A few weeks ago, I helped a high school kid with some chemistry homework. The student attends one of the top schools in the state---if you just go by test scores. It draws from a upper middle class - downright wealthy population: a place where children want for nothing.
Or perhaps I have been mistaken about that. The quality of work assigned to the student was abysmal.
There was a word search for element names. A. Word. Search. Kids were going to be graded on it. The student also had a "game" where they were given a clue (rather obscure in most cases) and had to figure out the name of the element. If you were 15-years old today, would you think that "Osmium" goes with "Donny and Marie's family"? I told the kid to hit "teh Googles" for those answers. She looked shocked at such a suggestion---as if I'd just told her to cheat. I tried to nicely state that a poor assignment---which will contribute nothing toward her understanding of the elements---is not worth her suffering. In truth, it's not worth her attention, either, but for a student who was already struggling, there was no need to avoid playing the grade game with the easy stuff.
Lest you think I had been called in because the student couldn't do the word search, I can assure you that this was not the case. There had been previous homework assigned for another chemistry concept (specific heat) and the student had not been able to grasp it. We looked at that homework, too. They were problem sets. The teacher had marked some of the ones which were wrong (the scores on the front of the paper made no sense in connection with the red x's elsewhere), but had provided no comments. Most of the problems were okay---about where you'd expect to see them aimed for student knowledge and abilities---but there were a few which were ridiculous. So, the student and I went through things as best we could. We did find some common errors on her part and made a list of "things to remember" so she could self-check along the way.
When our session was over, I was good and steamed at the teacher. I can't believe he's getting away with such crappy assignments in a school where performance is lauded and helicopter parents are de rigeur. But then, the time I spent in a similar school was no different. The vast majority of teachers were quite lazy about the quality of work they required because they could be. What I mean is, when your class is full of privileged children, a teacher doesn't have to work quite as hard. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't---or that all teachers in that situation take advantage---just that those kids have had all sorts of access to other learning experiences (relatives in a variety of professions, trips to the zoo or cultural events, etc.) that they bring with them. Their background knowledge will carry them as far as the standards prescribe. And if you're measured by test scores, it's far enough. The teacher doesn't have much of a gap to address.
But the broader issue for me is that this guy is giving homework a bad name.
There seems to be quite a bit of homework-bashing going on in the Edusphere this fall. There are some good reasons for this---especially if a word search is keeping your family from spending time together. I can think of any number of poor assignments teachers give (and yes, I've assigned them, too). But if we could strip away the stupid stuff, the need the for homework---the need for practice---would still be there. We do not expect drama students or athletes or musicians to perform solely based upon their in-class experience. Should we expect the same for reading, math, or other concepts? We need to change the focus of the conversation from "Ban homework" to "Ban poorly constructed assignments."
I couldn't do anything for the student with the word search in terms of making that problem go away. I did talk with the mom some, gave her some coaching in terms of what to ask the teacher and how to phrase things. It may or may not make a difference, but I hope it will cause the teacher to think a little bit before he pulls out the next ancient worksheet in the file to hand to students. He has great students, no doubt. They, and all students, deserve great opportunities to show what they know.