No escape from homework

Instead of taking a zero for missing or sloppy homework, students at a Tennessee K-8 school must complete all homework. Before the policy went into effect, slacker students didn’t care if they flunked an assignment, Danny Hill, principal of Lebanon’s Southside Elementary, tells the Tennessean.

“When you first look at it, it appears that giving an incomplete instead of zero is a lower standard when in reality it’s a much higher standard. Everything we do is driven by ‘we will not let you off the hook.’ Every decision we make is based on higher expectations,” Hill said.

Students behind on their homework go on the “Intensive Care Unit” list.

Teachers and administrators call and e-mail parents about their children’s progress. Any parent can call the school and ask if his or her child is on the ICU list and if so, what assignments have not been done.

“The majority of the parents care,” Hill said. And for kids who are lacking in home support that’s where extra help comes in from teachers who stay after school to work with students needing a little more attention.

Five years ago after the policy change, test scores and grades have soared; disciplinary problems are way down.  “Additionally, every student completes every assignment, and 98 percent of assignments are turned in on time,” reports the Tennessean.

About Joanne


  1. Margo/Mom says:

    Testimony to the power of creativity in resolving issues.

  2. If a school is going to require that students do every homework assignment, I hope they go all the way and make sure that every teacher only assigns meaningful work. When I was in high school, many many years ago, I would decide to do or not do a piece of homework based on how interesting it seemed or whether I felt I needed to catch up with what we were doing in class, plus how blowing it off would affect my grade-to-date. It always seemed that a great quantity of the work was pointless. (That was even more the case with in-class worksheets, which seemed largely to exist so that our teachers could use class time to catch up on grading.)

  3. Is there any indication that the school will a similar level of effort to make sure homework is actually useful? What about making sure that ALL kids, even the bright ones, have an opportunty to learn in school everyday?

    This looks to be an expensive program. If there are no additional funds from someplace, what has been given up for it?

    So far, in my kids’ elementary school, the vast majority of homework is useless busywork. They tend to do it on their own, but when the pointlessness gets extremely excessive, I will sign it with a note saying they already know the material and will not do it.

    I agree with bky, if schools are going to those lengths to require that homework be done, they should also go to those lengths to make homework productive.

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    BKY and Jane:

    I completely agree–but I did note that concurrent with implementation and resultant vastly improved on-time completion rates for homework, the school experienced improved grades and test scores, as well as a decline in discipline problems. I suspect that their good thinking extended to other areas (like relevance) as well.

  5. The small private Christian school my mom founded in 1994 did something similar. It was usually very effective for us. Our system worked like this: if you didn’t complete the assignment, you stayed in at lunch to work on it. It was due the next day for 75% credit. A “late slip” had to be returned with a parental signature as well. If it was still not completed the next day, you stayed in at lunch again and lost another 25%. It was rare that anyone was more than 1 day late, and we definitely saw improvement in on-time work.

    My mom was fond of reminding kids who like to complain about, “Well, when I’m an adult…” that an adult’s work doesn’t disappear if he/she ignores it. Your boss isn’t going to just shrug it off if you ignore projects or disregard deadlines. Your pay may not be docked immediately like a grade, but you are going to quickly lose your employer’s respect and probably your job.

    We were given 1 “Grace Slip” per quarter, which allowed us to delay an assignment one day without penalty. Also, those who earned 100% on a quiz or 95% on a test might earn a “You Earned It Slip” which allowed you to do half and assignment or turn in a full assignment one day late (there were some limitations to this, and it was only for the same subject). Five of these slips let you skip and entire assignment. This system allowed bright/gifted students to opt out of unnecessary assignments, though I think our teachers did a good job of only assigning meaningful work. In fact, I often traded my pile of “You Earned Its” in to my teacher for candy at the end of the year because the literature assignments were too interesting to skip!

    There were also rewards tied to on-time work. Each quarter there were pizza/icecream/fun activity parties for those with no late assignments.

    I implemented this system with my 6th-8th grade students last year and had major success in my realm. Kids whose work was missing 1/3 of the time in all 6 courses were suddenly always prepared for mine. The lure of pizza and rootbeer floats and the dread of spending a boring lunch with me were big motivators. Also, I discovered that the largely uninvolved parents would get on their kids’ case when I sent home an email every time an assignment was late!

  6. I’ve been trying to get my admin to do something like this for a long time. I see it as the only way to solve the achievement gap.

    Yes, the homework has to be meaningful.

    A couple of years ago I ran a lab for students with low skills/at risk of failing English. I thought I would be able to do some skills work with them, but it turned out we really only had time to get them through the homework they were assigned. They all made significant gains by the end of the year even though I hadn’t done anything but coach them through their regular English class (with a mixed bag of teachers). It turns out *just engaging with the regular curriculum* was enough.

  7. I have yet to see differentiated homework in the elementary grades. Anyone see this happening?

  8. pm: yes, they do it in my district.

  9. I am an elementary school teacher, and yes, I differentiate homework, as do the other teachers on my campus. I also give as little as possible under my district policy. My son is a 4th grader at another school, and his homework is differentiated as well.

  10. LS and McSwain,

    How many different grade levels do you have in your classroom? For example, if you teach third grade, how many kids do you have working at a first grade, second grade,…..sixth grade etc? Is there a maximum number of grade levels you can teach effectively?

  11. Jane, I teach high school. In my AP course I don’t differentiate other than giving a lot of choice because they are all above grade level. I don’t have to tier or anything of that nature, so I just go with interest.

    In my regular sophomore class I have everything from very LD/ reading at an elementary level to kids who are reading at a college level (basically, MR to gifted in the same room). I’ve been doing it a number of years, so it isn’t fair to say I plan for each student — I have the same range every year, so my lessons are in place to accomodate it. However, it is very difficult work. I can’t imagine trying to manage it as a rookie.

  12. Brandyjane says:

    I give as little homework as possible, and all of it must be meaningful. Other than reading, I don’t assign any homework on Friday that is due Monday, and I don’t give tests on Monday. My students can turn in their homework at any time before it’s due. On the day it’s due, I have all of the students stand up. I take the assignment out of the in-box and call out the names of the students who have turned it in. If a student is still standing, I ask the student to account for the missing work. Often it’s in his or her binder and just needs to be handed to me. If a student didn’t finish the work, I immediately enter a zero in the gradebook and send the parents a quick one-line e-mail that explains that their student didn’t turn in an assignment. Then I write the student’s initials on my board in a box labeled “Recess Club.” (I call it “Recess Club” to avoid embarrassing the students when visitors enter the room. I’ve found that if I don’t write it one the board, I forget and so do many of my students.) Hopefully they can finish the assignment at recess. If not, I take off ten points per day, all the way down to a zero after ten days (not counting weekends). As soon as the assignment is turned in, I take the zero out of the gradebook. I rarely have a student who does not finish and turn in an assignment.

  13. Margo/Mom says:


    Working “at a grade level,” is something of an artificial construction. We set reading levels by grade level–and this is certainly an area in which lots of differentiation is appropriate. However, not every content area is strictly hierarchical. For example, what does it mean to be “working at” a third vs a sixth grade level in social studies, or science? Frequently differentiation in non-hierarchical content areas is a matter of reading material appropriate to the reading level, writing assignments appropriate to the student’s ability to produce written work, provision of assignments accessible through students various learning strengths (aural, visual, kinesthetic, etc).

    I am currently taking graduate level courses, and I woud submit that the “levels” of students in my classes, by many measures, are all over the place: whether judged by reading facility, ability to produce written work, prior experiences, all kinds of things. I would say that our work is highly differentiated–although, as graduate level adults a good bit of the onus rests on each of us. I have learned all kinds of learning tips and tricks from by fellow students who learn in different ways. The use of graphic organizers in planning, for instance is very helpful to many students (and yet, in school this is just a standard “special ed” device). Some students convert text to spoken work to be listened to rather than read. Some use dragon speech to get stuff into the computer due to a variety of input difficulties. I still stick to outlining to get stuff on paper. Some folks form study groups because they learn best by talking stuff out with others.

    Doing these kinds of things in a classroom on an ongoing basis can be very helpful to students in realizing their own best ways of learning so that they can gradually assume greater levels of responsibility for their learning. I observed a high school class that had kinds take some kind of test to help identify areas of learning strength early in the year. As they went through the year, their various learning groups were constructed in various ways–sometimes with similar learners, sometimes in heterogeneous groups so that they could utilize each other’s strengths in projects (a skill that many employers report they have a great need for BTW).

    As LS suggests, differentiation (as most of teaching) is not typically accomplished well by rookies, but relies on the development of lots of ways to accommodate and support. To me, this argues for more collaborative lesson planning between teachers, in order to give those newbies the advantage of experience (sort of differentiating the teaching experience, if you will).

  14. Learning styles is easily assessed. I ask the kids to determine theirs using several different inventories the first or second day of school. Sometimes I use the information to group them, sometimes I don’t. Kids who are good at school generally don’t have lopsided strengths. When I fill them out, I come up close to even in all the categories.

    Graphic organizers are not the domain of SPED. My state tests the ability to construct a basic graphic organizer as a pre-writing skill. Because I’m not especially good at graphic organizers, I just use Jim Burke’s stuff. It’s better than anything I could come up with. I generally give his Tools for Thought as a present to my student teachers at the end of the year (along with all my lesson plans on a drive).

    Rookie teachers should be given easier classes to teach and a lighter load the first year or two. Bet we’d keep more of them that way. Mentoring should be more collaborative, but the time isn’t usually given to the two teachers involved to do any of it.

  15. M/M…so much to respond to….

    Yes, grade levels are an artificial construct, but so are grades. I think it is reasonable to assume/expect that when a child has passed a grade they have acquired some nontrivial amount of knowledge.

    Well, my kids go to a rural California elementary school. They do next to no science or social science…they don’t learn history, geography. They do endless repetitions of math and reading material that they have already mastered. At this point, I wouldn’t care whether science/social science/history/geography was differentiated or not as long as they got SOMETHING.

    As for reading and math, there are definite skill levels and I have only seen teachers able to differentiate them for two years in a total ten childyears in school. Both of those years occurred for my oldest child in two different years. In one year she was placed in a class with only twelve kids. In the other year, she was placed in a relatively homogenous classroom, in that she had three other children like her. The teacher could put the four of these kids together and let them work. It has been four years since then and my child has never been with these kids again. Once the school figured out what those kids could do, they were separated and isolated and never again given the chance to learn at their own pace.

    How is there differentiated instruction in grad school….doesn’t everyone have to pass the same preliminary/qualifying exams at the end of the first year?

    And, back to the homework thread…there is a rumor going around the mom circle from my kids elementary school. Because of budget cuts, homework won’t be assigned for the rest of the year because the school can’t afford paper. Everyone I have talked (I mean the grownups, not the kids) to thinks this is just fine because the homework is a hassle and has little value.

  16. Jane,

    I only have one grade level in my classroom. The kids in there are so varied in ability and background that I can’t imagine trying to teach more. Our district often does “splits” of 2 grade-levels, but all students put in those classes are solid middle-level kids with no behavior problems.

    I differentiate homework for groups of students in my classroom. For example, gifted math students don’t need the “busywork” of just doing more of the same problems, and low students often need reinforcement of old skills–because if they try to do the current work at home, they can’t do it. Also, kids who have disabilities might have completely different homework based on their IEP’s or 504’s. If a child needs remedial skills in reading, I may assign that child homework based on that rather than having the regular homework other children have. And so on…

  17. Jane:

    It is a mistake to confuse differentiated instruction with differentiated curriculum. At grad school level, while there are not year-end exams, there is a common curriculum, with grades assessed for each class. This does not mean that we are all learning in the same way, or that we entered with identical knowledge.

    I’m with you regarding science and social studies. While my daughter had these subjects in elementary school, my son received a different curriculum in his “special” classes. Science and social studies were considered distractors from learning reading and math. While reading progressed annually for my son, mathematics was a case of endless repetitions of the same content (using the same instructional methods) that hadn’t been mastered previously.

  18. That was the policy in my classroom for 30 years. My students finally figured out that they were going to have to do it anyway and they felt more in control if they did it on their terms. I think it was successful when I first started this and continues to be that way even now. I really didn’t understand why other teachers were willing to give a zero which to me, means they gave up on the student so why wouldn’t the student think the same thing?


  1. […] Joanne Jacobs has an article on how one school isn’t allowing students to skip turning in homework. They have to turn it in, regardless of whether it is late, and 98% of the homework is coming in on time. […]