Trustees will consider policy increasing elementary homework

By From page A1 | February 17, 2013

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What: Davis Board of Education

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Community Chambers, City Hall, 23 Russell Blvd.

Watch it: Live on Davis cable Channel 17 and as streaming video at www.djusd.tv

On the agenda for Thursday’s school board meeting is an item on the consent calendar related to the district’s homework policy.

It’s unlikely to stay on consent long, admits Pam Mari, the school district’s director of student services and lead administrator on the homework policy. Because consent is for items likely to elicit little debate, public comment or opposition.

And when it comes to the homework policy in Davis, that would not apply.

Homework — whether there is too much being assigned or too little, whether it should be up to teachers to decide or whether parents should have a say, whether it hurts children or helps — has become a topic so contentious in Davis that the mere Facebook mention of a proposed increase in homework leads to district administrators and school board members being swamped with emails and phone calls from angry parents.

Last May, a proposal to increase the amount of homework that can be assigned to Davis children was placed on the school board agenda, only to be pulled two days before the meeting in the face of such a heated response.

“It would have created a dogfight in chambers,” Mari said of the decision to pull the item. “You never want to put your board in that position.”

However, it wasn’t always so contentious. Back in June of 2010, in fact, when the school board unanimously approved the current homework policy, there wasn’t much in the way of debate or dissent.

The policy — the product of more than a year of work by a 12-member committee appointed by then-Superintendent James Hammond — outlined the maximum amount of time that should be spent on homework at each grade level, ranging from 10 minutes nightly in kindergarten to two hours in high school, with exceptions for Advanced Placement, honors and some music classes. The policy also prohibited the assignment of homework over weekends and holidays and addressed issues of relevancy and achievability.

The committee that crafted the policy — a team of teachers, administrators and parents — had studied the existing research on homework, held public meetings and conducted districtwide surveys before bringing their recommendations to the board.

But it was never intended to be the final word on homework.

“We never expected this to be the final product,” said committee chair Heidy Kellison. “We knew we did not produce the perfect document.

“On the first page of our report,” she said, “we wrote, ‘No recommendation regarding this multidimensional topic will ever be perfect because research provides few clear guidelines.’ ”

Thus the committee embraced the recommendation of school board member Tim Taylor, who called for annual evaluations, Kellison said.

And that, perhaps, is where things started to go south.

Because in the 2 1/2 years the policy has been in effect, Kellison said, there has never been an evaluation of whether the policy has been fully implemented, what the results of that implementation are, and whether everyone involved — students, parents and teachers — feel the policy is working.

“We expected an evaluation to include full implementation, especially of those elements calling for staff development and collaboration, and verifiable results,” Kellison said. “None of this has happened.”

And until those expectations are met, she said, “new proposals are premature.”

Mari conceded that attempts to formally survey teachers and parents about their experience with the existing homework policy have been largely unproductive. Teachers, she said, are notoriously lax in responding to surveys. And the one survey of parents the district attempted almost two years ago was conducted at the end of the school year and purely via school listservs — some of which never sent out links to the survey at all — making for negligible results.

Teacher recommendations

However, Mari argued, there is, in fact, information that the current policy is not working: Namely, teachers say so.

Principals at each school site were directed to talk to their staffs last year about the homework policy and report back any issues, concerns or recommendations, Mari said.

The result: Principals at the elementary schools reported that teachers wanted more nightly homework time for their students.

No increase in nightly homework time was requested at the secondary school level, Mari said, though some teachers wanted a return to weekend homework.

“This is an expert recommendation,” Mari contended. “This is teachers saying, ‘I cannot teach your child with (with this amount) of homework a night.’ ”

Under the current policy, students in grades K-2 have no more than 10 minutes of homework a night. Third-graders have 20 minutes, fourth-graders 30 minutes, fifth-graders 35 minutes and sixth-graders 45 minutes.

At the secondary level, maximums range from about 1 1/2 hours in seventh grade to two hours in 12th grade, excluding honors and AP classes.

For grades K-2, said Mari, teachers want more than 10 minutes in order to achieve reading literacy, particularly for students in Spanish Immersion, who are trying to become literate in two languages. They also want time for math work.

Teachers of older students, primarily sixth-graders, want more homework time to prepare their students for junior high, where they will be assigned homework by six teachers, rather than just one, Mari explained.

After hearing from principals last spring, district staff in May placed on the school board agenda an item adding 10 minutes per night of homework in grades K-3; 15 minutes a night in grades 4-6; and a fifth night of homework at all grade levels — meaning a return to weekend homework for all Davis students.

The latter recommendation, Mari said, came primarily from secondary school teachers, particularly English teachers, who felt four nights of homework did not provide enough time for many students to finish assigned novels.

When word got out about the proposal, the response was immediate. The district was flooded with phone calls and emails protesting the changes and complaining of a lack of parent input, and the proposal was pulled from the agenda.

When fall rolled around, though, Mari said, “teachers didn’t have the (extra homework) time they thought they were going to have.”

That’s when the school board’s homework policy subcommittee — composed of Susan Lovenburg and Sheila Allen — offered to take up the issue, Mari said.

A meeting was scheduled for December, then rescheduled for January, where Mari presented the May proposal and rationale to Lovenburg and Allen, as well as to a handful of original homework committee members and other interested community members. Among the latter was North Davis Elementary School’s PTA president, Stephanie Schoen.

Schoen became interested in seeing the current homework policy revised two years ago when her daughter was in first grade at North Davis. A parent-teacher conference had revealed her daughter needed a little work on her upper- and lower-case letters and punctuation, so Schoen had approached her daughter’s teacher about sending home lessons they could work on together.

Although the policy states that teachers may assign optional homework in such cases, Schoen said her daughter’s teacher would not assign the work because she said it would violate the policy.

At that point, Schoen could have supplemented her daughter’s homework on her own, but she didn’t want to. She wanted the homework to come from the teacher, and be turned back in to the teacher, she said. And mostly, she wanted her daughter’s teacher to choose whether to assign that homework and not be constricted by a policy.

“It’s my view that teachers know best,” Schoen said. “And if my child’s teacher thinks they need more homework … they should be able to assign it. For parents to say they know what’s best is ludicrous.”

Schoen started calling around to find out more about the homework policy and requested that she be included in future discussions about homework at the district level.

In those discussions, she said, “I found I was the only voice not 100 percent in favor of this restrictive policy. (But) there are a lot of parents who feel the way I do.”

Weekend homework

In addition to allowing teachers to send home whatever homework they believe is necessary, Schoen favors a return to weekend homework at teachers’ discretion.

“If a teacher wants to assign five nights of homework, I think they should be able to,” she said. “If my boss on a Friday says, ‘I need this by Monday,’ I have to do it. That’s how life is. I think the current policy is harming us more than helping us. It’s dumbing all of us down.”

The prohibition on weekend homework was actually part of the school district’s homework policy dating back to 2003, but the homework committee found it was rarely enforced and that that in itself had become a problem.

“When we surveyed all stakeholders in 2009,” Kellison said, “a fair number of respondents in the secondary level confirmed this was a weekly problem.

“Unlike occasional work an adult might bring home over the weekend, students could never anticipate a free weekend and were often required to perform extensive work during their days off. Families’ abilities to plan weekend trips or participate in a modest number of extracurricular activities were compromised.”

But Schoen argues that’s not the schools’ problem.

“They’re talking about family time,” she said. “It’s not the job of the school district to create family time. If you want to put your kid in a thousand activities … that’s your fault.”

Student’s best interest

Julie Cole-Marie has a different take.

Like Schoen, Cole-Marie grew up in Davis, attended Davis schools and is now raising her own children here. But she is also a teacher, and brings that perspective to the debate as well.

“For me, the issue is looking at what is in the student’s best interest,” Cole-Marie said. “We all have an investment in our kids, but the piece missing sometimes for teachers, and I say this as a teacher myself, is the well-being of the student: down time, family time, time to sleep.

“If you can show me a fifth night of homework will increase test scores, I’ll look at that. But where’s the data? I was seeing overwhelmed, anxious teens who can’t catch their breath. The last couple of years, I’ve seen kids just breathe a little deeper. We still have kids who are stressed out, but the idea of going back a couple of years is gut-wrenching to me.”

In any case, it appeared there was not enough support among school board members on the subcommittee to move forward with the proposal to add a fifth night of homework.

Allen said after the January meeting that she heard enough to support the increase in nightly homework at the elementary school level moving forward to the full board, but wanted more information on the recommendation to move to a fifth night of homework at all grade levels.

“As the mom of two high school students,” she said, “I hear from my own focus group not to increase secondary homework time.”

So on the consent calendar on Thursday is an item increasing homework in elementary schools by 10 minutes a night, as well as strengthening the existing language on professional development for teachers — focusing on the quality of homework, including purposes and effectiveness — and language related to giving homework assignments in advance, so students and families have more flexibility.

Members of the original homework policy committee support the latter two recommendations but continue to oppose an increase in homework times without full evaluation of existing policy. They also continue to press for input from parents and students.

“Teachers don’t observe how a student approaches his or her homework in the home,” Kellison said. “A free exchange among families and teachers about what works (and what doesn’t) will produce the best results for student learning.

“A good number of our teachers encourage this dialogue,” she added. “Unfortunately, many families who experience problems don’t express them. Some don’t wish to rock the boat, others believe nothing will change and still others worry about retribution.”

Mari agreed that an unwillingness on the part of parents to speak up is a problem.

“Parents have told us that many times they have just gone along, because their kids didn’t want them to complain,” she said. “But it’s very disturbing to us that parents would not come forward if there is a problem.”

And the bottom line, she said, is parents have not come forward.

“We are not getting complaints from parents and we’re getting significant concern from teachers about reading fluency and time on task,” Mari said.

Whether parents come forward on Thursday remains to be seen. But there is no plan to survey parents anytime soon.

“We’re not going to do an evaluation again,” Schoen said.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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