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LAUSD Declares Homework Racist, Classist

Updated after the jump with angry arguments from the "Teach for America" camp, contrasted by the district's stern belief that they've done the right thing.

How to deal with the rude K-12 achievement gap in Los Angeles? District officials have a new solution that should be pretty popular all-around.

Based on the theory that homework is more likely to be completed by kids with a secure home life and involved parents -- aka, the white middle class -- LAUSD is forcing teachers to cap homework at 10 percent of a student's grade, beginning next month.

"The policy is intended to account for the myriad urban problems facing the district's mostly low-income, minority population," writes the Los Angeles Times today. The LAUSD memo is more cryptic:

"Varying degrees of access to academic support at home, for whatever reason, should not penalize a student so severely that it prevents the student from passing a class, nor should it inflate the grade. ... While some students do not have the opportunity to do homework while away from school thus failing to return assignments, for others, it is difficult to be sure that it was the student who actually did the work."

Good to know someone's finally onto those insufferable little brats (future "handicapped narcissists" blubbering to their shrinks about their perfect childhoods) who suck Otter Pop 'front the tube while Mom and Dad fill out their multiplication tables. And, as Gawker notes, "If you dislike this policy you're probably a jerk who doesn't care about poor kids or those who live in fucked up homes. You're also a humongous nerd."

But we can't think of a better way to discourage kids -- privileged or not -- from doing homework than by telling them they can get a B+ without even glancing at the stack. Having been not-so-much of homework-doers ourselves, we can attest that this policy would have been the cherry atop the whole "handicapped narcissism" thing.

Students in the Times piece seem to be on the same page as our high-school selves:

"I do my homework, but I don't do it too often," said Marshall junior Lexus Bailey, whose schedule includes honors classes. "I'll tell myself I'm going to do my homework, then I don't."

"It's a waste of time and a poor reflection of whether I'm learning the subject," said Marshall senior Manny Hernandez, who is developing his own janitorial business outside of school hours. "And it's so easy to copy other students' homework, it's ridiculous."

Maybe teachers should just stop assigning shitty homework?

According to an article in EduGuide, "in order to learn, children must add new knowledge to old knowledge -- kind of like building a bridge." (Gag.) Studies showed that by the time students reached high school, they did 25 percent better on tests with the reinforcement of homework.

We've contacted some humongous nerds for comment, because we're still not quite convinced an awesome homework policy is worth an even dumber graduating class at LAUSD.

Update: Sorry, but it's time to nerd out. If you're interested in the repercussions this might have on 1 in 10 California kids, continue to Page 2.

L.A.'s decision to ease up on homework has ignited a small firestorm among educators across the country, seeing as this particular issue is at the core of America's current K-12 reform movement.

Of course, it's easy to say less busywork the better, and students are undoubtedly stoked to hear it. Efforts to level the playing field between the coddled middle class and minorities without the same resources (quickly becoming the majority in L.A.) is noble as well.

On the other hand, we have the young, renegade "Teach for America" mantra -- one that has also rubbed off on the Bill Gates charter-school circle. If schools hold working-class minorities to a lower standard, reformers argue, they'll continue to perform at that level.

One TFA friend immediately Tweeted to us:

"Holding low-income black and Mexican kids to a lower standard of learning (when many are already behind) is racist/classist. Also, kids may choose not to do homework, but ALL are capable and can make time to, regardless of situation, if we expect it of them."

Judy Elliot, chief academic officer for LAUSD, tells the Weekly that naysayers are missing the point. She explains that a task force made up of parents, UTLA (the teachers' union) and ALA (the principals' union) examined the correlation between homework completion and test performance for over a year.

According to Elliot, those numbers showed that kids who tested "proficient and advanced" were not necessarily the same ones who had good study habits at home, and vice versa. Based on those results, the district decided to implement the 10 percent policy, hoping to prevent what they perceived as "grade deflation and inflation" that came from weighing "study habits and attitude" too heavily in the academic portion of students' grades.

"Homework is not supposed to be used as a weapon," she says, "It's supposed to be used as practice."

This, of course, relies on the idealistic hope that kids want to go home and "practice" dorky vocab instead of farting around with their skate buddies outside the local 7-11. Given the opportunity to pull a B+ without doing any homework, we bet our high-school diplomas that they'll go ahead and do just that.

Elliot goes on to detail the uselessness of some take-home work assigned by L.A. teachers. "Some of the kids do homework and they never get it back," she says. "Or they just get a check."

She calls the homework ethic "a reflection of whether kids got what the teacher taught" -- so if "you're in a lecture class, and you didn't understand the lecture to begin with," you're not going to bother grappling with it after school. "It could be the issue of instruction, or it could be, 'I have five siblings to take care of, and my mom's at work, and my dad's in prison,'" she says.

Huh. Is it just us, or might the real problem be that teachers either aren't teaching the material well enough in the first place, aren't assigning worthwhile homework or are just too lazy to grade the stuff? The fact that teachers and principals helped come up with this plan is unavoidably suspicious.

In 2004, Jim Milgram, a math professor at Stanford, was asked by California politicians to come up with a plan that might help kids catch up to global math standards. Among his findings:

"Now, the teachers themselves must be educated, or they will continue to hold back the kids in California. We found out that is what is going on: Undereducated teachers hold back the kids."

Under LAUSD policy, if kids indeed start (or continue) to neglect their homework because they can, their grades won't show it. How great for the floundering LAUSD reputation. But what good does it do for their education? For their self-standards? For their futures?

"Everywhere I've gone and talked about this, people clap," says Elliot. "We were on CNN."

Originally posted June 27 at 3:20 p.m.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]