Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Homework

"The reward for work done well is the opportunity to do more work."

- Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine and founder of the Salk Institute
Upon receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, 1956

At Blackstone Valley Prep we PRIDE ourselves on hard work.  There's an unofficial motto that several of us at BVP use as motivation - it is a variation of Salk's: "The reward for hard work is more hard work."

Perhaps nowhere is hard work more transparent and palpable to families than in our  homework requirements.  Beginning in kindergarten, our scholars are expected to complete thirty minutes of reading (with a family member and very quickly independently) and complete about thirty minutes of problem sets.  By second grade, these requirements don’t decrease: instead we add recorder practice and, at ES1, the third graders add violin practice. Entering 5th graders are met with hundreds of computation problems to be completed nightly, largely in efforts to build automaticity.  And the work keeps getting harder.

We have tried to be very transparent about our approach to school and homework.  We know that a kindergartener attending school for 8+ hours daily and completing additional homework at night is often not the norm in Rhode Island. At enrollment meetings this year we showed this picture to families - a half year's worth of homework (from kindergarten).

Another way to get a sense of how much  homework a BVP scholar completes is to check out our homework for this February break (ES1 K-3; ES2 K-1; MS 5-7)

So why do we have so much homework?  Well, for starters, there is a global achievement gap that we are trying to close.  Because of our student population, we are also very concerned about the Latino achievement gap and the income achievement gap.  We believe that with great teachers, hard work, more work (e.g. homework), and high expectations, we can power through these gaps.

Part of this belief is rooted in research about what drives these achievement gaps - that we must overcome the 30,000,000 word gap, for starters.  BVP homework does this, we hope.  Putting more "miles on the page" by requiring nightly reading and pushing for academic activities at night, as a replacement for TV and video games, we believe that we help eliminate these gaps.  Moreover, we believe that we are building the strong habits that help our scholars rise to the challenges of higher education and in the careers of their choosing.

Another part of this belief is rooted in what could be dubbed "action research."  This is more along the lines of looking at what gap closing and high performing schools do.  When we do this we are drawn to places like Edward Brooke Charter School which consistently ranks among the highest performing MCAS schools in the state of Massachusetts.  They give lots of homework - more on the breaks and the weekends. We have visited Northstar Academy in Newark, NJ - a Blue Ribbon School, where their family handbook notes that "the amount of homework we give can be a shock."  Countless other gap-closing charters follow this approach to homework.  But so do some of the strongest schools in Rhode Island.  Classical High School is known for 2+ hours a night, as are Moses Brown, Wheeler, and LaSalle.  To compete with the best, sometimes it is best to study what they do (see New England Patriots and Spygate...wait, that's for a different blog says this Steelers fan...).

Indeed, there is research supporting more homework, less homework, no homework.  At BVP, we are clearly in the camp of more.

Does BVP have room to improve our homework?  Absolutely.  I for one would love to see more challenging longer-term projects assigned.  I would also like to see problem sets that more directly mimic the question types that our scholars will be asked to demonstrate mastery of on assessments like NECAP and PARCC (or the SATs).  Finally, I would like the help of a babysitter to proctor homework for my scholar at her dad (and most human beings whom I have met) she does not seem to love homework.

Do you have any other ideas of increasing the homework rigor? Please leave them in the comments section below.


  1. Interesting read. Do you differentiate the homework based on individual student ability or is it a continuation of the learning from the school day? I like the idea of the automaticity. In John Hattie's book, Visible Learning, reading and math fluency has proven the most important building block of learning.

  2. There are pockets of differentiation, but we aren't there systematically. Need to get there!

  3. Agreed, Jeremy. What is the point of the homework if the scholar has mastered the concept already? That to me is assigning homework just for the sake of assigning homework. On the flip side, what is the point of assigning homework to a scholar when they are struggling with the concept? The scholar could practice it incorrectly or become so frustrated as to give up and completely hate homework forever!
    Holly St.Pierre