A “new” way to cut homework loads

In some schools, the biggest obstacles to reasonable homework loads — which I’ll define as “under two hours per day,” based on past research — are the teachers and the parents (or, at least, some of the more outspoken parents).

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Recently, a school administrator suggested a clever way around the problem of teachers who insist on assigning an hour or two of homework a night, regardless of the students’ other teachers: having fewer teachers for each student.

That sounds confusing, so let me explain. I don’t mean dropping teachers or adding students; I mean changing course schedules so they’re closer to the way they were decades ago. Today’s students can have twelve classes a week from eleven different teachers; block scheduling and short class-times result in kids seeing more teachers per day than people may age did.

The short class times made sense at the time, because there’s only so long kids can sit still and focus on a droning voice in front of the room; but the side effect of shorter class-times, which is more classes, has its own problems. Kids can have four or five tests in one day; in schools which have rules against, say, more than three tests per day, teachers simply call one of the tests an “evaluation” or “quiz,” and get around the rule. Likewise, and more to the point today, each of these (say) six to eight teachers assigns their own homework.

Making the classes a little longer, and having fewer of them each day, should automatically reduce the homework load by dropping the number of teachers. This is the easy way out — schools don’t have to make teachers change their ways to drop insane three-to-six-hours-per-day homework loads.

There are other advantages. It’s hard to keep track of so many subjects at once; doing so adds to the stress level of high school students who already have to balance grades, growth and biology changes, future colleges or careers, PSATs and SATs (or ACTs), and such. Reducing the number of courses should reduce their “thought overhead.”

Over the course of four years, high schools can still fit everything in, just not at the same time. As one example, a local magnet school actually has biology, chemistry, and physics taught simultaneously, for three years. That could easily be cut down to just one science per year, especially as no effort has been made to integrate the three classes.

It’s probably worth adding, at this point, that colleges tend to still have three-and-four credit courses, with 15 credits per semester being normal — that’s five or fewer subjects at a time. High school is actually harder to balance now, than it used to be.

Is it worth going back to the past? I would say that the advantages of shorter class lengths are more than offset by the problems of taking so many classes at once. Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come back.

Note: You might be wondering how the overall homework load can fall, even if the total work done over a high school career is the same. It all comes down to teachers believing a certain amount of homework is appropriate, operating in a vacuum. This brings up questions of how teachers decide how much homework to assign and whether cost/benefit analyses come into play, but that’s a question for another time.

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