RU Stuck? Task vs. Proficiency

Jose Vilson and Brown Sugar encouraged me to reprise a conversation I might have had with a peer who was willing to listen and entertain non-traditional ideas about grading and reporting…

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

9 thoughts on “RU Stuck? Task vs. Proficiency

  1. BRAVO!!! As you know, Son #1 has a habit of not turning in homework, even when he’s done it. His middle school has instituted “Homework Cafe”. If they fail to turn in homework, they have to take their lunch to the cafe and complete it there. They can’t get any higher than a 70 (not sure I agree w/ that) but it’s better than the alternative of 0.

    Glad to hear about “Homework Cafe.” Too bad they marred the concept with the grade ceiling. Someone should speak to them about it. (Cite O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading.) –Hugh

  2. I can’t think of a homework that I have set that was of zero value to any student. Therefore, I would expect them all to be done and I will punish a student who does not attempt the work. However, as you know, that punishment won’t be in terms of a grade since I dont grade homework.

    The problem I have with your little chat is that you seemed to be saying, “Student has an A? Then our job is done, no need to do any more”. If you think that students in your class already have As in the work, then use the homework to stretch them beyond the A! Make them find out (or work out) things BEYOND the syllabus! For instance, if I the lesson is on gravity and they have all mastered the work in the syllabus on the formulas and the like, get them to investigate black holes, or to design an experiment to measure G! Use the homework to stretch. It not only adds value to the kids, but adds to their education with no extra work for you! 🙂

    …you seemed to be saying, “Student has an A? Then our job is done, no need to do any more”.

    My point is, don’t chase the work. Be a teacher, as you so eloquently advocate, not a homework copper.

    Your suggestions about enrichment are terrific. 🙂 –Hugh

  3. No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Chase the work! Definitely chase the work. Sadly too many kids today are willing to coast, especially the G&T kids. It is by chasing the work that we help to encourage them to stretch themselves. It is our JOB to chase them. For too many kids, if they are not chased, they see no reason to run…

    Alright…chase them into the “Homework Cafe.” (See Teacher N Training‘s comment above.)

    We’re not disagreeing so much as being victims of this communication medium! 😀 –Hugh

  4. I don’t give a lot of homework (in-class is my preference) because I prefer to be there to see the students do it, encourage them and help them. Most of them don’t have a French speaker at home if they run into trouble!

    In-class practice is my preference also, for the same reasons. –Hugh

  5. How does the research that boys do not like to do homework that is practice. . . only enrichment? btw: my daughter has AT LEAST 3 hours worth of homework each night. . .. geez!

    Hope all that homework is assigned with legit goals in mind, and not just to satisfy some dumb district policy or principal (and I’m sure that’s not you! 😀 ). –Hugh

  6. I meant to say how does that research about boys and homework fit into what you posted. . .

    I don’t know, but I know that it (the amount of homework my daughter is assigned) has gotten so ridiculous until I will complete some assignments for her. . .

    …processing… 🙂 –Hugh

    Lisa, check out the comment below for some references. 😀 –Hugh

  7. Homework sucks. Admit it, it sucked when you were a kid too. Positive reinforcement of study may not.

    Up at 6 am and home at 3. Play and snacks from 3-5 unless it is music lesson days or soccer or baseball or football after school–, dinner at 5, clean up, bath, homework at 6:30ish, lights out at 8:30– Forget any schedule if you go out to dinner, raise animals and crops, get some company here and there, or just want to actually spend some quality time playing with your kids. Ya know-like reading books from those book it clubs you teachers penalize kids for not completing.

    Teachers too must have something better to do than grade homework. And on the weekends too. WHAT ARE YOU ACCOMPLISHING? If you don’t know already the student that is languishing, homework sure isn’t going to solve that and if the parent doesn’t know before the failure to do homework then it is the parents failure.

    Can’t we just let kids be kids a few days of the week and let them enjoy learning instead of shoving homework down throats every waking moment they are not inside the school building?

    I agree. I’m not a big fan of homework, and…

    I have a book you’re truly gonna love. The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Familes, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning.

    Get it and read it. It will blow you away.

    Educational Leadership magazine from ASCD also published an article by Kralovec based on the book. I trot it out when I want to make the kind of points you are making above. –Hugh

  8. I scanned the book but it isn’t going to get my kid at least a C to pass=finished homework will. Thanks.

    Sad, but true. Still, we need to keep up the pressure for meaningful (and less) homework and undistorted grades. The kids who get slammed by bad homework and toxic grading policies are the ones who can least afford it. –Hugh

  9. You are a teacher after my own heart. You’ve said so eloquently what I’ve believed for years. I just wish my own child’s teacher would read your blogs. Thanks for validating my philosophy!

    You’re welcome, Sherry. Maybe you could share a recommendation for Ken O’Connor’s books with your child’s teachers. You can find them on my Bibliography page. –Hugh

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