be successful and focus on their learning. This change is just one piece of the puzzle that is middle school life. Helping middle-level students see the connections between what they do and their long-term success is important.

Richard Wiesenthal is principal of New Paltz Middle School in New Paltz, New York. NAESP member


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