Monday, September 26, 2016

Homework--Threat or Menace?

I've recently become privy to a DOE directive about grading policies (and I'm sorry, but I haven't got a link). It says that homework may be used as a tool to measure mastery. It seems to place less value on teachers walking around the room and giving simple credit for homework, or giving a grade of 100% for completion. On this astral plane, that's more than a little disappointing.

Homework is routinely copied, and anyone who doesn't think so is either a fool, in some proverbial ivory tower, or composing directives at Tweed. Most homework I give is relatively easy. While I don't want to make kids miserable, I have no problem giving them a few minutes of review at home. Were I to always grade homework I gave, I'd have to not only penalize students who honestly entered incorrect answers (which they could review and correct the next day in class), but also grant higher grades to those who copied from someone more capable. I'd rather just give everyone 100%.

In my sordid past, I did not give number grades to homework. I simply entered check marks in a book. But I now grade via a program that likes numbers, hence the 100. It's certainly true that students who copy homework get undeserved credit, but I can see who does and does not understand in other ways. For one thing, I'm in the classroom every day and I can see who does and does not complete and understand the work. I have a pretty good idea of who will and will not pass actual tests, which happen to be another indicator of who has mastered the material. Homework alone will not make anyone pass my class.

Another advantage of electronic grading is the chance to assign weight to various assignments. A homework assignment that I grade up or down has a value of one. If I simply walk around and look, it's 100 for completed homework, 50 for incomplete homework, and zero for nothing. My program enables this by allowing me to give a grade of 100 to everyone, and alter only those who vary via icons I set in advance.

I don't do that for all homework, though. if I assign, for example, a paragraph, I'll grade each one individually, and assign a value of two, so that it counts double what a short-answer homework assignment does. If I assign a multi-paragraph assignment, I'll grade that individually, and assign it triple value. On assignments like those, copying is quite a bad idea, as I notice pretty much all of it.

Unfortunately, if I were to expect my students to do homework assignments like that on a daily basis, they'd likely as not hate me and everything I stand for. That would make me sad, particularly as there's no need for it. Also, some kids do not do homework alone, or at all. Some families employ tutors who simply do homework for students. Some kids hand assignments to these tutors, or friends and/ or family who complete them. Often kids, perceiving nothing wrong with this, just tell me.

For a few years, I taught ESL students how to pass the English Regents, which of course they should never have had to take in the first place. At that time, it was a marathon writing test. I showed students how to complete formulaic four-paragraph essays that I would never dream of using for anything but that test. At first, I had students complete a lot of writing at home. That didn't work well.

I'd get papers that clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with what students were writing in class. Sometimes they were not even on topic. Sometimes I could find sources from which students had plagiarized, but often I could not. To stop wasting my time, I utterly eliminated homework in these classes. Absolutely every piece of writing was done in class, before my eyes. It gave me a much better idea of what my students could and could not do.

In fact, there is another potential value to checking homework, one of which the DOE never dreamed (what with their not being real teachers and all). If teachers check homework immediately upon student arrival, it's a great tool to discourage lateness. Oops! You're late and I already checked the homework? Gee, that's too bad. Not doing it again. Hope you're quicker tomorrow.

DOE also wants to make sure there is a policy explaining how late homework can come in, and they're much more patient than I am. When can students make up homework? Should it be a week after it is due? Should it be up to the end of the semester? I'd argue that it ought to be made up only if the student were legitimately absent, and only within a day or two after said student's return. Are teachers seriously expected to monitor whether or not students copied late homework weeks after it was assigned? How long does it take a kid to copy thirty homework assignments and why the hell should I give credit for such dubious effort?

The DOE is obsessed with making everyone college-ready. I taught in colleges for twenty years and I was never handed a policy instructing me to grade like this or like that. The DOE thinks everything can be measured on a rubric. The DOE is wrong. We are routinely subjective in many things, but our opinions are crafted on observations of who is and is not doing the work, or at least trying to, when we spend time with our classes each and every day. There needs to be a balance, and in fact there needs to be trust. Of course people whose careers revolve around manipulating data to make themselves look better have trust issues.

Nonetheless, teachers, as professionals, ought to be able to exercise discretion. If not, why are we even here?
blog comments powered by Disqus