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Really Dumb Homework

Published in ChicagoNow, March 18, 2019

Here’s an algebra assignment for a twelve-year-old. Go online to find a car to buy. Explain why you selected this car. Now research insurance for the car. Get several quotes for a student driver, including one with no accidents, one with a traffic ticket, and one who had an accident. Now, figure out what your monthly costs will be for car payments, gas, and insurance. Not a bad assignment to teach students about to become drivers some life skills and basic math. But seventh grade algebra?

There are several problems with this assignment. It requires technology and adult help, and thus it unfairly assumes the students all have access to these things. It is developmentally inappropriate for middle school students who have no plans to buy cars for many years. The worst of its problems, however, is that it requires it requires students to lie about their age. To get a quote the way the teacher recommended, the student has to claim to be eighteen. He will also be plagued by whatever company he contacts to buy insurance, and he is wasting an agent’s time. Some students created fake email addresses. Of course, this solution yielded no information, but at least their inboxes weren’t filled with emails from insurance agents. Ridiculous. Why couldn’t the teacher have supplied all of the information and then let them do whatever they were supposed to do that is related to algebra?

Here’s another really dumb homework assignment from the same seventh grade algebra teacher. For Pi Day (March 14), students were tasked with unscrambling a series of math-related words. One totally stumped a student and several college-educated adult family members as well. It was: udxhhnrr tesyet ide. In addition to being difficult for a seventh grader to solve, it’s a word scramble that has nothing to do with algebra. The class had an algebra test the next day, and this was their homework instead of studying. The students had already lost a whole week of school taking a pointless, unvalidated, standardized Pearson state test. The time spent teaching parabolic equations that week, which was the subject of the test, was zero minutes. When the teacher gave them the test on material they had never been taught or studied, she said they should be able to figure parabolic equations out themselves because they are smart.

Because this teacher doesn’t actually teach the students much algebra in class, her homework assignments are the main method of instruction. She often assigns new math questions on topics which she hasn’t covered in class. To make it even more challenging for her students and their parents, there is no textbook. She doesn’t think a textbook is necessary. Students are reduced to googling Kahn Academy or other math tutoring resources to learn concepts so they can do her homework assignments or prepare for tests.

An educator explained sound teaching practice to me as four steps:

  1. Introduce material and instruct

  2. Guided practice (in class with teacher assistance)

  3. Independent practice (this could be homework)

  4. Assessment (test to see if the material is mastered or the student needs further instruction)

Each step can be repeated as needed. Homework should never be new learning. It should always be independent practice.

While the homework wars continue, with experts questioning its value in elementary grades and parents expressing frustration over rote and time-wasting assignments, perhaps it’s time to take a close look at the quality of what students are asked to do. What are they learning? Is it an appropriate lesson for their age? Can they do the assignment without adult help or access to the Internet? Because not all students have the latter, homework based on these supports perpetuates the gap between the haves and have-nots in our education system.

An article posted in Education Week, 2/13/19, reinforces the concept that we should be focused on the quality of homework as well as the quantity. “What we should be doing is looking at what students are routinely being asked to do in take-home assignments, how well that homework supports their learning goals (or doesn’t), and make changes from there.” While there is some connection between homework in middle and high school and test scores, too much homework is rote or meaningless. And too often, being able to complete it depends on access to parental help or technology.

Homework is largely useless in elementary school. I have written many times about ridiculous kindergarten assignments, which no child can complete without an adult reading and interpreting the directions. I have also blogged about how first grade reading homework undermines the joy of reading, and how a ridiculous winter break homework packet ruined a seven-year-olds supposed vacation from school. By the time a student enters middle school, I will concede a moderate amount of meaningful homework is appropriate. But students should be able to complete homework assignments by themselves without needing access to technology that they may not have in their home. And the point of that homework should be to reinforce what was taught in school and for the teacher to see what concepts need further instruction.

Too much of what is sent home with students is time-wasting, really dumb homework. Spoiler alert: the answer to the math word scramble is three hundred sixty, the number of degrees in a circle. What on earth did seventh grade algebra students get out of solving that other than wasting time when they should have been studying for a test?


by Laurie Levy
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