by Meredith Kaunitz
Did you know that the Administrative Procedure for the Assignment of Homework (AP No. 6154) for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) has not been updated since 1983? I’m not one for fixing what isn’t broken but there have been enough advances in evidence- based research in the past 35 years that it is clearly time to revisit.
The third edition of the book The Battle Over Homework, by Dr. Harris Cooper of Duke University, recommends certain specific guidelines for policy makers. Among them is the recommendation that school systems set upper limits for the amount of homework that gets assigned according to developmental stage. It is called the “10-minute Rule,” and is described in the book on p. 92:
The rule conveys to students and parents that each night they should expect all homework assignments together to last about as long as 10 minutes multiplied by the student’s grade level. So, first graders could expect 10 minutes per night, second graders could expect 20 minutes, third graders 30 minutes, and so on. The rule is attractive because it is simple to communicate while also being consistent with research regarding both the length and frequency of assignments.
Currently there are no upper limits on the amount of homework that can be assigned in PGCPS. The recommendation comes from evidence that there is something called the “point of diminishing returns.” Anybody who has studied or worked in business knows this concept. At some point, your strategy for reaching your goal begins to cost more than the benefit and the benefit you are realizing gets smaller and smaller until it is non-existent. This means that after 10 minutes of studying your first grader is no longer learning anything. The same is true for a high school student after 2-hours of studying.
It is true that every assignment will take some students longer than others and that there is no way to predict specifically how long any one assignment will take each individual student. That is where teacher flexibility comes in. Some teachers make adjustments according to the individual needs of students with confidence that they know from their expertise they are doing the right thing. Others look to the procedures to find out what they are “allowed to do”. If they don’t see it explicitly written that they can or should take a specific action, they are reluctant to make adjustments for individual students.
This is especially true for students who do not have any diagnosis and explicit protections, such as an IEP or 504 plan. Teachers and principals may be afraid of overstepping their authority and getting in trouble. Clarifying what adjustments teachers and principals are empowered to take will only help prevent unnecessary conflict over homework. The homework policy as written states several points already supporting these ideas:
Procedure IV. A
Homework should be carefully planned and directed by the teacher in terms of:
- The achievement levels and skill needs of individual students.
- The interests of individual students . . .
5. Out-of-school time and facilities available for home student out-of-school activities.
Procedure IV. B
The following criteria are recommended to all teachers for the assignment of homework:
3. Individual differences and needs of students must be recognized in marking homework assignments just as they must be recognized in other phases of the educational process.
10. The length of time required to prepare the assignments should be given careful consideration. Assignments should be reasonable in scope, and geared to the age, ability level and attention span of the student.
These policies are already similar to the recommended guidelines but are not explicit enough to give teachers a good understanding of what is expected of them. They also suggest, but do not specifically say, that teachers must adjust homework assignments for students for whom the existing assignment is unmanageable. I personally have had this conflict and I have spoken to parents from schools all over the county who have had similar conflicts with teachers, some ending up escalating to the point of the union being called in. There is no need for conflict over homework. If our policies were clearer, we could avoid wasting time and energy arguing over homework.
My suggestions are to add the following language to the Administrative Procedure No. 6154 “Assignment of Homework”:
- Change procedure IV.B.10 to read: The length of time required to perform all homework assignments from all teachers on a given day should not exceed 10 minutes multiplied by the grade. This means 1st graders will not be expected to work on homework for more than 10 minutes each night, 2nd graders 20 minutes, etc.
- Add a procedure that states: Teachers must provide, in writing, a homework accommodation letter for any student (with or without an IEP or 504 plan) whose parent reports that the assignments are taking the student longer than the upper limit.
- Add a procedure that states: Homework is not required to be assigned if the teacher feels there is no benefit to their students based on their particular teaching strategies, even in cases where a percentage of the teacher’s grading requirements is dedicated to homework. A teacher may exempt all of his/her students from homework grades.
These simple changes will set teachers, parents and administrators free from the constant and unnecessary conflict over homework. They give teachers more freedom to customize their teaching strategies while ensuring parents’ and students’ rights to have reasonable and effective homework assignments are codified.