There is a growing debate in New Hampshire and nationally about the value of homework, and educators are responding. Merrimack School District implemented a new homework protocol at the beginning of this school year.
Teachers can still assign practice homework, but it will no longer count as a graded assignment. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Mark McLaughlin, assistant superintendent for Merrimack, about the new protocol and what it means for teachers and students.
(Editor’s note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Why implement this new protocol? What are the benefits?
We found with homework over time if the practice is to grade it, then there are some things that we can't determine. For instance, we can't determine the degree to which students have gotten help from outside sources. Of course it's very important to get help, but the issue is if it's going to be graded, how much help makes the grade an inaccurate reflection of what a student knows and is able to do.
Is it really legitimate if they can go online and search for an answer in particular, or maybe get help from a parent and that kind of thing?
Well, what about students who aren't good test takers? Traditionally, you know, those students could compensate somewhat by being very diligent with homework assignments, and that would help bring their grade up to a certain point. Is there something being built into curriculum that will kind of make up for that?
There has been for some time. The days of paper pencil test where you just you know fill in the blank or true false. Those days are really over. There are so many kinds of assessments now, performance based assessments for instance, which allow a student to choose a multiple number of modalities to demonstrate his or her understanding. Because really what we're trying to assess is: what do you know, what do you understand? So that we can have real data to be able to see whether or not we need to reteach, or if you really have the concept whether we can enrich.
The bottom line for us has just been that if homework is practice—like 50 questions on a math sheet. And that's passed in and a certain number of them are right or wrong, but you get credit for having just simply done it, that credit added to an average doesn't accurately reflect really what a student can do when called upon an assessment situation. And then couple that with the fact that it's very hard, almost to the point of impossible, to assess equity in that. So, how many students come from families with no support? How many students come from families who provide just right support? How many students come from families who provide probably more support than would be appropriate to be able to assess what they know and are able to do?
So again it's about really assessing that student's competency on their own and not necessarily the work being checked off done.
Some school officials have said that this does encourage students, though, to not do homework since they won't be graded. Has this been a problem so far for teachers? What kind of feedback are you getting a few weeks into the year?
I guess what I'd first say is I can't speak for the majority of teachers in Merrimack. It's still quite early on, and I wouldn't be comfortable doing that. I would say that those with whom I've spoken, some have said that they've seen a dramatic increase in the motivation of students in their class because they are released from the fear of a grade related to their homework. I've seen others who've said that this hasn't really changed much [with] the practice of students. If they used to do homework, they still do. And if they didn't, this didn't really change much. Certainly, there are folks in the community, including some educators I'm sure, who are skeptical of what we're trying to do and I embrace that. This is not a business where we should put up our hands when people raise an objection, because you know we need to be thinking. We need to be constantly evaluating: What are we doing? Can we do this better? It's early days, and there might be things happening in families, and households and in classrooms that I wouldn't be aware of, and over time, and by that I mean by hopefully the end of our semester, we'll have an evaluation process with our board and we'll really look at that.