Interview with New York City Fourth-Grade Teacher who Doesn’t Want to Assign Homework but Doesn’t Want to Break the Rules Either
Today’s interview is with Anthony, who has been teaching for five years at a New York City public school where he is a fourth-grade teacher. He holds a B.A. in Psychology and a Masters in Childhood Education from New York University. This year, he was accepted into Teachers Network Leadership Institute, a “professional community of teachers and educators working together to improve student achievement.” The Institute advocates for changes in policy and gives teachers an active voice in policy-making decisions. His research project for the Institute is homework in elementary school.
Later this month, he is sitting down with the administration at his school to look to develop a meaningful policy. So far, they have all agreed that the research does not support a policy that focuses on ‘time in each subject’ per night. “We want to lessen the load and create more teacher independence in decision-making regarding homework.”
Interview with Anthony
by Sara Bennett
“As a teacher, there’s a tension between what I want to do and what I’m supposed to do. I have to take small steps before I can take big ones. I have to go through the channels, go about it the right way.”
–Anthony, New York City fourth grade teacher
Why did you decide to research homework?
I teach in a very diverse school with a wide range of ethnicities and family economic statuses. Most of my students qualify for free lunch. Homework in elementary grades was a no-brainer of a topic for me. I hear so much about homework: stories from my parents of kids up too late, guidelines for how much to give each night from “above”, my “higher achieving” students asking me “why” they have to do homework, the lack of quality of the assignments, the time to check it taking away from my time in preparing better lessons, and mostly to me, how I’m not seeing its positive effects.
What are your school’s guidelines on homework?
The culture at our school is that homework is expected to be given. We receive a written breakdown of the time students should be spending in each academic area per night. (i.e. 40-50 minutes of reading, 20-30 in math, etc.). Even if you add up the minimum times across five subject areas, it totals 100 minutes per night in the fourth grade. I’ve noticed that as the quantity increases, the quality decreases. It looks like kids are trying to finish it and are not engaged in the assignments”
Do you follow the rules?
I’m in a bind. I’ve spent the last couple of months reading and reading and reading and conducting a literature review to see what the existing research out there has to say. And there’s no showing of a correlation between homework and academic achievement. But. at the same time, I have to follow the rules and make sure I give homework each night. I have to remain fairly consistent with my grade colleagues.
I’ve told my Assistant Principal that I’m studying homework and he’s very open to what I’m doing. He realizes there’s little correlation between homework and achievement and he’s open to having a conversation about what we’re doing and why.
Do you think your students get anything out of the homework?
It depends on the assignment. I try to create more assignments that both meet the requirements of our school’s policy and are valuable at home–assignments that involve students working with their families, communicating, and problem solving. But to a certain extent, a lot of the homework is busywork.
I do encourage my students to read for 30 minutes each night and I want them to read something enjoyable. So I let them choose what they’re going to read.
Do you discipline your students for non-compliance?
No. Luckily, that’s left up to the classroom teacher. I’m not going to stop one of my students from having recess, that’s much too important. I have kids who do less than 5 percent of the homework. I talk to them about why and get a lot of excuses.
However, as professionals, I think we need to stop placing blame on the students (and their parents) who don’t do homework and start looking at why they are not completing the assignments and at the assignments themselves.
Does homework take away from your teaching?
The one thing that’s become more clear to me is how less homework could make an enormous difference to both my students and to me, as a teacher. I don’t think many teachers realize how much time homework takes up–collecting it, checking it, passing it out, disciplining students for not completing it. And I don’t mean checking it to make sure it’s done properly–just to make sure it’s done. We don’t have time to provide feedback.
Given this new push on data, and given all of the testing, it’s a little scary how heavy our duties are. A change in homework policy could help us use our time in so many more effective ways.
Unfortunately, there’s this culture right now that “more is better.” Give the kids more time to write at home, give them more math to do at home, and they’ll get better at it. But we all agree deep down that that’s not logical and probably not even beneficial. We need to think more about the quality of our teaching. What could we be doing, how could we be doing it? What’s being missed? Where’s the breakdown in the learning? That’s what we need to focus on.