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.

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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.

Who Will Teach Our Children?

The so-called “school to prison pipeline” has been a significant aspect of many discussions among education policymakers over the past several years. The idea that overly harsh or capriciously applied school discipline policies are priming students to fail later in life has led to a variety of local, state, and federal initiatives and laws designed to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions meted out for even the most flagrant and repeated infractions of school rules. Those who support this new direction—which is a stark contrast to the “zero tolerance” policies of only a few years ago—are certain that a less consequence-laden environment will benefit a broad spectrum of our public school students.

​I always questioned the underlying logic of this new approach. Back in 2016 when legislative passage of SB 100 here in Illinois mandated a reduction in school punishments, I was not the only educator who wondered about the outcome, and I shared my concerns in a commentary published on my own blog and elsewhere entitled “Illinois Is Trying Out A New School Discipline Law, But Will It Make Schools Safer?”. Although I am certain there are many who still advocate for these new policies, the ongoing and serious teacher shortages experienced here in Illinois, which now impact 80% of the districts in our state, have been exacerbated by teachers leaving the profession in droves. This speaks to a crisis that many studiously choose to ignore.

However, teacher shortages are not only an Illinois problem. National statistics show that far fewer college students are majoring in education—and efforts to increase the pool of teachers through alternative certification programs have had only a marginal impact. Many districts struggle to even keep enough substitute teachers on board to cover normal daily teacher absences.

​Proposals to increase teacher salaries will hopefully encourage some to consider careers in education, but I do not believe a few more dollars in pay is going to be the magical incentive that many believe it will be. Except for a relative handful of egregiously overpaid administrators, K-12 education has never been a road to riches. Looking back over time, very few people became teachers because they were expecting stock options. Most entered the field—and stuck with it—because they enjoyed their students and derived great personal satisfaction from helping young people to learn in a safe and respective school environment.

​How much has this changed in today’s classrooms? National statistics from 2015-16, which I am certain grossly underreport the problem, indicate that 5.8% of teachers were physically assaulted by their students, and close to 10% were threatened with physical injury. These statistics fail to capture the ongoing and pernicious psychic toll of the rude, insulting, and slanderous treatment that so many teachers must endure from students—who know the consequences for their misbehavior will be slight. Too many teachers can tell depressing stories of students being sent the principal’s office after unloading a tidal wave of curse words—only to be sent right back to do it again. If, by chance, the student is actually punished, teachers often are then subjected to harsh criticism from a parent—one who will think nothing of continuing to harass that teacher online or troll them on social media.

In addition, the inevitable outcomes of decades of broken homes and societal dysfunction also land right on the school doorstep each day. Students who are depressed, traumatized, or abused are now a daily facet of the work lives of many teachers, who are given neither the tools nor the training to deal with problems that in many cases legitimately warrant hospital care. Throw in a smattering of pregnant students or teen parents, add a smidgen of suicidal ideation in essay assignments, a dash of cognitively damaged children, a splash of prescription and illegal drug use, and a soupçon of sexually aggressive and inappropriate classroom behavior, and a reasonable individual might wonder about the sanity of their career choice. Oh, we should not forget about all those “non-working” hours at home and over the summers that are consumed with grading and lesson planning. Why would you not stick around in the classroom—for thirty or more years?

​Let’s have a reality check: Is the promise of, say, a 5% raise really going to persuade our nation’s overworked and overstressed teachers to stay in the classroom? The price increases for Chardonnay and Xanax alone run far ahead of what cash-strapped districts can possibly offer to attract and retain effective teachers, who now can add the remote—but still frightening—potential for school shootings to their already expansive list of worries.

​Sadly, what would likely convince more teachers to stay in the classroom is what most school districts are least likely to provide: tougher discipline policies that include long suspensions or expulsions for repeat or flagrant offenders. Most teachers would like a raise (Who wouldn’t?), but most would likely much prefer a safer and more respectful classroom and school environment where they can focus on doing their jobs without fear of a student throwing a chair at their heads, cursing them out, or miming oral sex with a knowing smirk on their faces. Continuing to condone misbehavior out of some misguided desire to end the fabled “school to prison pipeline” robs the students who want to actually learn of their educations, reinforces the worst behaviors by a handful of students—and drives all but the most desperate or masochistic from the teaching profession. It is not the job of our nation’s teachers to be punching bags, and fatter paychecks will not solve our rapidly worsening teacher shortages.

We need to rethink the both the daily practices and long-term goals of our nation’s public schools if we expect the system to survive. If we do not, the problems will only worsen.

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.

The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.