Equity efforts look at homework (4/15/10)

April 15, 2010

By Greg Duggan

Observer staff

As the Williston School District continues its efforts to ensure equity between all academic houses, homework has become an area of focus.

At last week’s School Board meeting, math coordinator Rick McCraw told the board members that the district’s Program Council has started to investigate homework practices at Williston Central and Allen Brook schools.

“We want to standardize the practice as much as possible,” McCraw said.

In a survey offered last year to gauge opinions about equity, respondents identified homework as an area of concern. Survey results, available on the school district’s Web site, show “homework expectations” as an area where parents want to see “more uniformity.” The middle school student council also gathered information about equity, and noted homework as an area with differences between houses.

The Program Council, comprised of teachers and guidance counselors from both schools, began its task of tackling homework equity by studying existing practices. McCraw has facilitated the study for the upper grades, and Discovery House teacher Margaret Munt has done so for the lower grades.

“Among the things being discussed is the nature of the homework being given,” McCraw told the Observer.

He said the Program Council wants to find out if homework is used to practice skills, such as studying math facts, or to supplement class projects by doing research or writing draft reports at home.

District Principal Walter Nardelli said one of the goals of the study is to determine the relationship between the length of homework assignments and the quality of student learning. Just because one house gives more homework than another, for instance, does not mean its teachers are doing a better job.

Teachers and administrators involved in studying homework have been reading “Rethinking Homework,” a book by Cathy Vatterott that looks at the role of homework in education. Nardelli said a Williston teacher who lives in Waterbury recommended the book, which the Waterbury School District recently used in its own efforts to study homework practices.

“This book is probably one of the better (compilations) of research on homework and how effective it is,” Nardelli said.

One of the main points Nardelli drew from the book is following “the 10-minute rule.” Generally speaking, the rule says the amount of homework given to students should correlate, in 10-minute increments, to grade level. For instance, a first grader should have 10 minutes of homework each night, a second grader should have 20 minutes, and so on.

McCraw said that once all the research has been completed and information has been collected about the differences in homework practices, the next step is for the Program Council to organize a set of guidelines.

“If we can establish some general guidelines based on what seems like the best practice from a research standpoint, teams can then customize it,” McCraw said.

He and Nardelli expect to enact any changes and guidelines for next school year.

Yet creating equity between houses and classrooms is only part of the challenge. McCraw and Nardelli pointed out that students have different levels of support at home; some students may come home to parents who enforce rigid schedules for completing homework, while others may have parents who work multiple jobs and are unable to spend as much time supervising homework.

McCraw expects the Program Council to continue the homework discussion at one of its next two meetings.

“The focus everybody is bringing to this is, how can we make homework bring the greatest benefit to kids?” McCraw said.