Put an end homework designed to make teachers look tough

Jay Mathews
Columnist December 22, 2013

In the torrent of e-mails and comments that greeted my request for a solution to high school stress, one point was repeated so often that even a former grade-grubber and homework-lover like me had to notice. Madison High School junior Maddy King had inspired my column with the same idea. King told her Fairfax County principal, “If you could talk to the teaching staff as a whole — let them know that we do not need thirty-six math problems if we’ve grasped the concept after nine.”

This had sounded a bit like adolescent sloth to me until I read an e-mail from retired Fairfax County English teacher Bernadette Nakamura, one of my wisest correspondents. “I believe that too often teachers give unnecessarily long, burdensome homework assignments to please parents, to show that they are demanding teachers, or to cover material they didn’t manage to get to during the class period,” she wrote. “I agree with Maddy that all that should be assigned is that which is useful in reinforcing the concepts introduced so there will be carryover until the next class meeting. More is not always better.”

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

She was not the only experienced educator who had this view. Peter D. Ford III, a stellar public school math teacher in Los Angeles, said there are teachers who “dump a lot of work on students just to put on a façade for the parents, as well as trusting these hard-charging parents will supplement their weak teaching with tutoring.”

Amelia Crabtree, a student at Fairfax County’s Marshall High School, said some teachers betray their disdain for their own assignments. “Giving us homework just for the sake of giving us homework, and then taking more than a month to grade it, has no point to it,” she said.

Readers had several ideas for discouraging such mindless overloading. Montgomery County parent Joann Tell suggested that students should have an option. “They have to do 10 math problems but there might be 25 problems,” she said. “If they get all of those 10 problems correct” — and, I presume, are confident of their answers — “they don’t have to do the extra but they can if they want.”

Brett Mead, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis and a graduate of Churchill High School in Montgomery County, said the point was “to make kids work smarter, not harder.” King had complained about average students being overworked; Mead placed the blame on schools’ tendency to cater to overachievers like me. “Students like King are being ignored,” he said, “but the overachievers, and perhaps even more so their parents, are out there asking for attention and influencing school policy. Schools face the same problems as democracies. Old people vote. Overachievers complain.”

Fear of looking bad to colleges haunts Washington area teens, he said. “The answer is to give more immediate incentives than a spot at a top college a couple of years down the road.” He urged adoption of a rule called the AA exemption, found in just a few high schools around the country. It allows students who receive As in the first two marking periods to opt out of end-of-year exams and still get an A for the semester.

King complained that her school had put limits on what was once a free student assistance period (SAP), in which they could do anything they liked. “How about [we] cut a deal?” Mead said. “3.5 GPAs and above get the SAP, below that the same draconian rules apply.” As for King’s 36-problem homework example, why not let students prove they have mastered the concept by taking weekly quizzes? “Ninety percent or above two weeks in a row and you’re exempted from homework the next week,” Mead said.

It will soon be a new year, full of possibilities. Schools should give some of this a try.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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