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Homework: Leading Unmandated Change

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Often life presents us with questions and issues we have answered before in our lives. Sometimes the previous answers hold; other times, things have changed or we know something new and new answers are required. The same is true in the schools we lead. Decisions made years ago can be revisited in the context of current views, perceptions, needs and demands. The premise that if there is no noise there is no problem is a faulty one.  A regular return to collaborative conversations about all aspects of school keeps things moving forward and reduces potential landmines. Opening contentious conversations, especially when there is not an apparent reason to do so, is a courageous act.

Conversations about mandated change are far easier than having conversations and leading non-mandated change.  It is familiar to attribute the problems associated with change (loss, resistance, reallocation of resources, relocations, etc)  to the source of the mandate, be it a legislature or a regulatory agency or a board. It is where the leader begins alone, this territory where he or she raises questions and initiates change that is not mandated.  'Let sleeping dogs lie' is a short term, safe mantra to follow, but it fails to provide leadership, it discourages forward thinking, and it constrains an environment in which asking questions is an acceptable behavior.  As an example here, we raise the question of homework. 

Students' and parents' frustrations with the amount of homework given in elementary and middle school are well known. Students' and parents' frustrations with homework in high school are often that it comes sometimes in waves and is often without timely response. This conversation is an old one.  Homework...good or bad? 

From the elementary perspective, there are some teachers known to give a lot of homework and others who do not. Parents are split. Some value it as the sign of a good teacher when much homework is assigned.  Others find the frustrations of homework completion an unfair pressure on family evenings (Glasser pp. 72-73).

The Leader's Role
What is the leader's role in this homework debate?  Like most things, it is best that a system-wide view is taken. This definitely does not mean that a system or school-wide standard number of minutes are to be expected of students across classes and grades. We argue the decision to give homework should be based on evidence that it is effective and by developing a shared value amongst the faculty and parents and yes, the students.

If homework is intended to teach children responsibility, then what does it teach a child who fails to do their homework? And for students whose lack of homework adds up to a failing grade, even when classwork, quizzes and tests are all passing or at mastery, what does that teach?  These are four considerations that guide:

  • All should agree on the value of using homework to reinforce learning and teach responsibility.
  • If homework is intended to reinforce skills taught in class, then all should agree that homework assigned comes with the confidence that all students understand how to complete it successfully and independently.
  • If homework is assigned to improve student achievement, then all should share the understanding of the relationship (if it exists) homework has on that achievement.
  • And in high school, where there is more evidence that homework has a contributing affect on achievement, all must agree and commit to a fairness principle and coordinated planning so that assignments in every subject are not given simultaneously.

The challenges and values in each school and district will be different. What can be the same, however, is the use of informed rationale for the decisions made about homework. Teachers' academic freedom fuels the conversation as each holds perspectives about the pace for homework in their teaching and subject area. Perhaps the beginning question is: what is the role of homework and does it vary by grade level and subject?  What if we then began an investigation of the research to see which of those perceptions are supported and which are not? Like any questions about practices, these conversations occur in the context of professional respect. It will require patient and thorough investigation of the k-12 experience. It may necessitate the confrontation of long held practices. It may result in a willingness to let go of some of those and to chose new ones; leaders will seek all to cooperate, collaborate, and come to consensus about what is truly best for the students.

Resource:
Glasser, W. (1969). Schools without Failure. New York:  Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

Some resources you may want to use in opening your conversations:

A review of the research from the Center for Public Education

Alfie Kohn on: Rethinking Homework

Center for Public Education: What research says about the value of homework

From a Parenting Blog in the New York Times: When homework stresses parents as well as students

From Brilliant or Insane: What you don't know about homework research

Thoughts from one educator in North London, UK

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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