23 November 2010

Students Can Do No Better Than the Work They Are Given

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.


David Korfhage said...

This reminds me of an article in the most recent Atlantic. I don't recall the name of the article, or have a link, but I remember the thesis: that students even in America's best schools, the "high-performing" suburban schools, often perform far more poorly than students in other countries on comparative tests. The scholar being cited (and again, I forget the name) was trying to puncture what he views as the myth that the problems in American education can be ascribed to poverty and income inequality, or are limited to poorly performing urban schools; in fact (he says) problems with low expectations and poor teaching are found in all school districts.

And of course, your post is a good reminder to be mindful of the homework I assign.

Dorothy Neville said...

This is totally common occurrence. It's a main reason why my son hated school, hated high school enough to go to college two years early. College homework is purposeful, practices the material and builds skills and knowledge. Too much of K12 homework simply interferes with other activities for no good reason.

Having the goal of being accepted to the Academy of Young Scholars was the main motivation my son had for completing the horrible HS homework as well as he did. I certainly had a hard time insisting that he finish it when I couldn't respect in anymore than he did. I loathed nagging and fighting with him to finish that busy work and truly resented the teachers for creating it. Yes, he was in schools such as the one you describe, where the teachers can be complacent because the kids are doing well, and too many of them are complacent and shallow. Not all, there were some gems, but not enough.

Once, after finishing a book, he was given a long vocabulary list and was supposed to find each word in the book in order to define it in context. How much time would be spent skimming the book! No, these were not iconic words that ought to be easy to find if one had read the book, simply SAT words. I showed him how to search on google books and saved him boatloads of time. He shared that on facebook and got many thankful replies.

Ms Characterized said...

First-born boy in our household graduated from a school that always hits Newsweek. It also is a stone's throw from a major UC campus. My former principal insisted that if we wanted to measure ourselves, we should measure up to Amazing High.

Now, FBB wasn't on the honors track, but when he came home with an English assignment on To Kill a Mockingbird his freshman year, I thought I was going to die. The assignment required them to detail a stereotype (really detail it, including writing down the slurs associated with it), then explain why that stereotype wasn't true.

Useless and misguided in my opinion -- but then my freshman were knee-deep in a reflective narrative essay and speech relating to Jem's experience with Mrs. Dubose which aligned to the standards, was rigorous, and built on previous skills. FBB's assignment seemed a lot like the chemistry assignment you're talking about.

There's a teacher in my department who uses worksheets like they're going out of style (and lo! they are). She doesn't even take the time to read them to see if they're relevant or comprehensible. Can you imagine the eighth grade student, his tutor, and me trying to make sense of a worksheet? Two adults and a child couldn't understand the goal of the worksheet, and when we thought we'd figured it out, the actual worksheet task was bewildering and pointless.

I work at the kind of school you describe, and I am thankful that I don't have discipline problems. I do try hard to make the work meaningful -- most of my kids are woefully overscheduled because of their privilege (gotta make the college resume spectacular), and lots of work = lots of excuses and headaches.

I cannot agree with you more. Meaningful practice.

Thanks for the post!

hschinske said...

In elementary school one of my kids had a word search puzzle with the SAME word repeated I don't know how many times (thirty or more). The word? SCHOOL. I am not making this up. She was sitting there moaning because she couldn't find more than a certain number of them (you know how word search puzzles get less legible after you've ringed a lot of the words), and I said no way was anyone going to check, stop working on it immediately.

Jenny said...

You've hit on one of the (many) reasons my daughter attends the school in which I teach. We are Title I with mostly immigrant students. As teachers we are constantly trying to figure out how to be better at helping students learn. I wanted my daughter to benefit from that.

It seems like this is one of the many bad effects of everything being judged on standardized testing.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Remember that old song about the knee bone being connected to the thigh bone, and all that?

As a school board member and (retired) career teacher, I have high expectations for our superintendent, and I would universally recommend that board members hold superintendents responsible for leadership, not facilitation. Any wimp can "faciltitate," but it takes courage to lead.

That supe needs to weed his principal garden, and the principals have to show the same strong leadership in their school.

As much as I would like to think of teaching as a profession, I see too much evidence that teachers themselves are not willing to police their own ranks like doctors and lawyers [are supposed to] do. So it's up to the principal.

And the idea that a teacher would include homework like you describe in a report card grade makes my blood boil.

Frankly, I'm a Kralovec fan. If homework doesn't serve a useful purpose, i.e., practicing a newly learned skill, forget it.

Flo said...

I'm a new teacher - of chemistry - and homework is something I struggle with. I try to assign only things that are practice for what we are learning. I keep telling the students that chemistry is not a spectator sport, they need to do it to understand it. My view of word searches? They are garbage. I used crossword puzzles with the new vocabulary words that I create. Anyway, thanks, I now feel justified in the time I take to put together a meaningful homework assignment.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Hey Flo, hang in there! You were smart to hook up with the best politically-don't-care science teacher on the web...your local Science Goddess.

See you on the WordPress side...



Charlie Roy said...

I believe not too long ago homework was actually against the law in many communities. These laws were designed to protect family time from meaningless busy work.

Quality not quantity should be the guiding principle of homework. I remember as a kid being asked to copy each of my spelling words twenty times in cursive as a homework assignment. I made the mistake of asking the teacher if she was going to correct them twenty times in cursive.

Needless to say my time spent thinking in the hall way helped shape my philosophy towards homework.