I recently finished reading one of ASCD's 2009 Select Member publications, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs.

Full disclosure: A big thanks goes out to Laura Berry, ASCD Communications Specialist, for sending me a complementary copy after I submitted an essay for consideration in one of their themed publications that never came to fruition. I have not received any compensation to write this review and did not receive the book under any obligation to write this post. Now, on to the review.

The author, Cathy Vatterott, is an academic at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is commonly referred to as "The Homwork Lady." In this book, she breaks down homework research and paints a fairly objective picture of the limits of this research as well. In addition, Vatterott lays out the common objectives proposed by homework critics such as Alfie Kohn and attempts to create a practical spin on what this does and does not mean for the average classroom teacher. The third chapter is entitled, "Homework Research and Common Sense" and it lives up to its title from the get-go. Her objective approach is summed up in the following quote.

"...the gist of the research, then, is that a small amount of homework may be good for learning, but too much homework can actually be bad for learning." (p. 62)
With such a middle-of-the-road attitude, it's hard not to at least take her arguments seriously. Vatterott even asks some of the hard questions typically heard in faculty lounges during the lunch hour.
"What if more time spent grading homework equaled less time to plan quality classroom instruction, which could affect the quality and amount of learning that occurs in the classroom?" (p. 79)
Okay, maybe the question has never been posed that formally, but who hasn't heard the occasional griping about the usefulness of homework, particularly when students don't complete it and when grading it takes so much of an educator's time? My guess is that I'm not the only one who hears this sentiment from time to time.

Perhaps the most useful chapter is the fourth one focusing on effective homework practices. The author draws a line in the sand regarding homework and grading - an idea that took me years to agree with, but could cause some readers to immediately close the book and never pick it up again.
"Homework's role should be as formative assessment - assessment for learning that takes place during learning. Homework's role is not assessment of learning; therefore it should not be graded." (p. 112, emphasis mine)
Because I happen to believe that grading homework does indeed get in the way of learning and is counterproductive towards documenting understanding in a way that allows new evidence of achievement to replace old evidence, I continued reading with great enthusiasm.

I especially enjoyed a section describing how "grading homework" is different from "checking homework."
"The purpose of homework should be to provide feedback to the teacher and the student about how learning is progressing....Checking (providing feedback) is diagnostic - the teacher is working as an advocate for the student." (p. 112)
Rethinking Homework was well-written, provides many thought-provoking ideas related to homework, grading and formative assessment. Personally, I had already read several of the articles and books Vatterott quotes in her writing, so the underlying ideas often seemed like old hat. If you've read with great detail Marzano, O'Connor, Fisher & Frey, Stiggins, Guskey and even Robyn Jackson's latest ASCD book (which I recently reviewed as well here), this book may seem like a broken record. On the contrary, if you're looking for a single book to read that might might challenge the status quo in the way you and your colleagues view homework and more largely assessment, I highly recommend Rethinking Homework by Cathy Vatterott.

Lorna Earl's quote from the book, Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning rings true in the context of this review.
"...changing classroom assessment is the beginning of a revolution - a revolution in classroom practices of all kinds...Getting classroom assessment right is not a simplistic, either-or situation. It is a complex mix of challenging personal beliefs, rethinking instruction and learning new ways to assess for different purposes." (2003, pp. 15-16)
Perhaps this book will finally be the spark to unite a blaze of conversations in your school that change the way educators view teaching and learning. How do you think your colleagues would respond to this book's premises?