A Blueprint For Fixing Homework: 10 Steps To Make A Lasting Change

I have known for a long time that homework practices in our country were flawed, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. Or, maybe, I didn’t have the courage to begin searching for ways to improve it.

That was until last spring when I started receiving emails from Teachers expressing their concerns regarding homework overload and the unnecessary pressures they felt it was putting on students. They shared articles, their thoughts, and some impressive examples of a different look to home learning.  Mostly, they wanted to know my thoughts on homework and get “my blessing” on trying a different approach.  Here is an one example of an email exchange.

I have said it before and I will say it again—I am blessed to work in a District with special people and special educators. So when I started hearing from so many who I respect regarding this topic, my courage started to build.  When some of the best educators in the field expressed a desire to change homework, I suspected it was time to act. The final incentive occured when I walked into a 6th grade classroom at one of our District’s six elementary schools.

I am in classrooms often, but with over 8,000 students in North Rockland not all of the Students know who I am, so Teachers will introduce me. They often struggle to explain exactly what an Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services does.

“He is the one who bought us yoga ball chairs and adjustable desks!” or “ He is a very important person in our schools who makes a lot of decisions.”  

I will explain that I didn’t actually buy the flexible seating options; the taxpayers did, but I am thrilled to hear that “they are the best thing about school this year!” I also explain that I am not all that important, not nearly as important as their Teachers who inspire and motivate them every day.

On this particular day a young man with maturity beyond his years approach me with his hand out.  As we shook hands he enthusiastically said, “Dr. Felicello I am so glad you came today. I have a petition for you signed by over 150 students. We feel that homework is a waste of time and takes away from more important things.“

He eloquently described so many valid reasons why homework isn’t working for students, and he said it much better than I could ever hope. I explained how I agreed with many of his points and thought schools could do so much better than we are doing now. That’s when he said something that forced me to act by using part guilt and part inspiration.

He said, “Are you going to try to make it better?”  

I stammered a bit and, at first, didn’t give him a straight answer until he finally said, “If you can’t fix it or a least try, then who can?”  

When he said that I sat up a little straighter, looked him in the eye and said, “ You know what Christopher? I can fix it in North Rockland or at least try.”

He smiled and walked away feeling good about himself. I am sure he didn’t feel as good as I did. I felt inspired; I felt motivated. I felt proud that this was one of my students. That was the last day that I thought about doing something to improve homework and instead started trying to fix a broken portion of school.

That conversation gave me the courage to start exploring an issue that had plagued me for years as a Student, as a Principal, and as a District Office Administrator.  It was time to lead a change, time to inspire others to look at a practice differently, and time to make our schools better for kids.

Step One: Establish Our Guiding Team

The first step taken was to establish a small guiding team to examine homework in our District. The group included Teachers and Administrators from Elementary, Middle, and High School. It wasn’t difficult to recruit like-minded members to the team, but I also wanted to include well respected educators who saw homework differently than I did. It would be too easy to have a team that consisted of people who thought the same way I did, but that would be like only listening to Fox News or NPR. I wanted to explore all angles of this argument. I hoped that we would learn from each other, opening our eyes to both sides of this complex issue.

Step 2: Build Knowledge

Individual members had their own ideas about homework, but we felt it was essential to expand our knowledge and learn more. We took a road trip together to a workshop called “The Homework Conversation”. The presenters were a team of Administrators from Freeport, New Jersey.  Superintendent Dr. Ross Kasun was passionate about changing homework and has made some great strides in improving how they ”do” homework, or home learning as he likes to refer to it, in Freeport.

The presenters started off by saying that this was not the “anti” homework presentation, but rather a practical look at why it isn’t working “as is” and some ways to do it better. They also explained why it is so hard to make change; the human condition is often adverse to changing once a practice becomes habit.

To emphasize the point a video demonstrating that it is nearly impossible to ride a bike if the gears are reversed.  This illustration also provided support to the fact that if students are practicing or “homeworking” a skill the wrong way, it is harder to unlearn–then to learn–in the first place.

They cited studies that indicated that homework does not contribute to increased student achievement and one by Richard Walker that claimed homework was actually detrimental.

One of the most powerful takeaways were their guiding principles which seem obvious, but too often are not adhered to in today’s classrooms:

  • Students should know why the homework is being assigned
  • Teachers should provide feedback to students
  • Homework should never be at the expense of family time or health
  • Homework should never require additional supplies or expenses
  • Students should never be penalized by something their parents didn’t do
  • Accept homework late without penalty

The presenters closed by sharing a story about a debate with a Teacher about accepting homework late. The Teacher gave the usual argument about it not being fair to kids who had turned it in on time. That’s a flawed argument because no matter when the homework is completed, it is still the same amount of work, on top of that day’s responsibilities. They smiled and explained that they got the Teacher to “see the light” when he asked if she had ever turned her planbook in late, something she was notorious for month after month.

Step 3- Research Phase

The team came back from the Freehold workshop inspired.  We felt our eyes had been opened, but we agreed we needed to learn more.  We decided on several books that we would jigsaw and debrief.  We landed on the following books:

  • Rethinking Homework- Cathy Vatterott
  • Hacking Homework- Starr Sackstein and  Connie Hamilton
  • The Homework Myth- Alfie Kohn
  • Ditch That Homework- Matt Miller and Alice Keeler

The next few meetings focused on our own learning.  We debriefed on the books, shared articles, and some us were lucky enough to attend a local conference lead by Starr Sackstein, author of Hacking Homework.

The ironic piece that did not go unnoticed was the amount of homework we were all doing as members of the team.  We read, researched, and had discussions on this topic, all outside of our work day. This only solidified what we were learning; when you are passionate about a topic—when the motivation is intrinsic—it doesn’t feel like work.  We didn’t have consequences for not reading, we didn’t hand out zeros,  and there were no penalties. Yet all the members went above and beyond what was expected of them and became experts on this topic. We wondered if homework for students could be more like this, passion driven with purpose.  These thoughts excited and further motivated us. We all started to feel like we could make a real difference!

Step 4: Examining Current Practices

Once we built up a strong understanding of the research, history, and theories on homework, we felt it was time to take a look at how homework was assigned in our District. We reviewed the Board Policy and compared it to the expectations in our eight schools and over 600 classrooms.  Each school had statements about the purpose of homework, time guidelines, and expectations for both Students and Teachers.  The statements found in Student and Teacher handbooks did not contradict BOE policy, but were not consistent in their format or even philosophy across the eight buildings. We tried, but could not seem to find answer as to where, when, and by whom these guidelines were established.

Step 5: Surveys

It was important to obtain information from those that were living homework: the Students, the Teachers, and the Parents. The team worked together to create surveys that we hoped would give us a picture of what homework was actually like and how the key players felt about it.  

We decided to dedicate some class time for Students and PLC time for Teachers to ensure maximum participation. The Parent piece was a little trickier so we used a variety of strategies which included mass emails, postings on our web pages, and a push on social media outlets.  

We ended up having over 6,000 students, 1,600 parents, and 500 teachers complete the survey. The information obtained confirmed some of our thoughts, but provided some excellent new insights. Among the many things we were able to ascertain, we discovered that many Parents feel classes without homework are not difficult enough. We also saw that Students and Teachers often have different perceptions on homework practices.

Step 6: Desired Outcomes

The educators on our team are all passionate and want to make schools a more engaging, creative, safe, and meaningful experience for kids.  Our charge as part of this team was to improve how people thought about homework and its role in education. Essentially, we want to improve how homework is used in our District.

After we researched and gathered information, we realized it was time to start getting some clarity around what that would look like and how we would get there. We dedicated several meetings to pinpoint what would need to be addressed if we were going to make lasting change. We realized that this could not be a top down directive. Our process needed to be inclusive, transparent, and professional development would need to be a key component. We landed on the following essential areas to focus on:

  • The quality of assignments
  • Time spent and overall workload
  • Grading practices
  • Purpose and feedback
  • Professional development

Although we had some ideas on where we should end up in those five target areas, we knew it was important to expand our team and provide others with real voice in the decision making process.

Step 7: Establish a timeline

We had always planned for a year and a half to reach the rollout phase of our work. That would have meant recommendations to the BOE by the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year.  After some deliberation, we reached consensus that our timeline was too ambitious. We wanted to do this right; we wanted it to stick so we adjusted course and decided that our final recommendations and rollout would be ready for the start of the 2019-20 school year.

It was a bit difficult for us to reach this conclusion, but once there, we felt good about our decision. Homework has pretty much been the same for the past 200 years; waiting one more thoughtful year would not be detrimental to our overall goals.  2017-18 will be a year where we work with breakout teams (Elementary and Secondary) that consist of Teachers, Parents, Students, Administrators, and Board of Education members. We see 2018-19 as being a year of transition and learning.  We will prepare our recommendations and provide professional development to Teachers and Parents.

Step 8 : Building awareness

I start every Homework Team meeting and presentation with the same statement: “This is not the ‘no homework’ team.” We are taking a look at homework in an effort to make it better. It is important to say that because rumors have run rampant on this topic. Many think it is my intent to do away with homework and that makes people nervous.  

Would I do away with homework? I am not sure; maybe, but that is not how good leaders lead and that is not how we invoke lasting change. It is not my decision to make alone. It is our decision as a school community.

I know that wherever we land some of the naysayers will not be happy. Some people are never happy and will always complain. I also know that most people want things to be better and, together, we can get there.  The public, Board of Education, administrative team, department chairs, and new Teachers have all been presented with information on why we are looking at homework, how we plan to address our concerns, and the timeline we have established.

The feedback has been positive and I would like to think some eyes have been opened.  My thinking has has certainly evolved as I have tried to keep an open mind.  Here is what was presented to the Board of Education and public.

Step 9: Expanding the team

The guiding team had created a statement that we used to define our work and make it clear to the members who were invited to be a part of the larger teams.  

We invite you to join the NR homework team. This team is charged with examining home learning practices to update how home learning is assigned and assessed. We hope to shift our thinking about homework and foster the love of learning for the 21st century student.

In an effort to create “Powerful Moments” and after reading the book The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Health, invitations were created and mailed the old fashion way, snail mail! Thanks to my amazing assistant, Diane, the invitations rivaled invitations sent for the most elaborate parties and events. Our first meeting was one of the most rewarding I have facilitated in a long time. Yes, the message was something I was passionate about, but, more important than that, we had student participants who were able to express to the group why it was so important to rethink homework.

Christopher, the student who had originally given me the courage to address this issue, was able to express to the group why it was so important to change homework. He spoke in front of over 30 adults about what homework is really like, and why, in most cases, a waste of time it has become.  

“Sometimes students wish we could read or learn about something we are interested in rather than doing a bunch of worksheets that are never checked other than to see if we did them or not.”  

To see an 11 year old who was confident and intelligent enough to explain why this is so important more convincingly than the Assistant Superintendent was pretty powerful stuff!

John, a student on the secondary team, opened some eyes as well. He described class group texts where students took turns completing and sharing assignments. He showed us Photomath, an app that will not only give you the answer, but show the steps to solving math problems by just taking a picture of it. John estimated that about 60% of assignments in High School are not actually completed by the intended party.

This was met with some gasps from the audience and the realization that maybe homework shouldn’t be graded after all. This information was coming from a smart kid who knew how to “play school”. John is in the top 10% of his class, taking several AP and college courses, and has his pick of colleges to attend next year.

The breakout presentations can be found here although some of what we did may be lost as several interactive experiences were built in.  

Step 10: Transparency

As we continue our work this year, with a goal of having recommendations and guidelines ready to be implemented by the start for the 2019-20 school year, we will continue to be transparent and let our community of educators and parents know where we stand and where we are headed. Our Principals will be providing updates to their faculty at upcoming meetings. We will continue to look for ways to obtain feedback from the field and for creative ways to keep parents in the loop as the what, when, and why of our proposed improvements. The Board of Education will be presented with updates and opportunities to offer feedback.

This level of involvement from the BOE may invoke some cringes from Administors reading this, but in North Rockland we have something special and rare. We have a cohesive board that works together, are intelligent, and have no hidden agenda other than to make our District the best it can be. Working with this group—who don’t always agree, but always respect each other and our team—has almost made me forget how dysfunctional some Boards can be. Yes, I am pretty lucky!  

I have  my ideas on where we should land. I have not hidden them.  I also have some non-negotables, but ultimately I will not be making the decisions alone. We will be making the decisions as a school community.  I know that working together, no matter where we end up, will result in our students being better off and that we can make our schools better for kids.