Ray Salazar has been teaching high school Journalism and English in Chicago Public Schools for over twenty years. He usually begins the academic year with lessons on written profiles, but in the fall of 2020, he felt that wouldn’t meet the moment. Instead, he crafted an entirely new curriculum that he felt would better resonate with students, a series of reading and writing assignments that looked at the stages of grief.
“I think that now more than ever we need to make sure that whatever we’re teaching has some relevance to the real world,” Salazar said. “It doesn’t mean that everything has to be connected to the pandemic, but students have to be able to find meaning in what they’re doing.”
Salazar used to craft assignments as preparation for upcoming classes, but he noticed the pandemic has made it more difficult for many students to get their work done. So he made a small adjustment: He stopped tying class discussions to the previous night’s homework. “That just decreases the chances of them engaging in the next class,” he says.
Salazar is part of a growing movement of educators rethinking homework in light of the pandemic. The heightened stress of COVID-19 has led many teachers to think more critically about their impact on students’ mental wellbeing, and districts around the country are turning toward social-emotional learning as a way to nurture and better support students during this time of isolation and increased anxiety. The pandemic has also reignited a debate that teachers and academics have struggled with for decades: What is the most effective strategy for assigning and grading homework?
Studies show that the pandemic caused a drop in test scores in reading and math, with the students who were already struggling showing the largest declines. But educators disagree about how they should respond. According to a study conducted by Challenge Success, a school reform nonprofit, high school students are already doing more homework than they were before the pandemic, averaging 3 hours of homework a night, up from 2.7 hours before the pandemic. Over 40 percent of students report that they’re sleeping less, and close to 3 in 5 students say they’re more stressed about school than they were before.
Supporters say homework is necessary to reinforce what happens in the classroom. Homework helps build certain life skills like organization, perseverance and problem-solving. It also gives parents a chance to be involved in their child’s education. But other educators have a different view. They say students need time to exercise, socialize and recharge. They cite homework’s impact on the achievement gap between students of differing socioeconomic backgrounds. Assignments requiring online access have become ubiquitous over the last decade, and according to one Pew survey, close to one in five teenagers reported that unreliable access to a computer or internet connection interfered with their schoolwork even before the pandemic. School districts and educators have responded in a variety of ways.
The pandemic has led to what are akin to “triaging decisions,” says Andrew Maxey, director of strategic initiatives for Tuscaloosa City Schools in Alabama. Maxey has spent over two decades in public education, both in the classroom and at the administrative level. He spearheads the Alabama Conference on Grading and Assessment in Learning, an annual event where educators discuss best practices for testing and grading students.
Many educators have been in “survival mode,” Maxey says. They’re providing additional flexibility, assigning and grading less homework in light of the pandemic.
“Some of those things are a really solid practices that because we’ve made them in the context of a pandemic, we’re setting ourselves up to not come back to them when we’re through this experience,” he adds.
Giving Students Choices
Because independent schools have more flexibility, some were able to take a more innovative approach, says Denise Pope, a professor of education at Stanford University and co-founder of Challenge Success. “Some of these independent schools had kids online during normal school hours,” Pope says. “But you won’t have to do homework after 3 o’clock.” Other schools saw having kids in remote class all day wasn’t feasible. These teachers would hold an optional session akin to office hours for students to ask questions and get extra help. Her research has found that both of these strategies were more effective than an entire day of remote classes followed by traditional homework.
Some school districts in California are doing away with failing grades, choosing instead to give students an opportunity to retake tests or resubmit assignments. A proposal under review in Arlington County, Va., suggests no longer grading homework at all, leaning instead on assessments, while elementary schools across the country have moved away from homework entirely, citing numerous studies that reflect little to no benefit for younger students. (Research does reflect a benefit for older students, but that research wasn’t carried out during extended periods of remote learning, says Pope.)
Perhaps greater than the crisis of lower test scores, Pope says, is the epidemic of disengagement educators are seeing. She said the pandemic has caused many students to simply check out. “Once the light of learning goes off in their eyes,” she says, “It’s really hard to get it back on.”
Half of students reported spending more time on schoolwork during the pandemic, but over 40 percent also reported putting less effort into that work, and feeling less engaged, according to the Challenge Success study. This worries Pope, because engagement with learning is closely tied to academic achievement and mental wellbeing. “It’s disheartening,” she says. “The idea that kids are just going through the motions, not really finding it cognitively engaging.”
In his classroom, Ray Salazar now tries to assign less homework, and assign things that give students choices. “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 of the pandemic, and says it’s wrong to compare students to pre-pandemic test scores. To that end, the focus on learning loss might not benefit students, especially students of color. “I don’t believe in talking about how we’re behind. We are where we are,” he said. “The world has shifted.” He says telling students they’re behind is counterproductive. “Sometimes we just have to say, ‘we’re doing enough.’”