Thursday, June 16, 2011


How important is homework?  Just as a few years of teaching led me to begin questioning grading practices, they also led me to question virtually everything about homework.  Why do teachers assign it and what purpose does it serve?  At various points in my career I have assigned homework so that content could be covered faster.  At other times it was so that students practiced a skill they had learned in class.  Maybe it was to wrap up something we didn’t finish in class.  Sometimes it was simply some reading to introduce students to some content so that we could have richer dialogue the next day.  But if we are trying to teach ALL students, is it realistic, is it even fair to have all kids read content so that we can cover more in less time?  Won’t that just keep the kids already behind, farther behind still?  If homework is to practice a skill, is it doing any good if the student hasn’t already mastered the skill?  Practicing a skill wrong only leads to more mistakes.  If the homework is to expose students to some new content and they are not highly skilled readers, what have we accomplished? 
As a high school teacher, homework is just part of the landscape; it often goes unquestioned.  It needs to be.  I don’t suggest that we need to do away with homework in high school, but we ought to ask the questions that force us to make its use more educationally sound.  Is homework serving our students’ best interests?  Could we alter the homework so that it does meet ALL students’ needs?

But we must also consider when homework should be assigned.  First grade?  Seventh grade?  And how much is enough?  What is gained and what is sacrificed by asking an eight year old to spend 30 minutes doing math problems they may or may not understand and writing vocabulary words?  Does it get in the way or does it enhance family life?  Are they learning from it or just slogging through?  Is homework one of the things that end up making kids lose their enthusiasm for school? 

Consider these questions as you give this a read….

Monday, June 6, 2011


About ten years ago I started doing some serious thinking about the grades I was reporting for my students.  Early in my career my grade book was filled with assignments and few of them required great thought; too often they were busy-work.  The real evaluations, assessments and tests made up a small portion of the overall grade.  I reasoned that this allowed kids with a good work ethic but troubles retaining content to still earn a good grade.  The real world rewarded hard workers, after all.  Lots of smart people struggle to hold a job, but those willing to work.  It was however a nightmare for me.  Between grading with any integrity, tracking missing assignments and calculating grades I was exhausted.  I got to wondering….what does a grade mean?  Who looks at it and what do they think it means?  That just kicked off a firestorm of further questions and eventually conversations and possible solutions.

Please indulge me while I rattle off most of these questions.  Consider your answers too:

What do grades in elementary school mean and what message to they send our kids?  When is the right time to transition to the traditional A-F?  Should we even have those?  What do they mean?  According to most school handbooks A is exemplary, B is above average and C is average.  But what does this mean…is the “average” the average kid that age, the average kid in that school or community, the average kid in the class?  Is it measured against some absolute or against the peers, thereby making the grade a de facto competition?  Do these grades represent academic performance, reaching an achievement measure, effort, integrity, mastery of content knowledge and/or skill?  Why does the range for A-D typically cover 10% increments while the F covers from a 0% to a 59.4%?  Is it acceptable to be correct only 61% of the time or know only 61% of the skills and still receive credit for a course?  Should reported grades include evaluations early in a term while students are adjusting to new content, new expectations, a new term and teacher?  Should it be their performance at the end that matters?  If the grade represents skills and content acquired, standards met, should practice and homework assignments be counted in the picture?  Should students lose points for turning in late work or coming to class late if the grade supposedly represents mastery of content and skills?  Should extra credit exist if the grade supposedly represents mastery of content and skills?  If so, what should that extra credit be awarded for – bringing tissues, box tops, attending school events, writing extra essays?  Can a student’s performance really be discerned from a letter?  Is a C in an AP class different than a C in an Honors or regular course? (And for another time, don’t such designations create de facto tracking?)  Is a C in English 10 the same in each school, each district, state?  Who looks at and interprets these grades and do they define the grades the same way the people who assigned the grades do?  Are we all looking at the same apples?  How long do the grades matter?  Can we discern anything about a person at 30 years old based on their high school or even college transcript?

After asking these questions of my own practices I came to the conclusion that the grades were relatively meaningless.  The horror!  If I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say via a grade how could they mean anything?  I had the opportunity to see Ken O’Connor (  at a staff development session, and he really got me thinking.  Ever since, my grades have been streamlined and strictly about academic performance – no busy work, no points off for being late – all tests, essays, presentations – real opportunities for student to show what they know and what they can do.  Not yet perfect by any means, but I can rest much easier when I look at grades.  Mind you, to some degree they are still contrived and I am still not sure what they really mean.  But I am working on it. 

But education is far more than just mastering content and skills, right?  That’s just schooling – and Twain asked not to let it get in the way of our education.  The real world, whatever that is, asks for adults to be hard-working, responsible, thoughtful citizens.  Schools are partially responsible.  When schools and teachers insist that work be turned in on time or that students do not plagiarize, they are following through on that commitment.  But should a students’ integrity, for lack of a better word, get wrapped into a grade that supposedly measures their academic performance? 

I like O’Connor’s suggestion…give two grades.  Make one strictly about academic performance and the other about integrity.  On the academic side cut all the busy-work and practice work grades and evaluate on the finished product only?  Consider it this way… a basketball team has practice all week.  They do drills. They break the game down into small segments.  They shoot foul shots.  They dribble.  Then on Friday they have a game.  Fans, family and the media all show up.  None of them care what happened all week in practice.  All that matters is the performance at game time.  Our students need practice and drills.  They need the “game” broken down into parts.  And they may even need a few games to hit their stride.  Then they might blossom at the end into champions we never saw coming at the beginning – and they should still get invited to the Big Dance based on their strong finish.

Let’s have some serious dialogue about completely rethinking how we grade.  Let’s do this for our students.       

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Summer time and time to evaluate

Writing a blog about education is an interesting endeavor.  The job of teaching swallows us whole and robs us of the time it takes to write reflectively.  Then summer comes, and we just want to escape school completely.  Yet, it is with some distance, some perspective that we can most clearly critique what we do.  Summer is the ideal time for all educators to stop and think, reflect and question.  So while I am scoring AP exams with 1000 colleagues and discussing the challenges of the job think about this.... and ask yourself, why do we teach the way we do?  Who are we serving?  Could we change how we do things and serve a broader audience?  Could we reach more students?  Could we have more meaningful classes for a wider range of students?  But do your best to think about these things while sitting on a beach somewhere.  You earned it!