I recently had a discussion with a teacher in which I asserted that homework should be evaluated, but that evaluation, whether in the form of a letter or a percentage grade, should not be included in a report card grade if the purpose of the homework was to reinforce classroom learning (as in “formative assessment”).
Then the teacher asked what they should do if the student decided that, because the homework mark didn’t “count,” he or she would not turn in their homework.
In the case above, most teachers would try to control the errant student with punitive grading, the most frequent manifestation being the award of a zero for non-performance and then including the zero with percentage items that determine the report card grade. The teacher with whom I was conversing thought that zero was the only option.
I said, “No, it’s not the only option. Stick with the principle of not adding homework evaluation to report card grades (summative evaluation).”
He said, “Then I should just let them skip homework.”
“No,” I said, “let’s back up a second.”
I asked if we could agree that homework should be thoughtfully assigned by the teacher, and the purpose of the homework should be to reinforce knowledge or skills taught in the classroom, and not assigned without consideration of the fact that students actually have a life in addition to school.
Yes, we could agree on quality homework.
Next, I asked if he would want to pursue every student who didn’t do any homework assignment. He said he would, because otherwise it wasn’t fair to the other students.
“Suppose,” I asked, “that the student in question has an A in the class and doesn’t need to do the homework?”
“Well,” he said, “it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students if I let that one go.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, it just wouldn’t,” he said.
“Can we talk about ‘Fair,'” I asked. “There’s two ways of looking at ‘Fair.'”
“Okay,” he said.
“First,” I said, “‘Fair’ has nothing to do with anything. With regard to that particular student’s achievement, it’s all between the state standards, that student, and you. Other students don’t figure into the equation. Remember, we’re criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, right?”
“Second, and this is the way I prefer to think of it, ‘Fairness is not treating all students the same. Fairness is meeting each student at their level of need.’ So we consider each student, each case, one at a time, isolated from all the others.”
“Besides,” I said, “most well performing students are doing their homework anyway, and if they miss an assignment, there’s usually a pretty good reason. You’re a teacher, not a cop, so let it go.”
“If you’re concerned about the student who chooses to ignore homework because they may fail or perform poorly in the course without the practice, then you need to find a way to support them, and that takes some investigation into the reasons they are not doing the homework, as well as an enlightened administration that will provide before and after school, and lunch-time opportunities for students to have homework supervision and help.”
“Okay,” he said, “I get it. I’m a teacher not a cop. And I’m concerned with the value of what the homework produces for the student, not the process of making sure every kid does it or else. Homework is generally formative assessment, for practice, so it doesn’t go into the report card grade. If a student who doesn’t need the practice misses a homework assignment, I don’t need to sweat it, but if a student who needs the practice misses, I find a way to help him or her get it done.”
“Right,” I said. “And besides, in all the years that I’ve observed those homework policies, I’ve never seen kids try to take advantage of me. The ones who will do it on their own, do it. If it’s late, there’s usually a good reason and it comes in later. If they’re not going to do it, you have an opportunity to support them. And I’ve never seen that mythical stack of late papers on my desk at the end of a marking period.”
Winnie-the-Pooh image copyright Walt Disney Productions