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June 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 9

No Homework Left Behind

Through after-school support, this rural middle school turned homework from a problem into an opportunity.

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"I don't have time to do my homework." Students say it, parents are frustrated with it, and teachers hear it too often. At Richland Middle School, we decided to hear what was being said and do something about it.
Richland is a rural district in the heart of Wisconsin, a beautiful area of gently rolling hills, hardwood forests, and family farms. The district's total enrollment is 1,514 students, with 330 students enrolled in Richland Middle School; 29 percent of our middle schoolers are eligible for subsidized lunches, and 22 percent receive special education services.
The majority of our middle school students do a good job of completing their work, but a number of students need a boost to get their work completed. For example, during the second and third quarters of the 2003–2004 academic year, we had close to 100 students each week turning in a significant amount of homework late or not at all. We addressed the issue of incomplete homework by informing parents by mail of their children's missing work; besides being inefficient, this method got the news to parents a week or more past an assignment's due date. The school's policy was to take 10 points off for every day an assignment was late. By the time the parents intervened, many students had already lost 70 percent credit and were not motivated to turn the work in.

Unpacking the Obstacles

Listening to Students

  • They did not understand the assignment.
  • There was no area at home conducive to studying, and they had too many distractions.
  • No one was available to help when they had difficulty.
  • They did not know how to work independently.
  • They were getting too much homework.
  • They didn't have time.
We looked further into student claims. We found through an informal survey that fewer than 10 percent of Richland Middle School students have more than one hour of homework a night. This is well within commonly recommended time parameters. Cooper (1989) advocates the 10-minute rule on homework time: A student's grade level multiplied by 10 yields the number of minutes that the student should spend on homework each night (for example, no more than 60 minutes for a 6th grader).
Research also suggests that without a social component to homework, students are less likely to complete it. Chen and Stevenson (1989) found that more than 60 percent of the 5th grade students they sampled had negative feelings about homework. Adolescents studied by Leone and Richards (1989) rated homework as a more negative experience than work in the classroom; the lack of social interaction with peers during homework appeared to contribute to this attitude. Adolescents reported higher levels of interest and positive affect when they completed homework with friends.

Listening to Parents

  • They were tired after work and did not want to engage in a struggle over homework.
  • They were not home until late.
  • They believed it was not their job to teach the material.
  • They could not see the value of the homework.
  • They felt pressed for time.
  • They did not understand the material.
Logistical concerns seemed to be more of a problem than negative impressions of homework. A nationwide poll conducted in 2000 found that only 10 percent of parents believe their children have too much homework (Public Agenda, 2000). Most parents believe that completing homework leads to higher grades and fosters attitudes and habits that lead to successful future learning. Research supports these beliefs, consistently showing a positive correlation between time spent on homework and both better grades and higher test scores (Cooper & Valentine, 2001; Keith & Benson, 1992; Keith & Cool, 1992; Peng & Wright, 1994).

Listening to Ourselves

Finally, we asked ourselves why we thought homework was important. We brought all staff members—including teachers, aides, and support staff—into this process of examining and enhancing our homework policy. Richland has a unique program in which parents supervise all our one-hour homeroom periods once a month so the entire staff can meet and strategize to improve the school.
We all believed that homework should help identify areas in which students needed more practice. We also knew that we wanted the grades we gave our students to reflect the knowledge they had or had not acquired rather than whether they had completed homework assignments. Any homework worth assigning is worth doing, and completing homework is essential to ensure optimal learning. Cooper (1989) suggests that when students complete homework, they improve their factual knowledge, understanding, concept formation, attitudes, study skills, self-discipline, and problem-solving skills. Richland's teachers believe that students should not have the option of not doing their assignments and taking a grade of zero. If our goal is to promote learning, every assignment that students give up on represents learning that has not taken place.
We decided to look at homework completion not as a problem to solve but as a mystery to explore. Drawing on the organizational change work of Whitney and Trosten-Bloom (2003), we looked at practices that were working well at Richland regarding homework and how we could expand these successful practices and push through innovations.
Engaging in this process led our group to create the Richland Middle School Learning Lab, an after-school program that would enable us to provide the teacher support and the conditions our students needed to complete their homework.

Launching the Learning Lab . . .

Our goal is for the Learning Lab to be a place of learning, not a punishment for not doing homework. What we do to support learning in the lab depends on each learner's needs at the time. Some students work in groups to share their learning; some work one-on-one with local college students who are pursuing teaching careers; some work independently. Sometimes we just sit next to a student and smile while the student figures out what was puzzling about a piece of work and arrives at a solution on his or her own.
The lab is open to all from 3:25 to 4:25 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Richland's teachers, support staff, and principal volunteer to supervise the lab, with the help of parents and high school and middle school students. The willingness of faculty members and staff to give time to the lab helped show parents and students how important it was to us. Having so many helpers sometimes enables the lab to have a one-to-one teacher-student ratio.
The Learning Lab is available to all students wishing to receive extra help with their work, and any parent may request to have his or her child attend the Learning Lab. But most students come because a teacher requires them to. If a student fails to turn in any completed assignment on time, the teacher involved sends a note to that student's parents informing them about the incomplete work. The note states that the child must either turn in the assignment the next day or attend the Learning Lab that afternoon—and that parents are responsible for arranging transportation. The student is expected to return the signed note; if the note is not signed, the student must call the parent in the presence of the principal.
The student must stay after school for as many Learning Lab sessions as needed to complete the work. Students participating in extracurricular activities are not exempt.
It is important that students not view the Learning Lab as a negative place. We want students to come for help if they need individual attention to understand a concept, access to computers, and a place to work collaboratively. Teachers make a point of presenting lab sessions as an opportunity to learn, not a punishment. When Richland initiated the program, we mailed all parents an article about the lab, encouraging their questions and support. We also made a presentation to the school board, published an article in the local newspaper, and aired a radio interview.

. . . And Watching Homework Transform

The Increase in Completed Assignments

In the year and a half since we opened the Learning Lab, we have seen our goal of making homework a tool for learning fulfilled. We currently average 12 students each week coming to the lab on their own for extra help and 20 students each week who are required to come to complete work.
Since we opened the lab, we have seen a big decrease in the number of students who turn in work late or not at all. We also give far fewer Fs. Just as important, the Learning Lab has forced us to examine our homework practices, and teachers and students have gained insights into how homework can be used to better effect. During the first week the policy was in place, one of the study hall teachers told us:My study hall was GREAT today! The students were all working very diligently. I complimented them on their good work and one student said, "I love study halls now—I got all of my work done. I used to goof around."
  • What is the purpose of this assignment?
  • Is there another way to show understanding?
  • How much work should we assign?
  • Should we modify assignments for students if they are absent for an extended period of time?
This reflection is still a work in progress, but it has brought about positive changes in how staff members view homework practices. For example, instead of automatically assigning 33 math problems because the textbook or some other source says that this is what students need, teachers now conceive of assignments as what learners need to do to show understanding. And because the Learning Lab has also improved our administrative procedures in handling late work, parents now know about missing assignments—and students complete that work—only a day or two late as opposed to a week or two late.
Richland has kept a record of the number of assignments that students turned in late every week throughout the 2003–2004 school year (before the Learning Lab) and after the lab was introduced in January 2005. When we compared the weeks from the third academic quarter of 2004 with the corresponding weeks from the third quarter of 2005, we found a 76 percent decrease in missing assignments each week. A typical week before the lab was started might have 105 missing assignments, most of which would be turned in over a week late or not at all. Since we launched the Learning Lab, in a typical week we see about 20–25 missing assignments—all of which students attend lab to complete so that they turn in the work no more than two days late. The focus has changed from keeping track of how much work is going AWOL to helping students finish their work.

The Impact on Grades

As we expected, completing all homework has had a huge impact on the students' grades. For example, we compared Richland students' grades for the third quarter of academic year 2003–2004 with the corresponding quarter of 2005–2006, after the lab had been in place for a year and a half. We found that teachers gave out 117 Fs (to 61 students) in the third quarter of the 2003–2004 school year and only 85 Fs (to 50 students) in the third quarter of 2005–2006. We believe these grades actually reflect what the students are learning and not just whether or not they have completed assignments. The decrease in the number of students receiving a failing grade has encouraged teachers, parents, and students to continue to work together to ensure that no student is left behind.

A Better Homework Climate

An important bonus of the Learning Lab has been providing students with a quiet place to work that also affords them help from teachers, parents, and peers. Many Richland students who do a great job of getting their work done need extra help now and then. The Learning Lab enables our teachers to interact with students on a more personal level as we help them complete their work—and to gain a greater appreciation for subjects that we do not teach because of the learning that we have to do ourselves to help students with their homework.
Not everything has gone smoothly in creating the Learning Lab, but we are continually making adjustments that improve the process. The after-school setup was not working for students who brought in work late every day and could not arrange for transportation home after the lab. We had to arrange for a lunch-time study hall.
The details will be different for every school, but we believe that some kind of required homework assistance program can improve the homework situation of any school, just as it has for ours. We made a commitment to learning through listening—to students, parents, and teachers—and it has paid off immensely.

Chen, C., & Stevenson, H. W. (1989). Homework: A cross-cultural examination. Child Development, 60, 551–561.

Cooper, H. (1989). Synthesis of research on homework. Educational Leadership, 47 (3).

Cooper, H., & Valentine, J. C. (2001). Using research to answer practical questions about homework. Educational Psychologist, 36, 143–153.

Keith, T. Z., & Benson, M. J. (1992). Effects of manipulable influences on high school grades across five ethnic groups. Journal of Educational Research, 86, 85–93.

Keith, T. Z., & Cool, V. A. (1992). Testing models of school learning: Effects of quality of instruction, motivation, academic coursework, and homework on academic achievement. School Psychology Quarterly, 7, 207–226.

Leone, C. M., & Richards, M. H. (1989). Classwork and homework in early adolescence: The ecology of achievement. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 18, 207–222.

Peng, S. S., & Wright, D. (1994). Explanation of academic achievement of Asian-American students. Journal of Educational Research, 87, 346–352.

Public Agenda. (2000). Survey finds little sign of backlash against academic standards or standardized tests. Available: www.publicagenda.org/research/research_reports_details.cfm?list=26

Whitney, D., & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2003). The power of appreciative inquiry: A practical guide to positive change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, Inc.

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