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“…but first, I give them a quiz,” the 2nd grade teacher was telling me.
“A quiz?” I was surprised, “Why?”
“Well, how will I know they read their homework?” she responded.
“But…they are only in 2nd grade…so……” I trailed off; she blinked expectantly.

I didn’t finish my sentence.

“So… this is how the madness starts,” is what I wanted to say.

Quid Pro Quo Assignments

Homework has always been a bit of an educational  “quid pro quo (Latin). The “give something, get something” in schools where a quantitative grade marks the successful exchange of educational services, the teacher, to the student in a paper-or digital-transfer.

Quid pro quo homework follows a cycle: the homework worksheet is distributed; the homework worksheet is completed; the homework grade is entered OR the homework is assigned, and the student is quizzed to check compliance.Non-compliance can sometimes bring a punitive action.

This cycle does not facilitate trust between teacher and student.

The quid pro quo cycle of homework has been customary practice in the upper grades, but recent studies are raising concerns about the increasing amounts of homework in the elementary grades.

Increase in Homework for Elementary

The focus on back-to-school issues in the media such as the article Kids Receive 3 Times the Recommended Homework Load in the 8/12/15 issue of TIME magazine  is bringing attention on the tripling of homework at the elementary level. The amount of homework raises concerns in policy and research:

From the National Education Association Research Spotlight on Homework

“In the last 20 years, homework has increased only in the lower grade levels, and this increase is associated with neutral (and sometimes negative) effects on student achievement.”

From Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003 (Cooper, Robinson, Pattall REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH )

“No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework–achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math).”

From The American Journal of Family Therapy Homework and Family Stress: With Consideration of Parents’ Self Confidence, Educational Level, and Cultural Background

Family stress, measured by self-report, increased as homework load increased and as parent’s perception of their capacity to assist decreased.

One conclusion is that the increase in homework at the elementary level is not only academically ineffective, but also stressful, particularly for families with limited educational resources.

Long Term Consequences of Too Much Homework

A consequence of assigning homework as high stakes, rigorous, or graded practice in the lower grades sets up a disturbing paradigm that becomes ingrained in the upper grades. Homework becomes less about good practice in a discipline and more about student responsibility. In the upper grades, where homework does show academic value, the homework grade is often an average of the two.

Another consequence is how quickly younger students can be trained into a exhausting pattern of expecting a grade for each assignment. Once that pattern is set, students may require a grade for anything they turn in. They may not be able to discriminate between a grade for a long-term assignment or for busy work, and in the course of 13 years of education there will be a great deal of homework that is simply busy work.

Once that habit of quid pro quo homework has been established in the younger grades, it can become an addictive monster at every other grade level. For example, the 2nd grade student who will be met with a quiz for reading homework will be conditioned to associate reading with quizzing.

Constant quizzing could mean the student may never understand how to read for pleasure or grow to love reading. Ironically, reading for pleasure has been proven to be the one academic skill that will make that student successful way beyond that second grade classroom.



Of course, homework should receive feedback, an equally critical part of the educational process, but one that serves a different purpose than grading. Feedback on homework could be a positive experience for a student. It can be unexpected, encouraging, comforting, instructional, corrective, supportive-as opposed to a graded assignment….especially for a student in an elementary grade.

If the homework given in a 2nd grade class is to read, a quiz should not be the method to check to see if students did the reading; a  sidebar conference or quick discussion about what was read might be a better assessment.

Not everything needs a grade.
When selecting homework assessments, teachers should consider the question “Is this homework simply busy work?”  as well as other questions:

  • Is a quiz necessary to see that a student has read a homework assignment?
  • Is correcting this homework the best use of time?
  • What does this homework assignment accurately measure ?
  • How many times have I had students do this same homework assignment?

Homework is Practice

Teachers can measure a student’s performance through other forms of assessment. While a teacher, at any grade level, has little control over the conditions and support for homework once a student leaves the building, there are multiple opportunities for the teacher to monitor student progress while students are in the classroom.

Furthermore, homework’s design is to provide students the opportunity to practice, which raises the question: should student practice homework be assessed at all?

This school year, it’s time to halt the increase in elementary homework and the potential madness of its quid pro quo value.

Instead, educators should heed the research that shows students in elementary grades need less homework, and when they do have homework, the emphasis should be on practice.

Students -all students-need the practice more than they need the grade.

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What SHOULD be a tenet of the Common Core State Standards.

The 11th Commandment from Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? Thou Shalt Read Informational Texts.

This edict from on high, from current College Board President and co-architect/promoter of the CCSS David Coleman, has had a seismic shift in curriculum at all grade levels. English/Language Arts Curriculum directors and teachers are jettisoning fiction from their lesson plans in the mistaken belief that they alone are responsible for addressing this new found commandment. For the uninitiated, informational texts in the CCSS replaces the genre previously known as non-fiction and includes many other genres including essays, speeches, and reports.

Columnist Joel Stein exposes the foolishness of this effort in his commentary “How I Replaced Shakespeare” in the 12/10/12 issue of Time Magazine when he discovered that his writing was being analyzed by students. (Note: Diane Ravitch, education activist has the full post on her blog) His response to students who were assigned his articles and who were parsing them for literary devices or thesis?

“Transfer high schools immediately! To one that teaches Shakespeare and Homer instead of the insightful commentary of a first-rate, unconventionally handsome modern wit! Also, don’t do drugs!”

Stein readily admits that students should have some exposure to different genres and explains that he learns how to write in different genres by looking at examples. Similarly English/Language Arts curriculum require students to write in various genres as well through models as well; for example, students are taught with models as to how to write in the genres of essay, business or friendly letter, book review, and poetry.

However, Stein refutes one of Coleman’s most quoted talking points. Coleman said, “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’” Stein’s response? “I agree with this, but only because no one has ever asked me for a market analysis.”

Stein points out that fiction provides the models that makes writers better. “No nonfiction writer can teach you how to use language like William Faulkner or James Joyce can,” he continues. Stein also mentions how the themes in fiction, and he mentions Shakespeare specifically, prepare students for real life choices. Othello, he notes, can help students make better choices about choices in working partnerships.

Instead, the shared blame for students not knowing how to write well or be able to read non-fiction lies with other disciplines such as history and science, a charge echoed by Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers who, along the National Governors Association, created the Common Core. Stein quotes Wilhoit saying, “History class assignments tend to be short textbook summaries, not primary sources.” Indeed the CCSS anticipated that reading across the disciplines is the most effective way to increase student understanding, so the CCSS made clear that a student’s diet of reading should be 70% informational texts and 30% fiction. Unfortunately, the explanation as to how this percentage would play out in the average student’s school day was relegated to two footnotes. On page 5 of the CCSS English Language Arts (down load) is the footnote that illuminates the 11th commandment of how Thou Shalt Read Informational Texts:

The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70
percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.
As with reading, the percentages in the table reflect the sum of student writing, not just writing in ELA settings.

When the CCSS were announced, the misreadings of this the English/Language Arts standards began immediately. The footnote was largely ignored. Instead, the movement to jam informational texts into English classes began. Literature was dumped in order to meet the set ratio in English classes alone rather than a move to increase the reading of informational texts in all other disciplines.Stein recounts how Wilhoit highlights the reaction of the small, vocal group who objected. “It (CCSS) upset people who love literature. That happens to be a lot of high school teachers,” Wilhoit said.

In How I Replaced Shakespeare, Stein adds his voice to the small vocal group who love literature.  He is a former writer for the Los Angeles Times and now is a regular contributor to Time. He is a good writer who recognizes that all students would be far better served to read great literature (Shakespeare,Faulkner, Joyce)  rather than his column of “informational texts.” The loss of literature at every grade level in an attempt to serve ratios-50% fiction/50% informational text in elementary and 30% fiction/70% in high school- is too great a price to be paid to meet the goals of the yet unproven Common Core.