Urban U.S. high schools are often factories for failure. An estimated 40 percent of urban students fail multiple classes in 9th grade, and in many cities 50 percent or more leave school without graduating (Neild, Stoner-Eby, & Furstenberg, 2001). Teachers complain that many adolescents enter high school unprepared to act like students—to sit still and listen, take notes, study on their own, engage in classwork, and finish homework. The plaintive refrain echoes through the staff room: “If I could only get them to do their work!”
This common problem, which surfaces in school after school, led us to consult some of the most successful urban educators we know—teachers and principals who have been involved in founding new, small high schools in New York City and Boston, Massachusetts.1
These schools, which serve low-income, minority communities, have begun to routinely graduate and send to college more than 90 percent of their students. To achieve this level of success, school staff members have worked together to transform students with little history of school success into young scholars who are engaged in doing academic work.
Why Students Don't Work
Students fail to do homework for many reasons. Deborah Meier, the founder of a number of successful schools, notes that her staff at Central Park East in New York City reflected together about how to solve the problem of students' failure to complete their work:
We soon realized that a sizable number of students didn't really know how to do the homework, or at least how to do it well enough to get any satisfaction from it. A smaller number truly didn't have time, and we needed a whole-family conference to tackle the issues of jobs, baby-sitting, etc. A third group just couldn't or didn't plan, so we tried having a brief meeting at the end of each day to plan for homework. Some students were just expressing their general despair this way.
Despair has many sources. It may arise from difficult home circumstances, in which children and youth live in overcrowded, inadequate housing or in homeless shelters; lack good nutrition and health care; or live with adults who are under severe stress. Difficult school circumstances can also cause despair. Overburdened teachers may meet with five or six large classes a day. And poor teaching and learning conditions often convince students that they cannot learn. By the time many struggling students reach adolescence, they have learned to protect their self-esteem by saying they “don't care about the (stupid) work” rather than risk proving themselves incompetent by trying and failing.
Some teachers believe they must “teach students a lesson” by giving them failing grades when they don't turn in work. This response is understandable—how can you reward students when they don't do anything?—but it doesn't usually solve the problem. Instead, punishment merely confirms students' view that they cannot succeed. Unfortunately, struggling students know what the experience of failure is like, and they have learned to survive it. In many cases, accepting failure has become a strategy for not having to try.
A more difficult but effective approach is to create a strong academic culture that changes students' beliefs and behaviors, convincing them to engage with their schoolwork. Here are some ways in which educators from successful schools have created such a culture.
Assign Work That Is Worthy of Effort
Although it may seem obvious, the first step is to examine the kind of homework that we assign. What is our purpose in giving a particular assignment? Are we providing students with adequate support in completing it? As Deborah Meier asks, “Does it make sense? Is it necessary? Is it useful, given the circumstances under which it is carried out at home?”
Most important, we need to ensure that homework tasks are authentic and engaging—that students have a reason to do them (other than avoiding a zero). Project-based work is an approach that teachers have found intrinsically engaging for students, says Sylvia Rabiner, founding principal of Landmark High School in New York City:
I've found that students respond best when working on longer class projects in which they become deeply involved. At Bushwick, where I coach teachers, kids who routinely neglected homework behave differently when working on final Inquiry Projects. Teachers report kids coming to school early, staying late, and even asking to complete their projects after the school year has ended.
Marian Mogulescu, former codirector of New York City's Vanguard High School and current consultant to other schools, suggests that staff members working together can help one another discover what kinds of homework yield high completion rates. At one school, teachers participated in a workshop titled “Homework: To Be or Not to Be.” They talked about experiences in which they had really learned something, and they shared and analyzed successful homework assignments. One insight, Mogulescu recalls, was that even routine homework tasks can be meaningful if they are related to authentic classroom learning:
Yes, there are times when homework is not fabulously creative and unusual—there are times when we all have to stuff envelopes, for example—but if the focus is project-based, or inquiry-based, or part of what the class is actively engaged in, the follow-up outside of class will have more meaning.
Cece Cunningham, former principal of Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, observes that the perceived usefulness of the work is also important. Students are most likely to complete homework
when the homework is actually used the next day in class. For instance, if students have to read a passage in a book and highlight or underline selections to share with their classmates the next day, they tend to put in the effort.
Teachers can also make homework more useful to students by providing relevant and engaging classwork that draws on students' ideas in ways that require them to prepare. An example is the course “Looking for an Argument,” developed by teacher Avram Barlowe and codirector Herb Mack at New York City's Urban Academy. Using a Socratic seminar format, the course incorporates oral and listening skills, reading, research, writing, and critique in an inquiry-based approach. Students are required to cite primary texts to debate their ideas. As they get involved in defending their opinions about important topics, students increasingly do the hard work of reading dense texts and preparing their points. As Barlowe and Mack note,
Through a structured format, students learn to make connections between the “talk” of the class, the materials they read, and the essays they write. As students become more informed and articulate, they also become more engaged and empowered and gain confidence in their ability to have and defend a point of view. (2004, p. 5)
Make the Work Doable
Even if the work is engaging, students won't do it if they don't know how. Sylvia Rabiner, founding principal of Landmark High School, suggests that teachers ask themselves,
Are the directions clear? Is the homework doable without any assistance? How does it relate to the lesson? Is it being collected and returned or reviewed in class the next day so that students are getting immediate feedback? What kind of comments is the teacher writing on the homework? Can homework be started in class so that the teacher may observe and see where problems for students arise?
Unless homework is a clear continuation of well-taught classwork, it can actually exacerbate inequalities in learning instead of closing the gap. Students whose parents understand the homework and can help them with it at home have a major advantage over students whose parents are unable or unavailable to help.
Teachers at Middle College High School presented their student portfolio assignments to their colleagues. They were surprised to discover that their peers often could not navigate the material successfully. According to former principal Cece Cunningham,
Being confronted by the difficulties their fellow teachers experienced in deciphering their assignments gave teachers insight into similar challenges faced by their students. Vetting projects with one another, across disciplines, created opportunities for collective revision of individual teacher assignments. It was key in refining teacher skill in developing and fashioning assignments of high intellectual quality nested in language and scaffolding that were accessible to students.
We can also confirm that homework is doable by making sure it gets started under teacher supervision at school. At a school led by one of us (Olivia), the staff created a weekly 50-minute study hall in which advisory teachers could support students in completing work. This homework supervision—along with common teacher meeting time for ongoing reflective conversation—enabled the staff to take a fresh look at their homework assignments and assess the value of these assignments in promoting student learning.
Find Out What Students Need
Even when students have engaging work that they can do, they have to be motivated and organized to do it. Founding principal of Manhattan East Middle School Jacqueline Ancess and her staff wanted their small school to provide strong relationships and authentic intellectual experiences for students. They also found that it was important to identify and address individual students' problems. Ancess notes that
A good strategy is to help make the kids part of the solution rather than the problem. Teachers can meet alone or as a team with individual kids, discuss their strengths with them—where they have succeeded—and then ask the kids what would be necessary for them to complete the homework and the assignment. This has to be a positive intervention with no sneak attacks. The teachers must seek from the students or suggest one or two specific strategies for one problem at a time.
For example, they may agree that the student will tell his advisor or particular teacher what he has to do to complete the assignment, how he plans to do it, when it is due, and what he needs help with. The teacher or advisor will assess what help the student needs to complete the assignment. The teacher and student should write this down together, so that success becomes inevitable.
The goal is to make the process of doing the assignment transparent, concrete, manageable, and as simple as possible. As Ancess notes, “The point is for the student to learn that it feels better to succeed than to fail.”
At the Julia Richman Educational Complex in New York City, teachers work in teams and have collaborative planning time in which they can work together to understand why certain students aren't doing their work. Teachers ask questions about a given student—How does she learn? What motivates her? What are her concerns, attitudes, aspirations, and beliefs, as well as behaviors?—and then use this information to create an individualized strategy for the student who is struggling.
Sanda Balaban recalls how her teaching colleagues in a pilot school in Boston identified student needs by asking the students themselves. Involving students in gathering this information added value to the process:
We employed all of the personalization strategies that we knew were essential and tried to make every homework assignment engaging and appealing to our students, based on our knowledge of their interests and learning styles. Nonetheless, we still were stymied with a sizable number of students who weren't doing work outside of class.
We decided to conduct a Homework Audit to try to get to the root of what wasn't working. Since I was facilitating our student council at the time, I encouraged student leaders to design and administer a survey to their fellow students to gain insight. One of the key findings was that many of our students had after-school jobs that impeded their ability to complete work outside of the school day.
As a result, I worked with each student in my advisory group to craft work-based learning plans that identified the competencies they were aiming to develop at their jobs. We developed the curriculum to further capitalize on this learning. This also served as an instrument of advocacy with their employers to provide them with more meaningful work experiences.
Create Space and Time for Homework
We have all passed by the classroom of a teacher during her lunch period and glanced inside to see the teacher working at her desk while one or two students read, write, or bend over a poster completing a project. Typically, it's up to an individual teacher to decide to provide students with that space for quiet work time. Some schools, however, have put in place systematic ways of ensuring that students have opportunities to get their schoolwork done in school. As Ancess asserts, “The school needs to make it harder not to do the work than to do it!”
Aside from the skillful use of block scheduling and double periods to extend learning time, successful schools have added homework time at the beginning or the end of the day, in advisory periods during which students work under the watchful eye of their advisor, in Saturday sessions, in weekday breakfast clubs, in after-school programs run by community organizations, and in other settings that provide dedicated time and personalization. Often, these extra-time sessions are available for all students but are required for students who have fallen behind.
In some schools, principals have taken on a direct teaching role by creating and running success classes. Typically, these classes target students who have become trapped in a cycle of not completing schoolwork. Classes generally take place during elective periods or extended lunch hours and focus on skill building and work completion. Having their principal take a public, hands-on role in their learning can be a high-level motivator for students. By participating in the delivery of instruction, the school leader reinforces the primacy of the teaching and learning relationship.
At the Urban Academy, the daily schedule includes a period called Drop-In—a teacher's preparation period that he or she voluntarily shares with a small number of students. The teachers don't necessarily teach or talk to the students; they just provide an opportunity for the students to sit in the presence of a caring, supportive adult for an extended period of time to complete schoolwork. The codirector of the school, Ann Cook, explains,
Drop-In provides what many of us experienced at home when we were young students. Our parents would insist that we sit at the kitchen or dining room table and just do our work. We developed the habit of sitting and completing school tasks. Many students have not had that experience.
Urban Academy students may have as much as four hours of homework a night. During one of our visits, a student who had a child attending the infant-toddler center was leaving school at the end of the day with her baby in tow. When asked how she would handle the late night ahead of her, caring for the baby and facing so many hours of homework, she responded, “Well, I don't usually do much of my homework at home. I have double Drop-In, and I get most of my research and homework done there.” Her matter-of-fact reply revealed how her school's policy enabled her to meet rigorous academic standards and be a good mother at the same time.
By viewing time as expandable, many schools move beyond an attitude of just “getting it done” and, instead, hold all students to high standards of quality in their work. Such schools assign ambitious large-scale projects to all students and create the scaffolding to support success. If students need additional time to complete their projects and exhibitions, schools may extend the learning period into winter or spring break, or even into the first two weeks of the summer vacation. In effect, if the semester or grading period ends before the student has completed the work that demonstrates mastery of the required content, the student receives an
incomplete and continues to attend school. Teachers are available during this extended time to provide support, to tutor, or to give feedback for revising or amplifying the work.
Extending the time for students to complete work and obtain a solid grade in a class has long been the practice of colleges and universities. Implementing such a practice in a secondary school requires careful scheduling of teacher time—which can only take place when the school staff has helped to develop the school's learning goals and decide how resources will be allocated to support those goals.
Make Work Public
Struggling learners benefit when learning goals and the desired quality of learning products are public and explicit. As research has shown, students who do best in school are often those most adept at figuring out what the teacher wants (McCombs & Whisler, 1997).
Accordingly, one school instituted a going public policy. Every teacher posted in the classroom the content that the class was currently studying; where the class was in that study; a list of products that students were required to create to demonstrate learning; and the completed student work products. Documenting the teaching and learning process in this way provided support for teacher conversations about student work. It also enabled students to more easily identify where they were falling behind and where they needed support.
When schools engage students in major projects, it is important to show them models of work and exhibitions that meet the standards. This practice helps demystify the work, demonstrates that it can be done, and illustrates how to do it. Cece Cunningham's staff at Middle College High School decided to maintain folios of student work exemplifying high standards related to specific assignments in the school office, a location accessible to both teachers and students. The school also provided many opportunities for students across grades to work together in academic settings so that 9th graders could benefit both academically and socially from interaction with 12th graders. For example, 9th and 10th graders were members of the panels that evaluated 11th and 12th graders' portfolio presentations. This practice gave students the opportunity to examine in-depth models for their own academic work.
Collaboration Is the Key
To develop effective strategies to address the needs of struggling students, educators need opportunities to work together. Time for collaboration and teacher inquiry played a pivotal role in these schools' successful responses to student disengagement. Schools that are organized as supportive learning communities with opportunities for collegial problem solving can better support their students in developing the practices and habits essential to doing schoolwork.
Barlowe, A., & Mack, H. (2004). Looking for an argument? New York: Community Studies Inc. & Teachers College Press.
McCombs, B., & Whisler, J. S. (1997). The learner-centered classroom and school. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Neild, R. C., Stoner-Eby, S., & Furstenberg, F. F. (2001). Connecting entrance and departure: The transition to ninth grade and high school dropout. Paper presented at Harvard Civil Rights Project Conference on Dropouts in America. Available:
We consulted the following educators by e-mail and telephone: Jacqueline Ancess, Codirector, National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, and founding Principal of Manhattan East Middle School, New York, NY; Sanda Balaban, Autonomy Zone Liaison for New York City Department of Education and Coordinator of Homework Audit for New Mission High School, Roxbury, MA; Avram Barlowe, history teacher, Urban Academy, New York, NY; Ann Cook, Codirector, Urban Academy, and Cochair, New York Performance Standards Consortium, New York, NY; Cecelia Cunningham, Director of Middle College National Consortium and former Principal of Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College, New York, NY; Herb Mack, Codirector, Urban Academy, New York, NY; Deborah Meier, Senior Scholar, New York University, Steinhardt School of Education, and founding Principal of Central Park East Elementary and Secondary Schools, New York, NY, and Mission Hill School, Boston, MA; Marian Mogulescu, education consultant and former Codirector of Vanguard High School, New York, NY; and Sylvia Rabiner, Project Manager, the Institute for Student Achievement, and founding Principal of Landmark High School, New York, NY.
Linda Darling-Hammond (650-723-3555;
firstname.lastname@example.org) is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education and Codirector of the School Redesign Network and the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute at Stanford University, Stanford, California.
Olivia Ifill-Lynch (650-725-9598;
email@example.com) is Director of Professional Learning for the School Redesign Network at Stanford University.
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