The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 3 - Individual Differences
and the United States Education System
(Part 2 of 4)

Perceived Sources of Differences in Ability and the Range of Differences Within the Classroom

While Americans are reluctant to close doors of opportunity to students based on individual differences in ability, the existence of these differences is openly acknowledged by teachers, administrators, and parents. Many teachers and parents talked about the substantial range of differences in ability among students in their schools and the difficulties the students encountered. The differences observed in the classroom were attributed to a variety of factors, but most respondents suggested that family life was crucial in explaining such differences. Family support was seen as essential to high achievement in the classroom, while low achievement was attributed to lack of family support, poverty, divorce, abuse, and neglect. The negative effects of poverty and social inequality on issues concerning family support were central in discussions of individual differences in Metro City and West City and, to a lesser extent, in East City.

The emphasis on the family in explaining individual differences in ability is especially interesting, because we usually asked respondents to consider the relative contributions of innate ability and effort, without directly asking about the impact of the family. Innate ability and effort were also considered important factors by many respondents, but these were seen as byproducts of family support. Once respondents mentioned family support, we usually asked them to elaborate, and the semistructured interview format allowed respondents to reply in depth.

The following was a typical response to the question about the origins of individual differences given by respondents from all socioeconomic levels:

I think that it is a combination of the two (innate ability and effort)—a little of both. Culture is very important at Uptown, but I think that the most important thing is family support. For example, I just heard about a Down's syndrome child who graduated from college. Well, he was able to do it because he had a lot of family support. (English teacher, Uptown High School)

Similar views were held by teachers, parents and students; the emphasis was typically on the role of family support.

Teachers' Views

Several teachers cited family stability as the primary explanation of the differences in achievement they found in their classrooms. A comment from a science teacher working at Hamilton High School in Metro City illustrates this point:

When I look down at the parents' names for my honors kids, it's Mr. and Mrs., same last name as student. Twenty-two out of 24. And if I go down my list of regular students, maybe four. Now, you know, that's not saying that it's bad, you could have, you know, a good parent who is remarried. Just because the last names are different doesn't mean something terrible is going on. But, just as a trend with the regular students, they don't have the same last names as the parents. You tend to get your typical American family in your honors courses, and your newer family structures with the regular [courses].

Many teachers stated that stable families and strong family support for education were the critical ingredients for success in school. A teacher at East Middle School echoed this theme when asked about the factors in creating individual differences among students in her classroom:

The other big difference, and I hate to use the term, is the breakdown of the family. Most of the children, even here, are not living with two biological parents.

This teacher described one way that she felt divorce could negatively affect the academic achievement of some students:

Some of them are playing one parent off against the other. Let's see how bad I can be with Mother so she'll let me stay with Dad longer, and this is not fair to Dad, but let me stay with Dad so she'll give up and let me go to Dad's. He doesn't have as many rules as Mom has. Homework is not monitored as closely. That kind of thing. Or, I'm with Dad, let me see how aggravating I can be so he'll give up and send me back to Mom. And, they're not in some cases doing it intentionally. They're not bad kids. They're just frustrated and if they come to us with all this baggage from home, it's difficult to learn in the classroom.

Family support was also cited by teachers in highly affluent communities, such as Rolling Hills and Lakeside. In these communities, teachers reported their belief that a high level of parental involvement contributes to the high level of achievement of many students. In the words of one teacher:

A lot of the mothers do volunteer work or help with the PTA. The PTA here is incredible. The way they are involved! Moms are here everyday. They help with the first-day classes. When I see a mother, I say to myself, "There's a mom with too much time on her hands." The mother will say something to me like; "I disagree with the way you graded Johnny's homework 3 months ago." (Teacher, Vanderbilt Middle School)

Teachers in poor communities also focused on the family and social environment in explaining individual differences and academic success. One teacher at Parks Elementary School in Metro City estimated that 90 percent of the students live in nonintact families, most without fathers and many without mothers, and she blamed these figures for the comparatively low performance of most of the children at the school.

While examining the classroom attendance sheet with the interviewer, the teacher explained her views about how differences in home environments create individual differences in ability:

I think a lot of it has to do with their home life. I think almost all of them are on welfare. A lot of them don't live with their parents—either one. R is living with her stepfather. S is living with her aunt. You can go down the list. M, her mother is one of those; she is in one of those home-alone situations, where the mother is never really there. J is in a homeless shelter. E has one parent. B, we think, might be abused. R has been abused. D is being taken care of by her grandmother. R has two parents at home. So does X. J, L, and A do not. J has both parents, but they live in a shelter. L lives with his grandfather. So these kids are not coming from your typical home.

Other teachers noted that some students have families of their own to support and that this affects their academic performance. Teachers at Uptown High School, indicated that many teenage girls drop out of high school in order to take care of their children. More than 75 percent of girls at South Central Vocational High School drop out of school, primarily because of pregnancy. The principal of South Central told us:

Some of the girls have two or three babies. Childcare responsibilities make it difficult for these girls to attend school regularly and that explains the low rates of attendance among female students at South Central.

At the schools in West City, a number of students indicated that they care for siblings. This was considered to be a factor in the lower academic achievement among certain groups at the school. Overcrowded living conditions were also seen as adversely affecting academic performance.

A middle school teacher in West City offered a typical explanation for the source of individual differences:

I would say their home life. If they had the support—even if it were one parent—really backing up the teacher and supporting the teacher and pushing their kids to continue their education, they will. They will succeed. But if they do not have that, and they do not have the continuity. If they have the continuity, they can do math, even though it is harder. We have kids who are from the shelter, and the fact that they still get that support there that helps them a lot too. It is a lot harder for them because they are really in an unstable situation. I think it is the continuity and the parental support.

Overall, individual differences among students were most often attributed by educators to the family environments and family responsibilities of individual children. Differences in innate ability or effort were not spontaneously offered as explanations with any frequency. Teachers stated that high-achieving students were more likely to come from stable families that support schools and that negative influences, such as unstable families, divorce, abuse, and other social problems, were responsible for the low achievement of some students.

Parents' Views

Parents also focused on the family, although other explanations were also mentioned. Some parents expressed the belief that individual differences in academic achievement result from a combination of both innate ability and family support, as did this mother of a Rockefeller Elementary School student:

Well, I believe in nature and nurture. I happen to have two very bright children for whom I take very little credit. A lot of that is genetic. On the other hand, I chose to stay home with them and there is a lot of nurture there and we have chosen to live here, because we value education so highly. A great number of our decisions are based on our children, on providing experiences for them. Not just education. We are providing the environment because we feel that is a very important thing. On a personal note, we waited a long time to have children. We both had careers and did a lot of things before we decided to have children. When we both decided to have children, we then decided that that is where our energies would go. We have provided a lot of nurturing and there's a lot of difference between families who are able—lucky enough—to be able to do that. There are wonderfully intelligent children all over who just don't have the opportunities we have because of the schools and family situations. I've been very lucky not to have to work at all through the kids' formative years.

Later, suggesting that her belief in the importance of family support in generating individual differences was not central, this mother elaborated her belief in the importance of innate ability and genetics in generating individual differences in the following statement:

Students in this district perform really beautifully, wonderfully, way above average. If everyone's parents are brain surgeons, then it's pretty likely the gene pool is going to create children that are going to do well and so test scores are excellent. I don't place a great deal of emphasis on test scores, but you will find that all along the districts in this area the kids are above average.

Notes from an interview with a parent at Midtown were more typical of the parental attitudes we encountered:

She talks about how a lot of children are experiencing parents divorcing and this sometimes worried her kids. But she feels her children feel secure that she and her husband will stay together. Family plays a large part in how children succeed in school.

Parents in poorer communities also looked to the family as an explanation of individual differences. Family disintegration, along with drugs and other social problems created by poverty, were frequently cited by parents in these communities as explanations of low achievement.

Indeed, observations at Parks Elementary School in Metro City during parent-teacher conference day suggested low parental involvement in school. In fact, the school was passing out small gifts of candy and magic markers as incentives for parents to come to school to pick up their children's report cards. Despite these incentives, one teacher estimated that fewer than 10 percent of parents would visit the school.

Students' Views

Although students may lack the broader social perspective of parents and educators, students also believed that family support was central in explaining individual differences among students. One student at Uptown High School located in Metro City gave the following explanation—one that was astute for a teenager—for why some students do poorly in school:

It may be that the poor-performing students have family problems and when they come to school, their minds are more on those problems than on school. I mean a lot of students have parents who are divorced or are troubled, and if their parents don't help them to see a bright future then I guess they don't see any reason to study.

Low achievement in these poor communities was also attributed by one student to a lack of individual effort, but again family support entered into her explanation. This seventh-grade girl responded in the following way when asked about the origins of individual differences.

I don't know. I think sometimes it's because some kids, they just don't feel like learning it or something, or I know some of my friends they're just not very good at it, so they don't try real hard to get good at it. And, also, some kids have their parents to help them, like with math, if their parents are good at math. So that helps, but some kids don't want to ask their parents for help.

When asked to give a reason why someone might not do well in math, this student responded:

Cause they don't try hard. They don't listen. They don't do their work and don't turn in the work. They don't ask questions when they don't understand.

All in all, family support was given great emphasis as the central source of differences in ability among students by parents, teachers, administrators, and students. The quality of teachers or other factors related to the school were seldom cited spontaneously as important sources of variation in individual differences in ability or achievement. Innate ability and effort were also referred to as factors, but these were exceptions to the general pattern of suggesting family support as the most important source of individual differences in achievement among all types of families.

Strategies for Dealing with Individual Differences

The range of individual differences in ability among students within a single classroom is a daily pedagogical challenge for teachers, and the math and science teachers we visited were no exception. At the school level, administrators are faced with the task of providing programs that address students with a variety of needs while maintaining equity and equality of access to all. However, placement in tracks is influenced not only by students' characteristics, but by school characteristics as well. Each school's practices of scheduling and grouping are affected by such local constraints as the availability of human and material resources for instruction, the demographic makeup of the surrounding communities, and the educational philosophies of administrators and teachers (Braddock 1990).

Teachers at schools where students were performing at average levels for the state reported a wide range of students in terms of ability and interest. A teacher at such a school described the classes she teaches in a way that captures the essence of challenge almost all teachers reported facing:

My first and second period runs the gamut, from A-plus, excellent students to people who come maybe once a week. That is a range! This class—an honors class—there's a range of ability all right, but it's not nearly that great. There are some students in here who are in there because their parents or their deans call them honors students, and if you are an honors student, you take mostly honors courses. So there are a couple of people in here who would probably be better off in regular class, but for some reason or another they are in the honors class. There are some students in here that are very bright, but are lazy. But they're honors students, too. There are some students in here who aren't as bright, but they work very hard, so it may not be intuitive for them, but with effort they match the achievement of the ones who are brighter. Then, there's the people who are both bright and hard working, and they do great. (Physics teacher, Springdale High School)

To deal with this range of abilities, this teacher said that she tried to teach to the middle level of abilities in each classroom to the extent possible. In fact, the majority of teachers we talked with reported using such a strategy. This teacher shared the concern of other teachers that by teaching to the middle, the brighter students in her classes would become bored and the slower students would not be able to keep up with the material. She saw no perfect solution to this dilemma, but she viewed tracking and ability grouping as reasonable strategies to minimize the range of difference within a classroom. By tracking students, she felt that it would be easier to teach to the middle, since tracked classrooms have smaller ranges. Nevertheless, she said she believed that even tracking is limited in usefulness, since there will be variation within any classroom of large numbers of students.

A teacher at Vanderbilt articulated the strategies that most teachers we interviewed and observed employed when there were students with a range of ability in the classrooms, a situation that math teachers said was typical:

Well, I think it is far more complicated for math, where you either know it or you don't. In English, you can always write something, even if you skipped something before. You can't do that in math. It's hard in math, because there are kids who struggle in classes where other kids catch on real fast. Even though we have different levels of classes, we have these problems. Like in the general algebra class, you have kids who just missed the cut-off for advanced algebra class and kids who aren't even close. It's a struggle. The way I deal with it is that the kids who are doing poorly come in for extra help or sign up for the math assistance class. And for those who do well, you give them cool problems before class or after class to make them think. Within the class, I know that there are kids who are bored silly and those that are drowning. And I encourage kids to ask questions. I also encourage kids to express their solutions. Some kids may do it differently and be four steps ahead of everyone else. I would have him explain it to everyone. Then, I would ask another kid to give his solution. Then, I would tell the solution that would always work. That way, the kids learn something.

Age-Graded Classrooms in Elementary Schools

Elementary schools rely on the use of age-graded classrooms as the primary way to limit the range of abilities within a single classroom. Every elementary school that we visited had age-graded classrooms. However, some teachers reported problems with the age-graded classroom as a way to deal with individual differences. Even teachers in affluent districts where students are from homogeneous backgrounds reported that teaching math in an age-graded classroom presents difficulties in dealing with individual differences.

To address this concern, one school was experimenting with classrooms that included students of different ages. This elementary school located in West City had many students with limited English-language proficiency and minimal experience with school. Some students had just arrived in the United States and had never been formally enrolled in school. To manage these kinds of students, the school district in which this school is located had restructured some elementary school classrooms so that students were placed with students of similar levels of achievement, rather than of similar age. A teacher at this elementary school regarded this program highly, observing that it helped recent immigrants become integrated into the school.

Individualized Instruction in Elementary Schools

Teachers in elementary schools often worked one-on-one with students during group work time. We frequently observed teachers walking around the classroom helping students individually. Assistant teachers were also present in many classrooms, and their role was to work one-on-one with students. In one case, a single assistant teacher was assigned to a severely handicapped girl who was mainstreamed into the regular classroom.

Individualized instruction also occurs when subgroups of students are periodically taken out of the regular classroom to receive accelerated or remedial instruction in basic subjects. For example, during math lessons, students who were unable to keep up with the regular lesson and those for whom the regular lesson was too easy could go to a different teacher to receive instruction that was more appropriate for their ability levels.

We observed these pullouts for math and language arts, but we did not observe any pullouts for science. Teachers explained how ability differences in math and language arts are more pronounced than in science, because science is a subject that does not require all students to be at the same level. Participation in science in elementary school is for the most part not based on cumulative knowledge, as is the case with math, and there is a heavy emphasis on experimentation. Although the degree of understanding of the experimental results may differ, students from a wide range of ability can still successfully conduct the experiments in the laboratory periods in science.

Computers and individualized instruction in elementary schools. Technological advances are changing the ways schools deal with individual differences. Although uncomfortable with the many new advances in computer technology such as the internet, educators were generally optimistic about the potential of computers to help them deal with individual differences. Many educators reported that they used computers as a way to individualize instruction and manage individual differences in ability. They cited how computers can be used to match the level of each student, for example, in providing spelling and reading drills for students in need of remedial instruction. Students who were gifted could also progress at their own pace. Several teachers also mentioned the added benefit that students seemed to enjoy working with computers and that some computer games had an educational component. Software for math, spelling, and reading drills were frequently used by students.

In spite of the perceived benefits of computers, the availability of computers varied greatly from school to school. The poorest schools had the fewest computers. Parks Elementary had only one computer per classroom, and they were outdated and lacked the power to run most educational software. In contrast, later models and a greater quantity of computers were more typical at the schools we visited in affluent districts. Some regular classrooms had four or five computers, some of them recent models. Rockefeller Elementary, located in the affluent suburb of Lakeside, had a computer room with several dozen computers, and Vanderbilt Middle School had a whole computer room for student use.

Tracking and Ability Grouping

In almost all schools at the junior and senior high school level, tracking and ability grouping were the primary ways that schools dealt with individual differences among students. Every school that we visited practiced some form of tracking and ability grouping. Even in schools where tracking was not favored by the administration and the local school board and where detracking was the favored policy, core academic subjects such as math and reading were tracked. This system of tracking seemed to be the compromise reached between parents who supported tracking and an administration that did not.

Like all other practices, tracking systems across schools varied in terms of the numbers of levels offered and the subjects tracked. To gain a complete picture of tracking and ability grouping in our sample, it would be necessary to describe the practices at each school, something that is not possible here. Instead, we present here the practices of two junior high schools in the sample to represent a school that had only two levels of tracking versus those that have four or more levels of tracking. The schools selected did illustrate the issues involved but are not intended to imply a causal relationship between organizational structure and community characteristics.

Metropolitan School. Metropolitan School is located in the inner city of Metro City. Students at Metropolitan were tracked in math and reading into regular and accelerated classes. The program was called the accelerated middle school. Students were not selected into the accelerated program on the basis of test scores and past performance, but were admitted to the program if their parents or guardians signed contracts stating that they would comply with a daily homework requirement. The homework requirement involved students completing homework every day and, to ensure family support, parents verifying that the homework was being completed.

Since only a handful of the highest-achieving students at Metropolitan School were achieving at grade level, the accelerated middle school included many students achieving below grade level, according to statewide tests. Teachers said that the goal of the accelerated middle school was to separate students who were willing to work from those who were not. As one teacher at said, "This is a program for those students who are willing to do their work." In other words, the accelerated track at Metropolitan School is not based strictly on merit, but seeks to take advantage of the strong family support among a small group of students.

Vanderbilt Middle School. Vanderbilt Middle School is located in Rolling Hills, an affluent suburb of Metro City. In contrast to Metropolitan School, there were several levels of courses in reading, writing, science, and math. Altogether five levels of math were offered. Further, there were strict requirements based on performance for the math program, and only the highest achieving students were admitted to the highest levels. The work habits of students and the wishes of parents were not given precedence in the decision to place students in the various levels.

In spite of these strict entrance requirements, both parents and the administration in the Rolling Hills district expressed support for the tracking system in math and other subjects, basing their support on the idea that high-achieving students need to be challenged. In fact, one junior high school math teacher indicated that she found complete support from the administration and parents when she proposed initiating a new level of math in the curriculum. She added that the unusual receptivity of the district to tracking is one of the appeals of the Rolling Hills district for a math teacher.

These two examples illustrate how two schools within the same city can have entirely different approaches to tracking. At Metropolitan School, parental interest was the primary factor in the decision to enroll a child in a high-level math and science program. In contrast, test scores and other objective measures of achievement were the primary mechanisms for allocating students to high-level courses at Vanderbilt Middle School.

Cooperative Learning Groups

Cooperative learning was perhaps the most common practice that we observed teachers using to deal with individual differences in ability. Most elementary school teachers and a number of junior high school teachers in the three cities we visited practiced some form of cooperative learning in their classrooms. In cooperative learning the class is divided into groups of four or five students of varying ability, who sit together, apart from other groups.

Teachers with whom we talked explained how they believed that these cooperative learning groups facilitate the interaction of students and allow for peer tutoring during classroom time. Teachers typically reported grouping high-achieving students with low-achieving ones. High-achieving students were expected to help slower students, and teachers often assigned projects that required cooperation among the small groups of students.

A teacher at West Middle School explained her support for cooperative learning groups:

I really believe in the hands on approach. I believe that all students do not arrive to me with the same level of readiness. That is why I think group learning is really good for them. Peer coaching goes on within a group. And students, if you make them comfortable with a new group, they will help each other out.

The support for cooperative learning extended across research sites. A parent of a student at a middle school in East City explained the cooperative learning approach of teachers at the school:

It's strictly intermixed, because their philosophy is that the slower students can learn from the faster students. And the faster students enjoy helping the kids that do not have as strong a background as they do. Sometimes that can encourage a mediocre student to do better—when their peers help them as opposed to an adult.

In assigning students to groups, teachers reported considering the personalities of students as well as the academic level. One teacher emphasized the importance of grouping students who are leaders with those who are more likely to be followers to avoid the organization of groups that have no leaders.

Some teachers also created situations in which these cooperative groups would be competing with other groups. For example, after assigning the same tasks to the five groups in her classroom, one elementary school teacher announced to the class which groups had gotten the correct answers and which had not.

While teachers were typically favorable toward cooperative learning groups, several parents were opposed to the practice, because they believed it might hinder the progress of high-ability students. Referring to cooperative learning, a mother at Midtown Elementary, a school in a lower-middle and working class community in Metro City, said, "Public schools are inferior, because they lump kids together rather than separating them by ability or tracking them." In unequivocal terms, she indicated that she was opposed to cooperative learning and resented the fact that her two children were expected to teach other children to read and that her children received grades for work that was done with other children.

Likewise, two parents at King Junior High School in Metro City insisted that peer tutoring and cooperative learning were detrimental to the academic development of their high-achieving children. One parent referred to a study demonstrating that "bright kids do not benefit from teaching slower learners." Continuing her criticism of cooperative learning, she referred to a joint project for which her daughter received the grade of a C. The mother claimed that the poor grade was the fault of the less capable child, whom the mother described as a poor speller and worker. "Why should my daughter get a poor grade because of this other student?" asked the mother.

Tutoring

Tutoring programs were also administered by schools as a way to deal with individual differences in ability. In some cases, students also sought out tutoring on their own, particularly in more affluent districts. At many schools we visited, students who needed help in academic subjects could receive help either from teachers or from fellow students who excelled in these subjects. This took place during the school day or for short periods after school.

At Vanderbilt Middle School, for example, students could receive help from peer tutors anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes a day. Teachers also reported staying after school to help students. Peer tutoring was seen as benefiting both the fast learner by reinforcing this student's knowledge and the slower learner, who may find it easier to ask questions of a peer than of the teacher.

Although schools in poor districts also had tutoring programs, these programs were modest in comparison to those of the affluent schools we visited. One reason may be that fewer high-achieving students are available to tutor their peers. Another factor was that teachers in schools serving disadvantaged families seem less willing to tutor students after school in neighborhoods that are perceived as dangerous. For example, in our visit to one inner-city school, we were advised to take a taxi to and from the front door and to leave the school well before dark.

Question-and-Answer Periods

One very commonly observed teaching practice in the classrooms we visited was the question-and-answer period. During these periods, teachers ask students a series of questions in rapid-fire succession. We frequently observed students jump up and down with their hands raised, eager to be called on. Teachers believe that these sessions allow individual students to contribute at their own level of ability.

We observed this practice in many classrooms we visited. There appeared to be differences in how effectively the question-and-answer format was employed. At Parks Elementary School, one teacher embarrassed a student, who had the correct answer, because the teacher thought that the student had guessed instead of working out the problem. At Rockefeller Elementary School, a math education specialist with a Ph.D. visited classrooms several times a week to conduct question-and-answer sessions. These sessions were fast-paced and rich in content and had been developed over many years.

Homework

The assignment of homework was another way that some teachers dealt with individual differences. Many teachers said that homework was essential to allow students to practice what had been taught in class, to allow the slower learners a chance to practice materials at their own pace, and to permit slower learners to complete work which others were able to finish in class. Teachers in elementary schools also said that they believed homework provided them with a good mechanism for giving students fairly immediate and frequent feedback. In that way, students who were having more difficulty could receive individual attention or be recommended for "homework club" or tutoring available through the school. At Midtown Elementary School, one teacher said that she adjusted homework assignments somewhat to accommodate students of different abilities. She allowed children who worked fast and wanted to do more to earn extra credit for additional work. These students could choose from a variety of "extra credit things" she made available. In addition, she noted that she regularly modified spelling lists for two children in her class and modified almost everything for a boy who had moved to the school from the inner city. At Rockefeller Elementary, a teacher said this about her homework policy:

I don't want my kids going home and being frustrated . . . . I find when there is more flexibility, they are much more willing to try things and to stick to things. And I'm very respectful when my children come in and say I could only do this much then it got too hard and I had to go play, because I want to talk to the children about it if it's too hard, so that they can feel like they can have some sense of control over it.

In the middle years of schooling, the different levels at which subjects were taught functioned to differentiate the homework materials, but teachers also adjusted the way in which homework was used to accommodate different behavioral characteristics of children in the different course levels. A teacher at King Junior High, like many of the other junior high and middle school teachers indicated that homework was required of students and the amount increased in the higher-grade levels. However, this math teacher also said that she allowed her students in prealgebra to do their homework in class, while she required her prealgebra 2 and scholars math students to do their homework outside of class. She said that the purpose of homework was to allow students to practice, but that her kids in prealgebra needed the extra over-sight to get theirs done because they "couldn't keep track of their stuff."

Some teachers argued that assigning homework increased inequalities among students, because some parents could help their children with homework and other parents could not. One elementary school teacher said that she believed that homework should not be assigned because it increases the effect of family background on individual differences in ability and achievement. These teachers preferred to give students time during class to do their homework. At Parks Elementary School, located in one of the poorest communities in Metro City, a policy of the local school board is for teachers to assign minimal homework. A teacher at Parks described the school policy and her differences with it.

But the thing is—this is a school that doesn't believe in giving a lot of homework, and I'm a firm believer that in math, you have to do homework and you have to practice it.

At South Central Vocational High School, teachers said that many of their students did not have a quiet place to work on homework and that many students left their books in their lockers, because they didn't want to be seen on the street with a book under their arm. As a result, very few teachers at South Central assigned homework to be done outside of class.

The lack of homework assignments in some schools generated criticism from parents who felt that their children were not being challenged enough. One parent was greatly troubled by the lack of homework for her son, a student in the accelerated math class at King Junior High School:

Since when is homework done in school? If these kids can spend so much time in school doing homework, I'm wondering when is the schoolwork being done.

Some teachers also found the lack of homework to be a concern when the school's policy was minimal homework, as was the case at Parks Elementary School. One teacher at Parks had this to say about the policy:

The local school board, the lady from the local school board, she pretty much sets the policy for the school. And her work goes like this—she told a fourth-grade teacher here that she gives too much homework. The lady said because the kids can't get help from their parents. And that's her philosophy: Kids can't get help from their parents, and so they shouldn't have a lot of homework. But that's wrong because homework is reinforcement of what you learn. And if you have a problem, the next day come in and get help on it.

It was evident that some schools and some teachers were better at communicating their expectations regarding homework to students and parents. Although most schools had written homework policies, a few said that their homework policy was informal and that most teachers assigned homework as an instructional tool. Classroom teachers often had their own reasoning for how and why they used homework.

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