Ray Salazar has taught high school journalism and English at Chicago Public Schools for more than twenty years. The school year usually begins with lessons about written profiles, but in the fall of 2020, he felt that wouldn’t meet the moment. Instead, he formulated an entirely new curriculum that he felt would resonate better with students, a series of reading and writing assignments that looked at the stages of grief.
“I think now more than ever we need to make sure that everything we teach has some relevance to the real world,” Salazar said. “This does not mean that everything has to be related to the epidemic, but that students should be able to find meaning in what they are doing.”
Salazar used to craft assignments as preparation for upcoming classes, but he noticed that the pandemic had made it more difficult for many students to get their work done. So he made a small tweak: Stop associating class discussions with last night’s homework. “This only reduces the chances of them getting involved in the next class,” he says.
Salazar is part of a growing movement of teachers rethinking homework in light of the pandemic. The increasing pressure of COVID-19 has prompted many teachers to think more critically about their impact on students’ mental health, and districts across the country are turning toward socio-emotional learning as a way to better care and support students during this time of isolation and increased anxiety. The pandemic has also reignited a debate that educators and academics have struggled for decades: What is the most effective strategy for assigning and correcting homework?
Studies show that the pandemic has caused test scores in reading and math to plummet, with students who were already struggling showing the biggest drops. But teachers disagree about how they should respond. According to a study by Challenge Success, a nonprofit school reform organization, high school students are already doing more homework than they did before the pandemic, averaging 3 hours of homework per night, up from 2.7 hours before the pandemic. More than 40 percent of students report that they sleep less, and nearly 3 in 5 students say they are more stressed about school than they used to be.
Proponents say homework is necessary to reinforce what is happening in class. Homework helps build certain life skills such as organization, persistence, and problem solving. It also gives parents an opportunity to participate in their children’s education. But other teachers have a different view. They say students need time to exercise, socialize, and recharge. They cite the impact of homework on the achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Tasks that require online access have become ubiquitous over the past decade, and according to a Pew survey, nearly one in five teens reported that unreliable access to a computer or internet connection interfered with their schoolwork even before the spread of epidemic. School districts and teachers responded in a variety of ways.
The pandemic has led to what looks like “screening decisions,” says Andrew Maxi, director of strategic initiatives for Tuscaloosa City Schools in Alabama. Maxi has spent more than two decades in public education, both in the classroom and at the managerial level. He chairs the Alabama Conference on Grading and Assessment in Learning, an annual event where educators discuss best practices for testing and rating students.
Maxi says many of the teachers were in “survival mode”. They provide extra flexibility, assigning and categorizing less homework in light of the pandemic.
“Some of these things are really powerful practices, and because we made them in the context of a pandemic, we are setting ourselves up not to go back to them when we’re going through that experience,” he adds.
Giving students choices
Because charter schools have more flexibility, some have been able to take a more creative approach, says Dennis Pope, professor of education at Stanford University and co-founder of Challenge Success. “Some of these charter schools have kids who are online during normal school hours,” says Bob. “But you won’t have to do your homework after three o’clock.” Other schools have found that having children in a remote classroom all day is not possible. These teachers will hold an optional session similar to office hours for students to ask questions and get extra help. Her research found that both strategies were more effective than a full day of remote lessons followed by traditional homework.
Some California school districts are getting rid of failing grades, opting instead to give students a chance to retake exams or resubmit assignments. A proposal under review in Arlington County, Virginia, suggests that homework is no longer graded at all but instead tends to assessments, while elementary schools across the country have moved away from homework altogether, citing several studies that reflect little of the Benefit for younger students. (Research reflects a benefit for older students, but this research has not been conducted during extended periods of distance learning, says Pope.)
Perhaps greater than the crisis of low test scores, Bob says, is the disengagement epidemic that educators are witnessing. She said the pandemic has simply pushed many students out. “Once the learning light in their eyes goes out, it’s really hard to get it back,” she says.
Half of the students reported spending more time on schoolwork during the pandemic, but more than 40 percent also reported putting in less effort in that work, and feeling less engaged, according to the Challenge Success Study. This worries Bob, because engaging in learning is closely linked to academic achievement and mental health. “It’s frustrating,” she says. “The idea that babies are just going through the motions, and they don’t find it cognitively appealing.”
In his classroom, Ray Salazar is now trying to assign less homework, assigning things that give students options. “The homework should make them feel like they have some power over their learning,” he says.
He doesn’t think pushing students harder will repair the damage done by the pandemic, and he says it’s a mistake to compare students to pre-pandemic test results. To this end, focusing on learning loss may not benefit students, especially students of color. “I don’t believe in talking about being late. He said. “The world has shifted.” He says telling students they are late is counterproductive. “Sometimes we just have to say, ‘We’re doing enough.'”