Issaquah School District talks homework

August 22, 2013

By Neil Pierson

There were some conclusive patterns demonstrated by months-long research into the homework practices of Issaquah School District students.

Results of the district’s homework survey were presented to the Issaquah School Board on Aug. 14. The eight-question survey was offered online in June to students, parents and teachers; it came on the heels of site-based homework meetings throughout the spring at 15 of the district’s 24 schools.

Nearly 1,500 people responded to the online survey – 75 percent of them parents – and Issaquah’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) gleaned three broad goals for district officials.

The results concluded the district should “encourage professional development and collaboration among teachers to ensure homework is reasonably consistent, well-designed and meaningful.” Second, the district should empower teachers to give “timely and meaningful feedback on assignments.” Third, students should have better opportunities to manage their workload, perhaps by giving a week’s advance notice for all homework assignments.

Betsy Cohen, who serves on the PTSA’s board of directors, said the majority of students who responded to the online survey were in middle school and high school, while the majority of parent responses involved elementary grades. There was an interesting trend among written comments, Cohen said.

“The parents’ quotes were way more vicious,” she said.

Cohen, whose children include a junior at Issaquah High School and a graduate of IHS, said parents have been complaining about homework for many years. Last year, PTSA presidents at several schools approached then-Associate Superintendent Ron Thiele, who invited them to solicit parent input and help the district review its homework guidelines.

Issaquah’s homework policy, which was last updated in March 2011, states that work outside the classroom “must be planned and organized; must be purposeful to the students; and must be evaluated and returned to students in a timely manner.”

Results from the online survey indicate that’s not always happening.

One question asked about the relevance of homework. More than 60 percent of middle-school and high-school respondents said work is often irrelevant, with too much “busy work” like coloring and crosswords, and too many assignments about concepts that weren’t introduced in class.

Another question related to the timeliness of feedback from teachers. Sixty-one percent of high-school respondents, 44 percent in middle school, and 31 percent in elementary school said responses aren’t timely enough. Among the complaints are that constructive feedback is lacking, teachers websites aren’t frequently updated, and that teachers “farm out” assignments to other people who grade them.

Maybe the most telling statistic involved the amount of assignments. Half of elementary respondents, 75 percent in middle school and 92 percent in high school said teachers assign too much homework. It often intrudes on sleep and family time, doesn’t allow students to hold part-time jobs, and often requires work on weekends and holidays, comments stated.

Cohen said there is a wide variety of research on the effects – both negative and positive – for homework, and while there isn’t a consensus on many ideas, it’s generally agreed upon that homework benefits older students more than younger ones.

“It’s tough to find that sweet spot,” Cohen said, “and it varies tremendously from child to child.”

Thiele, in response to a question from school board President Brian Deagle, said there’s no clear answers yet as to whether Issaquah’s homework policy will be revised. Thiele said he hasn’t met with school staff yet, although it’s clear in his mind that teachers need more professional development to address the issue.

Thiele felt the three overarching findings from the survey were relevant, and there’s already work being done to implement best practices among Issaquah’s teachers.

“I got a lot of feedback from principals and … teachers were already beginning to have these conversations, and some practices were already starting to change,” Thiele said.

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