Students seek a say on homework assignments

Some are pushing for more relevancy, teacher feedback

Thomas Pepenh worked with group leader Yeliza Cardoso during homework club at Lilla Frederick Pilot Middle School last week. Thomas Pepenh worked with group leader Yeliza Cardoso during homework club at Lilla Frederick Pilot Middle School last week. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 20, 2010

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Sometimes, they say, the homework doesn’t appear to have anything to do with what’s being taught in class. Other times, teachers hardly check to see if students completed the assignments or had difficulty with it.

In too many cases, Boston student leaders say, homework assignments seem more like busy work, rather than opportunities to broaden students’ understanding of a topic. Now, members of the Boston Student Advisory Council are pushing for changes to the district’s homework policy in an effort to create more meaningful assignments.

It is one of three measures that the student group has brought to the School Committee as part of an effort to improve the quality of the classroom experience. The other proposals would enable students to provide anonymous written feedback to their teachers about their job performance and give students a say in hiring teachers.

“We want to get the most out of our education,’’ said Adam Fischer, a Boston Latin Academy senior who is president of the advisory council, a citywide organization of student leaders. “If students don’t get good teaching, they are [out of luck] for the rest of their lives.’’

The School Committee has taken the proposals under advisement, as Superintendent Carol R. Johnson works with the student leaders to resolve some outstanding questions before she makes her recommendation to the committee. Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said the students and the superintendent have had “a good give and take’’ over the development of the proposals.

“The superintendent feels it’s important for students to have a voice,’’ Wilder said.

The student advisory council has been working on the homework policy for more than two years. In the fall of 2007, it surveyed 777 students at 25 high schools, revealing that about half the respondents found their homework to be busy work. Respondents said their homework wasn’t meaningful or productive and rarely reinforced the lessons taught that day in school.

“Sometimes kids get homework and teachers don’t grade it or look at it,’’ said Aisha Dhubow, a senior at Monument High School in South Boston and an advisory council member who is overseeing the homework proposal. “It’s not fair for those who actually do the homework.’’

After much research and deliberations, the advisory council is requesting that teachers devote an hour of professional development a year to improving the quality of homework. The group also is seeking, among other things, that teachers reserve at least five minutes of class time to explain that night’s homework and take questions from students about it, instead of merely passing out the assignments at dismissal as students are departing the room.

Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union, said he thought it was a good idea for the district to set aside one hour of its mandatory professional development time to further a better understanding of homework policies. He said that in some instances, homework may not be as relevant as it should be, but in others, students are not completing their homework as much as teachers would like them to.

“They have some good ideas and we look forward to talking to them,’’ Stutman said.

The proposal about reviewing teacher performance emerges out of concern among many students that some teachers appear to be coasting through their class time, relying too heavily on showing movies in class or allowing students to goof off, among other issues. Fischer said he once had a teacher who played chess with some students in class, while other students threw around paper airplanes.

Initially, student leaders pushed the idea of having students formally evaluate their teachers and give the comments to administrators, but the teachers union opposed that measure.

“Some students could have an ax to grind,’’ Stutman said.

Although student leaders believed students would be judicious in their evaluations, they decided to come up with a proposal that might be more palatable to the teachers union. Instead of completing formal evaluations, students would have an opportunity to provide “constructive feedback’’ in a standardized form.

Under the arrangement, students would anonymously review their teachers’ performances. The forms would then be forwarded to the teachers. The comments also would be compiled together for administrators, but that batch of information would exclude teachers’ names. The goal is to give students a voice while not causing professional harm to teachers.

Fischer, who oversaw the proposal’s development, said he thought it was a fair compromise, but eventually would like to see students formally evaluating teachers. He said that might put some teachers in a better light with administrators.

“Some teachers are not recognized enough,’’ Fischer said. “One teacher I had was good but had different teaching methods. After the first year, they let him go. If students had input, he might still be there.’’

Stutman said the revised proposal is heading in the right direction.

“I think people always appreciate positive, constructive feedback,’’ Stutman said.

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