Too much homework?

Doing his middle-school daughter’s homework for a week was exhausting, Karl Taro Greenfeld writes in The Atlantic. Most nights it took thee hours. His daughter, who attends a “lab” school for gifted students, is becoming “a sleep-deprived teen zombie,” he complains.

Well-educated parents lead the complaints about too much homework, responds Robert Pondiscio. Their kids probably would do just fine with “a humane 30 to 60 minutes a night”  of homework. Poor Students Need Homework, however, if they are to have any chance to succeed in school.

For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool.

The homework debate should focus on what kind of homework is assigned for what purpose, Pondiscio writes. Quantity is less important than quality.

Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.  Independent reading is also important.  There are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates.  Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.  And all of this is far more important for disadvantaged kids than for Greenfeld’s children, already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes.

How much homework do kids actually do?  Six percent of students say they spend more than three hours a night on homework, according to a 2007 Metlife study. Fifty-five percent spent less than one hour a night.[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]

Metlife Survey of the American Teacher

Blacks say they spend 6.3 hours a week on homework, Latinos report 6.4 and whites 6.8 hours. Asians average 10.3 hours.

21 Detroit schools are open 7 days a week

Twenty-one Detroit schools will stay open 12 hours a day, seven days a week to provide tutoring, recreation, health care, parenting classes and other social services.

State funds and donations from local businesses will help pay the cost.

Study: KIPP produces big gains

KIPP middle schoolers learn significantly more than comparison students, concludes a report  by Mathematica Policy Research on 43 schools in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. Three years after enrollment, the average KIPP student gained an extra 11 months in math, moving from the 44th to the 58th percentile, and eight months in reading, moving from the 46th to the 55th percentile. Science gains equalled an extra 14 months and social studies an extra 11 months.

In 13 schools, students in the control group had applied to KIPP, but lost the charter lottery. If there was no lottery, the study used “matched” students of similar achievement and demographics in nearby schools.

For KIPP students in the lottery sample, researchers administered the TerraNova test—a nationally norm-referenced test—which students had not prepared for, and which carried no consequences for students or schools. The impacts shown in the TerraNova test were consistent with those shown in state tests.

KIPP students resembles other students in their neighborhoods, but with lower reading and math achievement than their elementary school classmates, the study found. Ninety-six percent are black or Hispanic and 83 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. However, KIPP entrants are less likely to have received special education services or to have limited English proficiency.  (Since many more KIPP students are black, it makes sense that fewer speak English as a second language.)

Critics charge KIPP “counsels out” low achievers to inflate scores, notes Education Week. To account for attrition, the study included all students who started KIPP, even if they left for another school.

For example, a student could leave KIPP for another school in 6th grade, but their performance at the new school is counted towards the academic achievement of KIPP students overall regardless. The report also found that KIPP schools have similar attrition rates as traditional district schools (37 percent over three years for both sets of students).

KIPP students spend much more time in school than traditional public school students: nine hours per day, for 192 days each year, in KIPP, compared to 6.6 hours per day, for 180 days. In addition, KIPP students spend an extra 35 to 53 minutes on homework each night.

However, a longer school day didn’t raise test scores, possibly because the extra time was spent on non-academic activities, researchers found. KIPP schools that spent more time on core academic subjects and enforced a comprehensive discipline policy had the strongest results.

In schools where school-wide behavior standards and discipline policies are consistently communicated and enforced, the school rewards students for positive behavior, and the school punishes students who violate the rules, reading and math scores went up, researchers found.

While KIPP students are more satisfied with their school, the study did not find an increase in “attitudes associated with success,” such as persistence and self-control. Students were more likely to admit to losing their temper, arguing with or lying to their parents, or giving their teachers a hard time. Researchers weren’t sure if they were more ornery or more honest about it. Students may have raised their standards about acceptable behavior, said Mathematica researcher Brian Gill.

In comparing higher-performing to lower-performing KIPP schools, researchers found “class size, teacher experience and professional development opportunities” were not associated with higher scores, adds Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

The latest CREDO study of charter school effectiveness found New York City charter students gain an extra five months in math — seven months in Harlem — and one month in reading, compared to similar students in traditional public schools. Charters enroll many more blacks. One in three Harlem kindergartners attends a charter school.

Egalite, fraternite, no homework

France’s president, Francois Hollande, wants to ban homework because some children get more help from their parents than others. Is this  The End of Homework? asks Louis Menand in The New Yorker.

It’s not true that homework is just “busywork, with no effect on academic achievement,” writes Menand.

According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school. Professor Cooper says that this is more true in middle school and high school than in primary school, since younger children get distracted more easily. He also thinks that there is such a thing as homework overload—he recommends no more than ten minutes per grade a night. But his conclusion that homework matters is based on a synthesis of forty years’ worth of research.

U.S. students aren’t doing more homework than they were in the 1940′s, according to researchers.  A majority of students, including high-school seniors, spend less than an hour a day on homework during the school week.

Finland has the most successful educational system in the world, according to The Economist, writes Gill.  ”Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short.”

The No. 2 country is South Korea, “whose schools are notorious for their backbreaking rigidity.” South Korean kids don’t just do homework: 90 percent study with private tutors or go to cram schools.

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead.

Americans “want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else,” writes Menand.

Supporters of homework say that it’s a way of getting parents involved in their children’s education by bringing school into the home, and that has to be a good thing. But it’s also likely (contrary to President Hollande’s assumption) that the people most hostile to homework are affluent parents who want their children to spend their after-school time taking violin lessons and going to Tae Kwon Do classes—activities that are more enriching and (often) more fun than conjugating irregular verbs. Less affluent parents are likely to prefer more homework as a way of keeping their kids off the streets. If we provided after-school music lessons, museum trips, and cool sports programs to poor children, we could abolish homework in a French minute. No one would miss it.

Homework isn’t the root of all evil, but it’s often counter-productive, writes Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal,  in Ed Week.

If we really want students to be engaged with learning, we should allow them the autonomy to self-explore at home one their own and not give them death by ditto because it makes us feel better about the assignments we provide.

DeWitt quotes teacher Mark Barnes, who thinks homework “fails our students.”  Assigning homework “is undermining effective 21st-century teaching and learning,” writes Barnes. “Most teachers link homework to grades so the students who don’t do homework don’t learn the material — mainly because not enough teaching is being done in class — and many would-be learners grow to hate school because they wind up with poor grades and, ultimately, feel like failures.”

French president pushes homework ban

In the name of egalite, French President Francois Hollande wants to ban homework. “He doesn’t think it is fair that some kids get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don’t,” writes Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

Hollande also proposes hiring more teachers and adding a half day of school on Wednesday, while shortening the eight-hour school day — which includes two hours for lunch — on the other four days of the week.

Currently, French children spend Wednesdays in state-run “leisure centers,” if there’s no parent or babysitter at home, AP reports. At some schools, the “afterschool program amounts to sitting silently at a desk for two hours or near-chaos in the play areas

French elementary school students spend 847 hours per year in school compared to an average of 774 for other developed nations, but “France ranks below most of its European neighbors and the United States in results on international tests.”

 

Study: Parents matter more than schools

Parents who value education have more impact on student’s achievement than attending a school that’s a “positive learning environment,” concludes a new study, Does Capital at Home Matter More than Capital at School? 

“The effort that parents are putting in at home in terms of checking homework, reinforcing the importance of school, and stressing the importance of academic achievement is ultimately very important to their children’s academic achievement,” Dr. Toby Parcel, professor of sociology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. and a co-author of the study, told Education Week.

Measures of family social capital included:

• Does the parent check the student’s homework?
• Does the parent attend school meetings?
• Does the parent attend school events?
• How much trust does the parent have in the child?
• How often do students report discussing school programs, activities, and classes with parents?

To measure school social capital, defined as a school’s ability to serve as a positive environment for learning, the researchers evaluated:

• Student participation in extracurricular activities;
• Whether the school contacted parents;
• The level of teacher morale;
• The level of conflict between teachers and administrators;
• Whether teachers responded to individual student needs; and
• An overall measure of school environment that tapped delinquency, absenteeism, and violence.

This is not surprising.

Got a D? Cut a class? Mom knows

More schools now let parents go online to track their children’s grades, attendance and homework completion, reports the Wall Street Journal.

In the past five years, the number of schools using such systems has more than tripled, to an estimated 25% to 35% of U.S. public schools, says Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association in Rockville, Md. Parent use is likely to expand faster in coming years, as more take advantage of the systems’ mobile apps, Mr. Bagin says.

Some parents complain it’s too much information, while others love it.

John Patriarche, a construction consultant, tracks his 13-year-old daughter’s school performance.

Using the online data, “you can get ahead of it and help your child so they can turn it around before the final,” Mr. Patriarche says.

These days, schools are adopting “integrated über-systems that link class materials and assignments, gradebooks, discussion boards and blogs, attendance records, and school calendars.” Often “parents can request immediate texts or emails if their child is tardy or absent or receives a low grade.”

In a recent online poll of 115 parents by SheKnows, a website on parenting and lifestyle issues, 32% said online reports help them prod their children to study and get assignments in on time. But 49% said teachers don’t keep their pages updated, 14% said grade and assignment information is inaccurate and 15% said their children resent such monitoring efforts.

Charting students’ performance in real time — not just at the end of the grading period — means more work for teachers. Is it worth it? I’d think so, but I’d be interested to see what teachers and parents think.

Critics hit the math of Khan

Khan Academy’s free math videos teach procedures rather than concepts, according to critics, reports the San Jose Mercury News. A ”Mystery Teacher Theatre 2000″ video by two Michigan professors, David Coffey and John Golden, pokes fun at a Khan lesson on how to multiply and divide negative number. (Sal Khan responded by posting a revised lesson.) Dan Meyer, a Stanford University doctoral candidate in education, who blogs at dy/dan and Justin Reich, who blogs at EdTech Researcher, are offering $750 in prizes for the best online critique of Khan Academy videos. The deadline is Wednesday.

Some teachers are using Khan videos to “flip” their teaching. Instead of listening to a teacher’s explanation in class and doing problems as homework, students watch video explanations at home and work through problems in class with the teacher there to help.

But, Coffey said, that model sticks with the old-fashioned I-talk-you-listen mode of teaching.

. . . Math teacher Hye Lee Han, in San Jose’s Evergreen School District, this summer had her class of struggling students preparing for eighth-grade algebra skip the videos and just tackle the Khan questions. She was using Khan Academy for the first time, to supplement her lessons.

“I love it,” she said about Khan. What she really likes is the color-coded, real-time spreadsheet showing each student’s progress, including the number of attempts at solving each problem. “I can keep track of them, who’s mastered it, who’s struggling,” she said.

Khan’s virtual rewards are popular with students.

An SRI study of Khan Academy’s effectiveness in the classroom will be released this fall.

Why we flipped chemistry class

Flipped Classrooms Are Here to Stay write two teachers who flipped chemistry classes at their Colorado high school. Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams recorded lectures and told students to watch the videos as homework.

Our students were on a block schedule, meaning they had 95 minutes of class time every other day. Every other night our students watched one of our videos—either online, from a flash drive, or on DVD—as homework and took notes on what they learned. We conducted laboratory experiments during class just like we had always done, but instead of rushing through the lecture and setup to get to the actual hands-on work, we were able to use the entire period to conduct in-depth scientific experiments.

“Flipped” students earn higher scores on tests, they write.  Teachers can give more attention to struggling students in class. At home, “students can watch the instructional videos as many times as they need to, pausing and rewinding to take notes or read Powerpoint slides at their own pace.”

 As flipped teachers, we spend our class time answering questions, monitoring experiments, probing deeper into the content, and guiding the learning of each student individually.

Sorry, that story is subscribers’ only on Ed Week Teacher. Here’s another version that’s open to all.  Bergmann and Sams are the authors of Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.

I wonder: Would flipping work as well in other kinds of classes? If students won’t read the textbook, will they watch an instructional video?

Special education for all?

The New York City Department of Education is currently implementing special education reform. One of its principles is that “all schools should have the curricular, instructional, and scheduling flexibility needed to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities with accountability outcomes.” At the same time, “students with disabilities must have access to the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS).” 

How do you meet the students’ diverse needs and make the standards accessible for them? Welcome to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a “framework” that enables teachers to design curricula for diverse learners in advance, instead of on the fly. On the one hand, it’s difficult to object to something like this. Shouldn’t teachers consider students’ needs when planning curricula? Shouldn’t the curricula reflect the students, at least in part? On the other, it could distract from subject matter. It could send students the message that they need pictures, sounds, activities, strategy instruction, and so forth whenever they don’t understand something.

According to the UDL guidelines, the current curricula are not simply flawed; they are disabled (in terms of who they can teach, what they can teach, and how they can teach. (Why do people find it necessary to disparage the old when presenting the (supposedly) new? Aren’t some curricula better than others?) UDL addresses these “disabilities” by making the curricula more accessible to learners: that is, by providing multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

For instance, according to the guidelines, ”an equals sign (=) might help some learners understand that the two sides of the equation need to be balanced, but might cause confusion to a student who does not understand what it means.” Therefore a teacher should provide “alternative representations” (instead of, say, telling the student what the equals sign means).

Or consider this: “While a learner with dyslexia may excel at story-telling in conversation, he may falter when telling that same story in writing.  It is important to provide alternative modalities for expression, both to the level the playing field among learners and to allow the learner to appropriately (or easily) express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment.” But shouldn’t any student, including a student with dyslexia, learn how to write? Granted, the student should have the opportunity to speak as well. That is nothing new or fancy. It is possible that a student might have difficulty with both speaking and writing. What to do but practice?

Multiple representations and modes of expression are far from the whole of UDL. Teachers are supposed to ”scaffold” the development of the “executive functions” of students’ brains: “The UDL framework typically involves efforts to expand executive capacity in two ways: 1) by scaffolding lower level skills so that they require less executive processing; and 2) by scaffolding higher level executive skills and strategies so that they are more effective and developed.” For instance, when it comes to “higher level executive skills,” teachers should guide students in the formation of their own personal learning goals and help them develop strategies for learning. All of this is fine in moderation, but (a) it can take up a great deal of class time and (b) it can send students the wrong message about their own responsibility and role.

In my experience, students who study at home (that is, who don’t just zip through the homework, but think about it until they understand it) are rarely in need of strategy instruction, multiple representations, and so forth. The strategies come to them as they wrestle with the material. A few tips can help, but they need not be elaborate. In class, these students benefit from challenging instruction. This includes a variety of representations (such as when the geometry teacher says, “Or think of it this way”).  It includes some clarifications, review of basics, hints about how to learn this material, questions pointing to the next step, and exposition of new material. Students then seize this material and work on it. 

By no means am I arguing that a teacher should leave students in the lurches, ignoring them when they stare blankly at the wall or doodle in their textbooks. Of course she should think about what students need and how to draw them in. But take this too far, and you won’t have a lesson that compares the formulas for the hyperbola and ellipse. You won’t have a discussion of Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” You’d end up teaching material that required less intensive study–because you’d have to bring in all your multiple this and that.

If UDL is meant as a collection of suggestions and principles, then much of it makes sense (though I still take issue with the equals sign example). But the word “universal” makes me wary, as does the blanket dismissal of current curricula. Teachers have incorporated UDL-like practices for centuries. It is important to question and refine what we are doing; it is damaging to bring in some sweeping change, some revolutionary lawnmower that tears up the field.

Addressing disabilities in the classroom is a tricky matter; it requires knowledge, skill, and good judgment. But we do students a disservice, overall, when bending too far to accommodate them. One learns by wrestling with things. If students understood this, if at home they pondered and practiced what they were learning in class, we’d see a profound difference in our schools. Teachers, then, would have more room to wrestle with the material at higher levels and plan challenging, well-crafted lessons.