Budget cuts to education have meant fewer teachers. That means classes packed with more students. And all those students are handing in homework –- that teachers need to review.
OPB's "Learning with Less" series is exploring the consequences of budget cuts by tracking a few teachers, families, and the principal at Clackamas High. In this report Rob Manning looks at how Clackamas High is doing homework differently.
Kids always complain about homework. Truth be told, teachers do, too. Even if, like teacher Aaron Johnson at Beaverton's Westview High, they're a little sheepish about it.
"I hate to talk about the grading workload, but grading this class's unit test – just this one class – took me over three, took me almost four hours. So, that's a lot of time outside of class," Johnson said.
"Grading is this never-ending stress," according to Angela Nurre, a health and English teacher at David Douglas High. As we've reported previously, classes there have often ballooned by ten or more students this year. And when you add more students to a classroom, teachers have a bigger grading load.
"Some of the teachers are saying 'I'm not even looking at it to grade it, to see if the answers are correct – it's like Did they get it done? They got it done, I'm giving them points'."
Like Westview, David Douglas, and many high schools across Oregon, Clackamas High's classes regularly have more than 35 students this year. OPB has been following Clackamas High School principal Matt Utterback since the start of the school year. He and the teachers at Clackamas High are approaching homework differently. They're not grading it.
"Our grades reflect more about assessment – both large and small assessment, large projects, certainly papers, and less about homework." Utterback says.
He thinks shifting toward tests and projects and away from homework helps teachers and students.
"Our teachers aren't spending hours necessarily grading all the daily work, and processing 230 papers a night. While kids are still doing homework, our students are realizing, that's practice."
Utterback emphasizes that while the decision to stop grading homework helps teachers deal with bigger classes, it was not a response to the budget crunch.
Clackamas English teacher Barb Wagner was among a number of teachers who began studying the proper connection between grades and homework, two years ago.
"Sometimes we were grading behavior, as opposed to what a student knows." Wagner says.
For example, students would improve their grades by handing assignments in on time, and doing extra credit, rather than scoring well on tests or papers.
Physics teacher, Dan Robinette says homework needed to find its place as a teaching tool.
"It's about what you want kids to know, how do you get them there, how can you tell when they're there – which is the grading part – and then, what do you do when they're not there," Robinettte says.
There tend to be two ways of looking at "how can you tell when they're there." The most obvious is the big mid-term exam or final. And at Clackamas, those assessments are a majority of the class grade.
But teachers rely on smaller quizzes and assignments to check progress. Clackamas High parent, Jordan Lund would put homework in that category, too.
"You can't perform well on a test if you're approaching the test with bad conceptions or misunderstood information. Homework is a way to correct that," Lund says.
Teachers have reassured him that homework is still reviewed in class.
But listen to how physics teacher Dan Robinette re-defines the role of homework -- "I go over it, I provide answers, I give them help. But I'm trying to help them learn that they're doing this 'practice work' not to gather points, but to learn. And it takes a while."
Robinette says students sometimes don't learn the value of practice, or homework, until the first big test.
"Often on the first test, they won't pass, or won't pass a couple of sections. And what I'll tell them is 'you can re-take those, but now I have to see your practice work.’"
And while homework doesn't "count" as students might put it – there are quizzes along the way, that still do, usually around 30 percent of the final grades. Math teacher Adrianne Cohen has a game she'll use for part of that grade. First, she has students take out little white boards and markers.
"I put a problem on the board, students work it out together, once they've had ample time, I say 'ok, 3-2-1 math flash!'. They hold up their boards and they get points if they have it right. Now the advantage for me is I can quickly scan and see not only who's struggling and who's not, but what are the problems," Cohen says.
Cohen says instant assessments keep students honest – unlike homework, which students might copy from a classmate, to help their grade.
In the end, principal Matt Utterback says using homework as practice, and emphasizing tests as the "performance" makes students more responsible for their own learning.
"So this is really about holding kids accountable for learning, which obviously is going to benefit them, not only in that course, but in the future courses they're going to take."
Parent Jordan Lund says so far, taking grades off the homework hasn't affected his son's marks. But as a former teacher, Lund is not ready to recommend the idea elsewhere. Not yet, anyway.
"If it works, I would say over one year, or even two years, that's not enough time to know if it works or not. You need really a long-term study. If it can be proven long-term to work, then absolutely, it should be rolled out everywhere."
Lund says not grading homework makes sense, given the larger number of students teachers have to deal with. Principal Utterback says his teachers aren't exactly putting their feet up, though. He says they're able to focus their time on things like planning lessons and meeting with students, rather than poring over piles of papers.
Sources for this story came from OPB's Public Insight Network. To learn more about "PIN" visit www.opb.org/public insight. You can find all of OPB's stories in the "Learning with Less" series by going to OPBNews.org/education.