With students all booked up, Santa Fe schools reducing homework

Dec. 4—Ninth-grader Maddie Ortega typically gets home from Capital High School around 6 or 7 p.m. With her roles on the dance team, student council and a student wellness ambassador organization, her afternoons are usually booked solid.

This leaves Maddie little time to do homework.

Some evenings, she misses out on time with her family or stays up late completing assignments.

Her story is not unique. High school students, and kids much younger, long have found themselves buried in workloads for hours after school, even as they maintain jobs, participate in sports and other activities, make time for family and friends and, well — just be kids.

Parents, too, can become overloaded with the demands of a child's take-home work, some of which might be causing frustration without helping to sharpen the child's academic skills following two years of steep pandemic-related learning losses.

To help ease the pressure on busy students like Maddie while also giving teachers tools to ensure kids progress in their studies, Santa Fe Public Schools is implementing a new homework policy designed to streamline students' assignments.

Under the rules, presented to the school board in November, all homework should be purposeful, practice-based and divvied in appropriate amounts for a student's grade level, said Vanessa Romero, the district's deputy superintendent of teaching and learning.

Research shows homework can increase student achievement, said Peter McWain, the district's executive director of curriculum and instruction. However, studies show assignments also should be meaningful and students should receive regular feedback on the work. The district's new policy is meant to promote this type of homework, rather than the largely ineffective busy work that can keep kids up late at night but doesn't lead to progress.

The new regulations also provide limits on the amount of time students at each grade level should be spending on homework, McWain said.

"We realize that homework can have a positive impact at specific grade ranges. We wanted to support our teachers at giving homework on purpose, if they choose to, so they can appreciate the benefits of the academic growth that's associated with homework," McWain said.

A meta-analysis of research from 1987 to 2003 indicates most studies have found homework has a positive effect on achievement, particularly in grades 7-12. One study based on student surveys found online homework, in particular, can be effective.

Some students said they know homework can be helpful, providing practice essential to mastering a skill, particularly ahead of a test.

"I think homework is a good thing for us, especially when we have exams," said Capital High ninth grader Julio Perez.

The policy on which the districts' new directives are based isn't entirely new. It has been around since before the coronavirus pandemic. In a February 2020 meeting, the school board adopted a homework policy, directing the superintendent to develop rules ensuring time spent on homework is balanced with extracurricular activities and the development of healthy personal and family relationships.

District officials then unveiled the new administrative regulation in the fall to help teachers modify homework assignments, Romero said.

District officials are now sharing the administrative rules with principals and developing strategies to educate teachers on how to put them into practice.

The new guidelines solve two essential issues, said Carl Marano, assistant superintendent supporting K-8 schools, who served on the committee responsible for developing the new principles.

The rules are intended to cut down on the overall amount of time students are expected to spend on homework each day, and they put a high priority on assignments that allow students to practice new skills without fear of being penalized for making mistakes.

Marano, a former principal of Santa Fe High School, noticed during his time at the school the number of activities vying for students' time, from sports and theater productions to part-time jobs and family responsibilities.

Capital High senior Bianey Reza said she juggles homework with an after-school job, involvement in clubs and art school applications.

Julio also is busy with club activities.

Ninth grader Juan Carlos Orona, another Capital High student, said he sometimes finds it difficult to manage the load of assignments for his seven courses, even when his homework isn't competing for his time with other activities.

While district officials realized kids were struggling with too much homework, they also learned throughout the pandemic some teachers were grading homework assignments for correctness, Romero said — a practice that doesn't make sense for students who are trying to refine a recently learned skill.

"Homework is for practice; these are opportunities for students to practice a skill. If they're just learning something, why would we grade them on practice?" Romero asked.

The new rules, she said, call for teachers to give students prompt feedback to help them correct mistakes and improve.

In some cases, McWain added, students will be able to receive feedback on their online coursework through artificial intelligence, which can check their work and note mistakes immediately.

But students won't be penalized for making mistakes.

Marano said he's heard some concerns that students won't complete homework assignments if they know the work won't be graded. Still, he said he's confident kids are motivated by learning and want to do well on assessments and will do homework assignments that help them improve.

"More homework doesn't necessarily mean it's a better education," Marano said.