Friday, July 29, 2011

GRADE CAP ON HOMEWORK: The 10% Solution?

Diana L. Chapman | LA CityWatch |


MY TURN - 07.28.2011 - At first, I was appalled when the Los Angeles Unified School District officials announced intentions to adopt a policy that homework must only count for ten percent of a student’s grade due to inherent inequities that had coursed their way across the sprawling school system.

Say what? Once, all of us did vast amounts of homework, did we not? At least that’s how I recall it.

When I heard the news, all I could hear were these little voices in the back of my brain: But homework prepares kids for life experience, shows them that school doesn’t stop at three  o’clock and reveals how each year gets a bit harder. Homework is how a student makes the grade.

More concerning: Kids aren’t stupid. As soon as they understand homework is only ten percent of their grade, many will shrug their shoulders and conclude, if that’s the case, why do it at all?

Before I finished interviewing the folks that were all for the plan so I could come to understand it, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy pulled the plug after a storm of complaints from many teachers and parents and asked for a revision to be turned in by Jan. 1.

“After careful consideration, I have decided to postpone implementation of the district’s homework policy,” Deasy wrote. “While well-intended, I am not confident that the initial policy received sufficient comments and general input from parents, teachers and board members. We cannot and will not implement this policy of this magnitude without actively soliciting and incorporating recommendations from key constituencies.”

So for now, the plan is delayed (if it will ever happen) and Deasy asked his Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Jamie Aquino to revise and craft a new policy.

Because there are reasons that the original policy was nearly approved,  I decided to talk to those who support it and what led to such a revision, starting with Judy Elliott, LAUSD’s Chief Academic Officer who led the proposed policy change.

Inequities across the board is what banded together two teams of parents and educators, many of whom were complaining that homework was misused by some teachers. For months, they studied why homework wasn’t a reflection of how students did when it came to standardized tests, Elliott explained.

The ten percent value was not meant to prevent teachers from demanding homework and did not include reports, projects or book reports. A revised policy of a ten percent cap was to make the district more uniform and to get a better view of how students were actually doing in the classroom, she said.

Amongst some of the troubles, Elliott explained:

--Some teachers weighted homework for as much as 60 percent of the grade. This led to an imbalance. Students who studied and received A’s in the classroom failed standardized tests. In turn, students who didn’t do their work failed the classes, and yet did extremely well on standardized test scores. Therefore, students and their families were not receiving a true measure of a child’s abilities.

--Many students due to family issues, from babysitting for their siblings, working to help the family or having no area to do their homework – were punished tremendously in the classroom when homework was an unusually high part of their marks. It didn’t matter how well they did in the classroom or on classroom tests, they were still being dramatically marked down for lacking their homework.

“It was just fuzzy all over the place,” Elliott said, who had two different teams of parents, administrators and teachers construct the new plan. “There just came an outcry of the inequity of homework across the district and it was driven by teachers. For A kid to get an F or D and then gets high marks on (standardized) tests, that’s a little alarming.

“You don’t want to hold kids hostage for their homework.”

She likened the new policy to a child practicing basketball. The child, she said, is not considered a great basketball player for the practice; it’s what he does in the game that proves his worth. It should be the same way in the classroom, she added, arguing that students should not be graded heavily  on their attitudes or homework. In addition, students will learn that prior to college that their studies will not count for anything toward their grades.

If the second largest school district in the nation agrees to the 10 percent grading cap on homework, it will be following trends of schools across the country that are not allowing instructors to use homework as a large part of a student’s grade, the Los Angeles Times reported.

That got me to thinking; perhaps I’m wrong and led me to explore why so many want the 10 percent cap.

I started interviewing teachers who surprised me with their agreement over the policy– even though I was opposed to it. One first grade teacher told me she rarely gave homework as her students were too young.

Another, Tim Howe, an elementary teacher for seven years before he took a post with Los Angeles School Board member Richard Vladovic, said he always found homework one of the most frustrating issues for him. As a teacher, he said, he would embrace such a plan.

Homework, he said, was always torturous. He tried to achieve a good balance for his students between outside and classroom work and wanted to find homework that was meaningful to his students, not busywork.

And yet, he didn’t want homework that the parents were doing for their children either. He learned quickly, he said, that once a child reaches their frustration level with homework, they shut down anyway and quit learning, “making it meaningless.”

What he found himself doing, he said, was tailoring his assignments toward the needs of the children and their families.

“Homework was never a huge part of my grade,” Howe said. “I always felt like it was practice for the child and I didn’t want it to negatively impact their grade. Over vacation, I wanted my kids to learn in other ways, go to museums, go to plays. They need a break.”

San Pedro High Math teacher Richard Wagoner said the new homework policy designed by Elliott and her teams was right on target.

For years, he said, students have passed their math classes in lower levels and were sent to his higher level math classes, such as Algebra, where he found many were stalled at a fourth grade level or lower. They have passed their lower grade math classes, he said, not through tests but via homework and when they began failing in high school, parents and students were aghast.

Wagoner does not want the policy postponed and wrote the superintendent to say so.

“This policy was frankly long overdue,” Wagoner wrote asking Deasy not to halt the plan. “Kids who cannot pass algebra in schools usually have a 3rd or 4th grade mastery of mathematics. We could have done something, but now we choose to continue the mistakes of the past.

“Please reconsider your decision to delay implementation of the homework policy. You are hurting the very children you think you are helping. And our high-level children will continue to be burdened in classes filled with the unprepared…if they chose to remain in our schools at all, that is.”

I still have those little voices in the back of my brain going: No, homework is good. This policy hurts our kids. But then I wonder am I right? We don’t want to pass kids up who have only achieved success through their homework. That is unfair to the child and their parents.

Complaining profusely to my mom about the new policy, I asked her what she thought.

“You know,” said my 82-year-old mom, “Remember that teacher you had in sixth grade, Mrs. Taylor? She refused to give her students homework. She said kids needed to play and spend time with their families. You got the best education from her.”

“Now,” my mom added. “That’s my kind of teacher.”

What do I think of the policy now? I’m trying to separate myself from what seemed right for my generation and what is right for now.  Maybe, just maybe, these people are right and we need to take the time to listen.

(Diana Chapman is a CityWatch contributor and has been a writer/journalist for nearly thirty years. She has written for magazines, newspapers and the best-seller series, Chicken Soup for the Soul. You can reach her at: or her website: –cw

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