I had a discussion yesterday with my wife—currently an elementary music teacher—about the state of education in general, and education in Texas, specifically. We also have a son who is a freshman in high school. But first, let’s take a ride in the Wayback Machine™.
When I was in school, back when dinosaurs were still in the planning stage, our teachers gave us homework almost daily, and we’d drop the completed assignments in a box on their desk at the beginning of each class. This was especially helpful in skill classes like math, or where memorization was an important component.
Over the intervening decades, we’ve learned a lot about learning: how it works, what affects retention, faster methods, better pathways toward synthesis, and the like. Educators have also learned more about motivation, but that’s a subject for another day.
The problem in this country—and primarily in Texas—is we haven’t done a good job adjusting for these new realities and their relation to homework. A lot of valid research suggests homework is not a valuable component of learning. It does, in fact, as I can attest, add to the stress levels of students, reducing their ability to learn and retain material. But—and this is an important “but”—teachers are almost required to teach to THE TEST. That thing that determines if a student advances, or graduates, if the school gets adequate funding, and if the teacher keeps their job. This leads to stress increasing at every level. I’m going to ignore how Covid-19 affects all this for now, but rest assured, it doesn’t help.
What happens now is teachers try to teach based on best practices regarding homework, yet the dual realities of standardized testing and time constraints practically requires homework. The number of minutes in a class has not increased since I was in high school—the opposite, in fact, has happened—yet, without assigning homework, teachers must present the material, determine if the students understand, then give them time in class to practice and demonstrate what they’ve learned. If there are hiccups, teachers must repeat the entire process. There just isn’t enough time to do all this, so they encourage students to finish the assignment at home. But students are no longer used to regular homework assignments, so they fail to complete, fall behind, then are swamped as the unfinished work piles up. This has led to unprecedented levels of stress in students, parents and teachers.
Teachers cannot escape this trap, because THE TEST and BEST PRACTICES won’t let them; teachers are literally caught between a rock and a hard place. Their only hope is to ignore the fucking test!
You didn’t read that wrong. I taught for many years, and once, when I was interviewing for a promotion within the district, I stated flatly to a question about THE TEST, “teach the material, teach the fundamentals, and the test will take care of itself”. Most of the committee hated that answer, but one principal—the one with the highest campus scores—muttered “hell yeah”.
I remember they fired that guy a year later.
The upshot of my diatribe is that it is long past time for teachers, students, and parents to ignore the goddamn TEST and focus on fundamentals, and this begins with assigning regular homework where students can practice what they’ve learned in small chunks. Either that, or administrators must lengthen class periods to accommodate the new reality.
The second won’t happen, but teachers can implement the former on their own. Their students will thank them for it.