In Defense Of Homework

Over the past several decades, although there have been sporadic attempts to revive it as a classroom practice, homework has largely disappeared from K-12 instruction.  The memories many grandparents might have of laboring to finish all homework assignments before bedtime are totally at odds with current pedagogical theory that deems homework the enemy of the innate intellectual curiosity within each child.  Therefore, aside from the most piddling homework that is occasionally still part of elementary school educational practice—often assigned for the sole purpose of encouraging parental involvement in a child’s education—most students can presume their day is done when the final bell rings.

Homework has few fans these days.  Students hate to do it because it interferes with their texting and video time, parents hate it because it requires their time and attention, and teachers hate it because designing it and grading it is very time consuming.  Moreover, the progressive professors who have long been entrenched in our nation’s graduate schools of education—and who make certain yet more of their ilk receive tenure each and every day—have deemed homework the bane of “authentic” learning, which apparently springs only from those activities that conscientiously avoid memorizing facts, practicing skills, or intensive study.  The consequence of this focus on avoiding the sheer grunt work involved with learning has been generations of high school graduates whose most notable characteristic has been a stupendous ignorance of even the most basic knowledge of the world around them.  Anyone who has taught at the college level has quickly learned through harsh experience that presuming even the most cursory topic background knowledge when starting a class is a grave mistake—and will guarantee a lot of blank stares unless you fill in the blank minds in advance.

Homework has also collided headlong with intense pressures now put on many K-12 educators to pass every student.  The equation is a simple one: No student will bother to do their homework unless a grade in involved + reducing a student’s grade for not completing their homework will create problems with school principals and parents = no homework will be assigned.  Wasn’t that easy?  Nobody has to do any work, and everyone passes their classes.  Happy students, happy parents, happy administrators, and happy school board members can proudly point to the “success” that results from crushingly low expectations regarding teaching and learning.  Are you concerned about those terrible scores on the ACT and SAT tests that your students routinely bomb?  Don’t be!  Some students are lousy test takers, the test is only a snapshot of student progress, and everyone knows those awful standardized tests are inherently discriminatory.  Got that?  Besides, colleges and universities are now so starved for students that many are now ditching the standardized test requirements in favor of admission criteria that purport to evaluate the whole wonderfulness of applicants—so we’re all cool.

Of course, the only problem with this system is that most colleges and universities are only too happy to take a student’s money—regardless whether their academic preparation is sufficient.  The nationwide bloom of “Developmental” courses in higher education, which translates into colleges tuition but no college credits, has led to a continual churn of students who accumulate academic debt but never earn an academic degree.  There is a reason that the 6 year graduate rate at 2 year colleges hovers around 39%.

Better models of college remediation have resulted in improvements for those students whose reading, writing, and math skills require only nominal improvement, but the reality for the most academically challenged first-year college students, who often have graduated from the most deficient school systems, has remained the same because a single semester typically cannot teach all that was not mastered during 13 years of being pencil whipped through public school.  We can readily help students who need more practice with using source materials to support a line of reasoning in an essay; unfortunately, those students who did not learn to even write their own names until eighth grade (true story!) have likely already had their academic futures destroyed by K-12 systems that were intent on graduating them—no matter what.  Isn’t it great they don’t have to waste their time doing any of that pointless homework?

However, perhaps the most devastating consequence of the argument against homework is one that is discussed very little—if at all—and it concerns the fundamental difference between the nature of K-12 learning and that of higher education.  

Because K-12 essentially functions as state-sponsored daycare, the school day is long, and there is ample opportunity to complete assignments during daily classes, which generally feature a substantial amount of non-instructional downtime.  A college class might, in contrast, have only 40 total hours of professor-student (or graduate assistant-student) contact time, and this might occur in a large lecture class with a couple of hundred students.  As a result, most class assignments and study must be completed outside of class, which means that 2 hours or more of independent work time must be completed for every hour in a classroom.  What will happen to that eager new college student if they have no experience with working outside of class time because their K-12 instruction featured no homework?

The end result for students who are utterly unprepared for the self-study and self-monitoring required in higher education is often a first semester flame out.  Not understanding until it is too late that a full course load translates into a full-time job, many freshman overcommit to outside work and extra-curricular activities, which results in an anguished trip to academic advising and multiple course withdrawals that immediately put their financial aid eligibility into jeopardy.  

To combat this problem many colleges are pushing Developmental course models that require extra classroom time in order to, in essence, create supervised study hall periods where students can complete their class work, or students are forced to check into a monitored campus study center each week as part of the course they are taking.  Academic coaches also remind students of the need to study and work outside of class, which can be helpful for some but still requires students to acquire the independent work habits that K-12 failed to impart—on the fly and under intense pressure.  The pain of the “no homework” philosophy that rules our nation’s public schools is borne entirely by those who graduate unprepared for the opportunity to succeed or fail based on their own study skills—or lack thereof.

I suspect that those who criticize young adults for a lack of work ethic or personal responsibility may sometimes be unaware of how terrifying it is for many to be independent with no practice at working or studying independently.  Want to help more young adults succeed in higher education—and life?  Try a little homework in K-12 to help more young people develop the study skills, personal accountability, and self-efficacy that will later help immeasurably.  It may cause a few students—and parents—to whine and complain, but it might be the greatest possible kindness in the long run.

Advertisements

Is Free College Really The Best Idea?

One of the pillars of Democratic Party orthodoxy today is the push for free college for all.  At the state level, one of the most ambitious programs is to be found in New York, where the Excelsior Scholarship program has rendered tuition-free both 2 and 4 year public colleges throughout the state for students whose family income is under $125,000 per year.  Approximately 17 states now offer some form of free college to their residents, and it seems likely that more states will develop these sorts of programs in the years ahead.

These free college programs are not, of course, without their critics.

Many have pointed out that these programs many times actually function as a massive subsidy offered to middle class families that previously did not qualify for income-based scholarships; poor students have long paid nominalor zerotuition costs due to existing federal and state aid programs targeted to low-income students and their families.  Moreover, these free college programs are typically available only to those who attend full-time, which locks out those who need to work while attending school in order to cover their daily living expenses.  Although the college tuition might be free, students still need food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, which may greatly restrict the use of many these free college programs.

In addition, freeis a deceptive term to use because these programs are certainly not free for taxpayers.  The New York State program, although much more limited in actual scope than advertised because of the many restrictions attached, still carries a price tag of $87 million this year alonewith costs estimated to rise to at least $163 million annually when fully implemented.

However, the fundamental problem with free college is simple and direct: Access does not equal success.  The scandalous and continuing national crisis of inadequate college preparedness at the K-12 levelwhich decades of incredibly expensive education reformhas yet to addresstranslates into a great many students starting college but failing to complete.  

How widespread is this problem?  Tennessee has for many years offered free tuition to the states community colleges at a taxpayer cost of only $45 million annuallykeeping the outlay lower by covering only that portion of tuition not already picked up by federal Pell Grants.  

However, although the costs might be relatively low for Tennessees taxpayers, there is still ample reason to question whether this is a wise investment of state funds.  Data shows that during the 2016-2017 school year nearly half of the states high school graduates required remedial coursework during their first year of collegeand nearly half had dropped out after two years.  No matter how much educators might want to try to talk their way around it by desperately pointing to other factors that sometimes affect college completion, it is plain that the promised economic and individual benefits of free college are colliding headlong with the disappointing academic preparation that is the daily reality of Americas public schools.

Therefore, looking at the soaring promises of the politicians and educators who advocate putting taxpayers even further on the hook for the costs of free college, a reasonable person might be prompted to ask if the reality is somewhat different from the rhetoricand whether the estimated $70 billion needed to fund the College For Allplans supported by many Democrats is a good use of scarce tax dollars when our national debt now tops $22 trillion.

The many well-meaning promises attached to college that is freestill will be hampered by the vast number of American high school graduates who are academically unprepared to succeed in collegefree or otherwise.  If we want these taxpayer dollars to have the impact we hope that they will, we need to be smart enoughand brave enoughto ask whether college for allactually means failure for many.  Rather than asking taxpayers to pay for college students to again try to learn material that should have been mastered in high school, perhaps a more impactful program would tie taxpayer support to documented student academic preparedness for college-level coursework.

However annoying this discussion might be for those politicians who are anxious to create yet another endlessly expensive entitlement funded by already beleaguered taxpayers, it seems sensible to ask a few difficult questions now about this hazy dream in order to prevent a great deal of money from being pointlessly wasted in the years ahead.

Higher education is important, and we now knowall too wellthat our burdensome and outrageous student loan programs have been an unmitigated disaster that has both enabled obscene increases in college costs and created a gigantic debtor class of Americans whose financial futures are terribly hobbled.  Perhaps it could be persuasively argued that any college experience is beneficial, so free college would be a worthwhile taxpayer expenseregardless of the outcomes.  This is a viewpoint deserving of careful considerationas is the idea that money spent on education can never truly be wastedin the manner that other tax dollars often are.

Nonetheless, it might be worth stopping and thinking before we rush to pay for many students to make a pit stop on a college campusonly to later leave with little learning and no credential.  College is a great experience for many, but it may be the case that we still have thinking to do about how we pay for itand whether freeis the best path forward.  Perhaps some combination of grants and merit-based scholarships will be the mix that provides the magic.  Before any further decisions are made to create a new line in the federal financial ledger, we need to carefully study the long-term experiences of state-level programsparticularly regarding the impacts on student success.

However, whatever direction we ultimately take from here, we also need to give immediate consideration to the question of how we can relieve the frightening burden of the student loans that are now ruining the lives of many.  We cannot continue to ask so many to pay for a grievous past error in government policy that became a trap for so many Americans and their families, and I believe this is the step we must first take before we decide how to help those who will attend college in the future.

Two Terrible Ways Schools Rob Children Of Their Futures—And Make Money Doing So

I recently discussed with a colleague one of the oddities many of us continually encounter when teaching college students, and we both agreed this is one of the maddening truths of dealing with high school graduates today: They simply do not believe us when we explain that they will fail our courses if they neglect to pay attention and do the work we have assigned.  

However, the sheer incredulity that I sometimes encounter when I explain to a young adult that they have flunked is perfectly understandable to me.  We are often today dealing with students who were pencil-whipped through their high school courses, offered phony-baloney credit recovery for those classes where they did not even bother to attend, and were generally taught nothing in K-12 other than that there is no actual consequence for steadfast ignorance.  Therefore, why should they believe that their college teacher has no intention for passing them just because they are carbon-based life forms?  Was this ever the case during their 13 year plod through public schooling?  

Probably not.

K-12 education in America is typical of most entrenched government bureaucracies: There is no connection at all between pay and performance.  In fact, given that school funding is typically tied to nothing other than mere daily attendance, there is truly no incentive for anyone to bother with teaching and learning.  Your local public school will get their cash from local taxes, state funding, and federal grants whether students are studying Calculus or sleeping through a film on penguin reproduction.  Outcomes have no real place in American public education; the point is to keep students in a seat so the funding keeps rolling in.  If youve ever wondered why 35 years of education reform has resulted in negligible results while costing taxpayers a small fortune, this is a good place to begin your inquiry.

This peculiar quirk of how we fund K-12 education perhaps helps to explain at least some portion of the attraction to our latest American educational fad: Restorative Justicediscipline in our public schools.  

Despite any reliable research to demonstrate the efficacy of this punishment-light approach to school discipline, one that exchanges suspensions and expulsions of troublemakers with methods more akin to plain wishful thinking, Restorative Justice—“RJin todays lingohas taken hold across the nation.  Aside from promising that a more nurturing and sensitive approach is somehow better than dealing forcefully with those who disrupt classes, instill fear, and injure others, this method also puts money directly into the pockets of any district that adopts it because students who are expelled or suspended do not count as being in attendance, which means the money that follows them in the door will not be forthcoming.  Consequently, RJ can be a moneymaker disguised as compassionalthough the compassion seems to extend not at all to the victims of the bullies, stalkers, and abusers who now need not fear many (if any) consequences for causing physical and emotional harm to others.

Forgiveness does, of course, have a place in the classroom because young people always make mistakes, which is the reason we place them under the care and supervision of adults, and learning from mistakes is a necessary part of emotional maturation and development.  

Therefore, public schools have an obligation to model and teach the necessity of engaging in respectful behavior, obeying reasonable rulesand accepting the punishment that follows if respect is not offered and rules are not followed.  The alternative is to enable the most selfish attitudes and the rudest possible behavior among our young, which is going to further harm these children and adolescents as they proceed through life and discover just how many doors are closed to them due to learning from their public schools that lashing out has no consequence attached.  Educators who tacitly encourage misbehavior by failing to nip it in the bud are actively harming the young people in their care, and parents should be appalled at what is being taught—or not being taught—to their children through the Restorative Justice model of school discipline.

The same misguided compassion(not to mention the same yearning for the cash tied to school attendance) that informs our nations misbegotten embrace of Restorative Justice also animates the continued movement toward dramatically reducingor outright banninghomework in our nations public schools.  Setting aside for a moment the boon these practices provide for classroom teachers who will no longer need to deal with stacks of assignments to grade, policies that reduce or eliminate homework also keep many students coming to school because the stress of the academic workload is dramatically lessened.  Everyone may enjoy the opportunity to relax more and study less, but the negative impacts are rarely discussed.

Although some argue that any policy that keeps students in school is most definitely a good one, it must be pointed out that actual learning requires mastering the skills necessary to study andwork independently.  Moreover, the complex and time-intensive assignments that are necessary in middle and high school to enable students to learn the higher level academic skills they will need later in lifeparticularly if college is part of their life plansimply cannot be squished into the confines of the regular school day.  Homework is a critical adjunct to classroom instruction, and the failure to learn how study and work independently perhaps helps to explain why 30% of college freshman across our nation do not return for their sophomore yearsthey are simply unable to sustain the study habits necessary for classroom success.  

Would assigning and grading homework in K-12 have helped the millions of students who will abandon higher education this year? Would abandoning Restorative Justice discipline policies improve our schools and help our students?  I would argue that the answer is yes to both questions, but I am certain the Education professors will continue to publish academic papers suggesting otherwise.  Why is this the case?  Darned if I know, but at least their learned studies provide plenty of cover for school districts who care more about the cash tied to attendance than providing safe and academically sound classrooms for our nations children.

A Modest Proposal For Our Public Schools

We live in the age of “big ideas” regarding how we can improve K-12 education in America.

We need personalized learning. Flipped classrooms would help. Teachers and students need to practice mindfulness. We could use more classroom technology—or perhaps less. No child will be left behind. Every student will succeed. I anxiously await the Lake Woebegone Education Act of 2035, which will mandate that every child be certifiably above average.

Let’s face the hard truth right here and now: All these many, many decades of reforms later, real and lasting improvements in K-12 academic outcomes are hard to find, and much of the available evidence points to further systemic declines.

Standardized tests continue to show that huge numbers of students are failing to learn, but apparently we should pay no attention to these test scores because they are nothing but a “snapshot” that fails to capture the “whole child”. As a result, hordes of high school graduates will continue to enroll in college each year—yet be wholly unprepared for college work—and flunk out after a semester or two. This is, however, not a reflection of the work being done (or not being done) at your local public schools. These danged kids must be partying too much.

Local news media—which pretty much operate as transcription services these days—will continue to report that their public schools are doing a fine job because these local television stations and newspapers really have no alternative but to do so. To report honestly about deficient academic measures and outcomes runs the risk of angering homeowners who are worried about their property values and contractors who are equally worried that the latest school construction bond might not pass and hence screw them out of lovely, fat paychecks. Any national or governmental data on broader problems with our country’s public schools do not, of course, apply to the schools in your own community, which the local news media have assured you are doing an excellent job preparing your children for successful futures. The circular logic of it all is a wonder to behold.

However, if a child is willing to sit in a classroom—or anywhere inside the building—so that your local district can collect their daily apportionment of state tax dollars, all will be well. If a student doesn’t like to write, that child can complete an “alternative” assignment—draw something, perhaps? If a child flunks a test, there is no need for worry—the school will likely allow unlimited test retakes. Hate to take notes or study? A student need have no concerns about that—count on a “study guide” the day before the quiz that contains all the answers. If nothing else works, your child can always enroll in a “credit recovery” course where, after watching a few movies and jotting down some random thoughts, full course credit will be expeditiously granted.

There are, of course, still public schools where some standards are maintained—and more and more charter schools are opening to provide alternatives for frustrated parents and students—but the daily reality for many children and adolescents throughout the length and breadth of our nation is maximum busywork and minimum learning. These problems later wash up on the doorsteps of our nation’s beleaguered community colleges, which are expected to somehow remediate 13 empty years of schooling within the span of a single semester.

I have suggestion so radical that to speak it out loud almost tempts a bolt of lightning to strike: Start flunking students who cannot perform to a minimal level of competence, which should translate into skills that would give that student a 50/50 chance of earning a C in a first year college course.

This does not seem an unreasonably high standard to set, and it would both bring some much-needed rigor back into our nation’s public schools and provide some reward for hard work. Our current system of striving to pass any student who can fog a mirror has turned much of our core coursework into a joke and has convinced everyone—students and teachers alike—that caring about learning is a waste of time.

Our unrealistically high graduation rates would obviously dip were we to adopt this standard throughout our nation’s schools, but those who thereafter received a diploma would at least have some assurance they possessed a good portion of the skills necessary to succeed in college or job training—and would not be condemned to a life of nothing other than the most minimally skilled jobs.

As odd as it might be to say this to those many Americans who are unaware of the diploma mills that so many of our public schools have become, implementing and sticking to this standard would entail a shock to the system akin to violent revolution. Rather than just pencil-whipping students through the grades, it would involve actual teaching, assessment, learning, and the many stresses of hard and sustained work—with no guarantee of success—that were once common in our nation’s public schools. Those teachers and administrators who cannot adjust to this new reality would need to be pushed aside, the happy nonsense that consumes so much of the average school day would need to be discarded, and both students and parents would need to face up to the fact that failure is sometimes a necessary stop on the path to actual learning.

Our other option is, of course, to continue to chase every educational fad that comes along, make excuses, and keep right on cheating many, many eighteen year olds of their futures while giving them nothing but an utterly false sense of their own competencies. A renewed commitment to teaching and learning seems an obvious choice to make, but one should never underestimate the corrosive powers of the inertia, laziness, petty politics, and bureaucratic timidity that are the hallmarks of American public education today.

Would Emergency Micro-Grants Help More Community College Students Succeed?

“Persistence” is a buzzword most educators at community colleges hear a great deal. We know too many students enter classes in the fall and—often before even the full academic year has passed—are gone from campus. Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought goes into what can be done to help students—especially the many who are older and re-entering the classroom or the first in their family to attend college—to complete their classes and secure a degree. There are a variety of ways to massage and tweak the data on degree attainment, but widely reported national percentages for completion tend to land in the low twenties. Obviously, everyone who works with community college students wants to do much, much better than this.

A great many good and helpful programs have already been implemented, and most boil down to providing more cocoon-like and intrusive advisory or educational interventions. Whether we are talking about mandated tutoring, individualized study tools, academic coaching, or even wake up calls to encourage students out of bed in the morning, most initiatives are some variation on the theme of hand holding. Truthfully, some students who lack confidence or independent life skills need exactly this because that which would seem obvious to many—attend classes regularly, complete the required readings, ask questions in class, and take careful notes—might not be so for students who attended academically deficient public schools or have no college-educated family members or close friends to act as mentors or role models.

It is also, of course, often the case that a simple lack of college-level skills in reading, writing, and math places many students into remedial coursework where they struggle to catch up. This is a continuing and largely avoidable tragedy that speaks to our national failure to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality education. The grievous dropout rate at our nation’s community colleges will continue to be inflated by inadequate public schools as long as we insist on handing high school diplomas to the equivalent of functional illiterates.

There is, however, another category of community college dropout whose problems I believe bear closer examination: those who are adequately prepared, motivated to succeed, but are dragged down by relatively minor financial circumstances beyond their control.

I am thinking of the single mother who has an unexpected expense and cannot pay her daycare provider at the moment. Unable to attend class for a week or more, she falls behind and grows frustrated. Upon her return, even though she has tried to work on her own and emailed her instructors for help, she needs to work much harder than her classmates to catch up—if she ever does.

I am thinking of the young man who has car problems and lives beyond the range where public transportation is possible. He misses classes while scrambling for a way to pay for the repair that will allow him to return to class. He emails his instructors, he knows what he is missing in class, and by the time he finally finds a relative or friend who can help pay for the necessary repair or provide transportation, the possibility of a successful semester is already slipping away.

I am thinking of the young woman who has a part-time hourly job in retail to help cover her living expenses while she is in school. Unfortunately, she falls seriously ill and misses over a week of school and work. There is no issue with her school absences beyond the assignments she needs to catch up on because she was medically excused from class, but the missed hours at work are a tremendous problem regarding her budget—so she takes on additional shifts when she is barely back on her feet to help cover her rent and food. As a result, she loses time to study and to fully recover from her illness, which has the inevitable negative impact on her wellbeing, classwork, and grades.

The three examples I have sketched from my experiences with my own community college students have a common theme: a minor financial setback becomes an academic catastrophe.

In all of these cases and many others like them, the amount of money necessary to keep these students in their classes and on track to graduate was shockingly modest—perhaps a couple of hundred dollars could have saved their semesters and helped them to succeed in school. The question I have when I see adequately prepared and motivated students fall by the wayside due to a financial glitch that is relatively minor and utterly beyond their control is this: Should community colleges “invest” a bit of money in these students today to help them to graduate tomorrow?

Compared to the staff, facility, travel, and advertising expenses associated with continuing to recruit new students to replace those who are lost—but might have been saved at the cost of a few hundred dollars at a critical juncture in their educational lives—there might be a very good dollars and cents argument to be made here. Moreover, the availability of this sort of emergency grant—some portion of which could be tailored to assist students who fit a particularly high-risk profile—could also draw more students into reaching out for other help offered by the college rather than just disappearing. If $200 for a new starter motor for a car today is going to help a student walk across the stage and collect an Associate degree a few years in the future, I cannot but believe this is a worthy—and worthwhile—expense.

I well understand the reasons community colleges will be wary of setting up programs to make emergency micro-grants. Community college trustees and state administrators would be understandably fearful of the negative publicity and investigations that would certainly result from this type of initiative were it to be poorly managed. No one wants to open the newspaper and read about sneaky students with sob stories scamming their local community college for weed money.

However, appropriate guidelines and management controls could certainly be developed by community colleges that would greatly minimize—although admittedly not eliminate entirely—the possibilities for abuse and misuse of the funds set aside for this purpose. Any such program should certainly start small and scale up as experience working with students provides the feedback necessary to fine-tune the process of disbursing funds, but it must not fall into bureaucratic deadlock if it is to be truly helpful to students facing a short-term financial crisis.

Although no reasonable person is going to suggest simply handing out cash from a shoebox in the Dean’s office, a program of this type will be effective if—and only if—funds can be provided within a business day. The more time that passes between the articulation of the financial emergency and its resolution, the fewer students who actually will be helped.

Is this idea worth a shot? That would be up to an individual community college to decide. However, it might be worth asking what is currently being spent on all programs at that college connected to student recruitment and retention, gather those figures, do some rough calculations, and ask whether a $250 grant that has, for the sake of argument, a 50/50 chance of keeping a student in school is a bargain when balanced against all the other expenses on the other side of the ledger.

I offer this idea for consideration because I believe we need to challenge ourselves to think outside the box to find solutions that will better serve our students—including those who are motivated but lack, for a variety of reasons, the economic safety net other students might possess. Given the well-documented crisis of non-completion at our nation’s community colleges, perhaps it is time for some innovative initiatives that are based upon the real world challenges that so many of our economically vulnerable students actually face. If we do not stretch beyond the tried and true (but perhaps not entirely effective) solutions of the past, we risk losing more and more students of modest means—but big dreams—who are trying to use community college as a stepping stone to a better life.

A version of this article was also published on Education Post (educationpost.org) entitled “Too Many Students Drop Out of Community Colleges. Here’s How We Fix It.” on January 19, 2018.