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Editorial

L.A. Unified's faulty approach to homework

School districts across the country are revising their thinking on homework. But L.A. Unified has produced a policy that threatens to dumb down standards and tie teachers' hands while still not addressing the key problems.

July 01, 2011

Scenes from a public school childhood:

The second-grade teacher sends home a pile of worksheets almost every night. Mom is trying to coax her child through the pages once again, until the 7-year-old has a meltdown and screams, "I hate school!"

That fourth-grade rite of passage — constructing a model of a California mission — is beyond the abilities of most 9-year-olds, so Dad works patiently for hours erecting miniature white walls and red roofs. When father and child proudly deliver the finished product to the classroom, they see other models so sophisticated that only professional architects could have glued sugar cubes together so artfully.

The seventh-grade student does poorly on a math test. He figured the math problems the same, wrong way in his homework for weeks, but the teacher never corrected the homework.

The high school sophomore has to use the Internet for research on her history essay, but the libraries are closed and there's no computer in her home.

Homework has never been terribly popular with students and even many parents, but in recent years it has been particularly scorned because of the kinds of problems illustrated above: too heavy a load, work that's inappropriate for the student's age or for the subject matter being taught, busywork that doesn't contribute to learning, assignments that can't be completed without major parental intervention or expensive equipment, and work that teachers don't take the time to correct.

School districts across the country, most recently Los Angeles Unified, are revising their thinking on this educational ritual. Unfortunately, L.A. Unified has produced a muddled and inflexible policy that threatens to dumb down standards and tie teachers' hands while still not addressing the key problems.

Depending on whether you're for homework or against it, there are studies to support your point of view. Some research shows it to be a waste of time, but many studies conclude that it is strongly related to higher achievement. Homework has been found to have much less benefit in elementary school. It's more useful for older students. The relevance of the homework matters too. And overly burdensome homework — such as an hour or more a day for a child in primary school — can leave too little time for relaxation, play or family and lead to burnout.

With the increasing emphasis on standardized testing, though, a new objection to homework has arisen. When students don't do homework but nevertheless ace the state standards tests, critics complain that it's unfair for them not to get a top grade on their report cards. Conversely, if they consistently do their homework but perform poorly on the tests, homework opponents argue that they shouldn't get a good grade. It's a reasonable concern, and the one on which L.A. Unified based its new policy, which was crafted under previous Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. Outlined in a May bulletin, the policy mandates that with the exception of some advanced courses, homework may no longer count for more than 10% of a student's academic grade.

This rule also is meant to address the difficulty that students from impoverished or chaotic homes might have in completing their homework. Their parents might be uneducated or unable to speak English and thus be unable to help them, or the home might be crowded, giving them no quiet space.

But the policy is unclear and contradictory, and even district officials give differing interpretations of it. Certainly, no homework should be assigned that students cannot complete on their own or that they cannot do without expensive equipment. But if the district is essentially giving a pass to students who don't do their homework because of complicated family lives, it's veering perilously close to the canard that standards need to be lowered for poor children.

It's unclear what counts as homework under the policy. The bulletin includes assignments such as book reports and projects that must be completed outside class as homework. District administrators, including Supt. John Deasy, say those would not be part of the new policy. And they certainly shouldn't be. Such assignments teach crucial writing and thinking skills that should be a major part of a student's grade; there's more to learning than what the state tests measure.

But assuming these meatier projects are exempt from the policy, there's an inherent contradiction. If students with few resources at home can't fairly be held responsible for completing a worksheet, how can they be held responsible for a more challenging overnight essay or term paper?

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