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School's lesson plan: No more homework

Susan Notes: Is there a middle school parent alive who doesn't wish their kid's school would develop this sensible policy?

Junior high students at the Marya Yates School in Matteson simply had too many crushes to attend to, Web sites to surf, and television shows to watch in order to sit diligently at their kitchen tables and crank out homework.

School administrators saw they were fighting a losing battle outside their walls. But they were confident most students were absorbing the lessons in class. So what did they do? They virtually eliminated homework.

Homework used to account for about 30 percent of students' grades. The shift in policy began after Principal Lucille Adams Johnson consulted with teachers a few years ago about why so many students were earning C's when tests and quizzes showed they had command of the material.

The answer was simple: homework. Teachers were assigning it. Kids weren't doing it. Teachers found themselves entering dozens of zeros where better grades should have been, Adams Johnson said.

"How are they supposed to handle homework and go through puberty at the same time?" she joked.

As the policy has evolved, homework at Marya Yates now accounts for roughly 10 percent of grades, with some teachers making it as small a factor as possible.

Adams Johnson's school is about 94 percent African-American and serves a middle-class community in southern Cook County. She says the homework policy is working and points to test scores that surpass state averages. Since the change, the school's rate of meeting standards on the state test has climbed to 69 percent from 59 percent in five years. The state average in 2003-04 was 66 percent.

But education experts are divided on the wisdom of adapting to the desires of junior high students, with some praising that flexibility and others noting that being able to study on one's own becomes crucial in high school and beyond.

Harris Cooper, director of Duke University's Program in Education, has studied homework for 20 years. Cooper said the amount of homework assigned has remained relatively steady over the last 50 years, and that while it is not unheard of for poor urban schools to abandon it, that is much rarer in a middle-class setting.

Benefits of homework

Cooper said there is only a modest correlation between homework completion and academic success for middle school children, but the connection between the two becomes much stronger in high school.

Homework teaches children study and time-management skills, he said.

"All kids should be doing homework," he said.

The State of Illinois leaves it up to school districts to set their own homework policy.

Chicago's public school system mandates that teachers assign homework, and it provides suggestions for how much time students should spend on assignments each night based on their grade level, a spokeswoman said.

While some schools in recent years have come under fire for giving students too much homework, Marya Yates' decision to back off wasn't the result of overloading the kids as much as it was that children simply weren't handing in assignments.

Melinda Anderson, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said schools should be allowed to tailor their polices depending upon their students' needs, but they shouldn't give up on homework as a valuable tool.

"In dealing with the issue of homework compliance, the answer should not be to bend to the whims of youngsters or adolescents," she said. "An alternative would be to establish a reasonable policy--10 minutes times the grade level seems to be a standard measure--and talk to parents."

Students can't flout homework without accomplices, she said.

But even when Marya Yates students were handing in their out-of-school assignments, the homework grades were often horrible--too many F's, Adams Johnson said.

Homework, she thought, isn't always the best way to determine if a student comprehends a subject. So Adams Johnson sought to rethink the way the school operated, allowing teachers to reduce take-home assignments drastically and encouraging students to do that work during the school day.

Caroline Lacey, a Marya Yates reading language arts teacher, sets aside 40 to 70 minutes of class time each week for students to read by themselves, a task that might otherwise be assigned as homework. And she's pretty flexible about where and how they do it. Passersby might find her students sitting comfortably on the floor or near her desk.

Lee Dolan, a science teacher, hasn't had a lunch period to herself in years, instead devoting that time to students looking to complete assignments.

"You do what you have to do in the day to get it done," she said.

Dolan used to assign a great deal of homework, but kids "weren't getting anywhere with it," she said. It became punitive, and when the students wouldn't hand it in, Dolan would get frustrated.

"At least when they're with you, you can make them focus more," she said.

District 159 Supt. Eric King endorses the school trying alternatives in the pursuit of success. King recalled that in an effort to motivate a struggling student, he agreed to play one-on-one basketball with the boy if he improved his behavior at the school.

"When we look at how we try to meet the needs of students, it's not always a cookie-cutter approach," he said. "Homework allows you to reinforce what you've learned, but there are other ways to reach a student."

Preparing for the future

Regardless of what works inside the school, Marya Yates does not exist in a vacuum, said G. Alfred Hess Jr., professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University. The school has an obligation to make sure its graduates are ready to compete later on with students from other schools--kids who grew up with homework.

"It's not just what [the school] is doing for itself, but how it is preparing kids for high school and the kids they will be competing against," Hess said. "Are they equivalently prepared?"

Adams Johnson said that from every indication she has, her students are more than adequately prepared for high school. Because they are used to achieving high grades, they will do whatever it takes to succeed, including homework, she said.

"They don't have a problem with that," she said, adding some students will find they already have been exposed to high school material before they graduate from Marya Yates.

Students are happy

Not surprisingly, a small sampling of students on a recent afternoon found no one opposed to the school's approach.

Sydney Holt, 14, said she likes having her teacher present when she has a question. Otherwise, she said, the assignments would "be very confusing."

"I'd forget everything," Holt said, speaking mainly of math.

The students credit the accessibility of teachers with their success. And they note that the school finds other ways to bring discipline to their lives. With a zero-tolerance policy, there are no do-rags, no baggy pants and minimal fighting among the 500 students in the well-appointed school, administrators said.

"She puts down the law, and we have to follow the rules," Kaitlyn Drahos, a 12-year-old 7th grader, said of Adams Johnson.

The kid-friendly approaches extend beyond homework. Administrators say they try to reduce opportunities for students to mess up. For example, the school requires them to keep their notebooks in class rather than take them home where they could be forgotten.

And instead of sending kids to the principal's office every time they come to class without a pencil--which used to be a regular occurrence and cause kids to miss whole class periods of instruction--teachers try to keep some supplies on hand, allowing them to pick their battles.

Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the school's approach seemed effective, based on a review of Marya Yates' standardized test scores.

"Whatever they're doing seems to be working," she said.



— Jo Napolitano
Chicago Tribune


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