Just Forget Homework Editorials

Tom Hatch, a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching, said homework wars were really a proxy fight about what constitutes learning. He added that they were intrinsically linked to the debates over standardized testing that have fueled the national “opt-out” movement.

“It’s a small part of a larger conversation about how kids should spend their time,” Professor Hatch said.

Similar battles have been playing out around New York City: After P.S. 118 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, eliminated mandatory homework this school year, some parents insisted that the school provide worksheets for their children anyway. At P.S. 116 in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, some parents threatened to leave after the principal, Jane Hsu, replaced “traditional homework” with voluntary recreational activities and family engagement — a program she calls “PDF,” or “playtime, downtime and family time.”

And P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, has had schoolwide conversations on homework, so far deciding to preserve it, but focusing on keeping it “feasible,” “meaningful” and “reasonable,” said Rebecca Fagin, the school’s principal.

There is no official tally on the number of the city public elementary schools that are altering their approach to homework. The Department of Education does not mandate amounts of homework, and most plans are cobbled together as part of a shared vision among a school’s principal, parents and teachers.

Conversations about the value of elementary school homework have spread nationally. Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in northeastern Texas, calls herself “the No Homework Teacher” and has a website that proclaims, “Let’s make education GREAT again.” In August, a letter she sent to parents announcing her decision to eliminate homework was shared more than 70,000 times on Facebook and received national media attention. In states from Florida to California, elementary schools are experimenting with no homework, or what some call “reform homework” policies, often with considerable resistance from parents — and sometimes teachers.

Alfie Kohn, the author of 14 education-related books, including “The Homework Myth,” is a leader in the anti-homework camp. In a recent interview, Mr. Kohn described homework as “educational malpractice” and “an extremely effective way to extinguish children’s curiosity.” He noted that nations like Denmark and Japan, which routinely outperform the United States on international math and science assessments, often gave their students far less homework.

“They’re not trying to turn kids into calculators on legs,” he said.

On the other side of the argument is Harris M. Cooper, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University and the author of “The Battle Over Homework.” He says he believes elementary school students should get small doses of engaging homework.

But Dr. Cooper’s own research is often cited against him. A 2006 meta-analysis he conducted of more than 60 studies of homework’s efficacy showed that doing homework did not necessarily increase an elementary school student’s test scores or grades. Dr. Cooper updated the analysis in 2012, with similar results.

But Dr. Cooper said these studies did not take into consideration homework’s obvious, but less trackable, benefits: teaching organization, time management and discipline. Small amounts of enriching and age-appropriate homework in the early grades, he says, serves as a good way for parents to observe their children’s progress and to teach young people that learning doesn’t happen only inside a classroom. He calls parents who seek to abolish after-school work “homework deniers.”

Homework for young children has been a recurrent parenting issue since the beginning of the 20th century, according to Paula S. Fass, a professor emerita of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “The End of American Childhood.” Worries about its excesses have ebbed and flowed; students got heavy loads in the 1950s, when Americans were particularly worried about their ability to compete with the Russians after the launch of Sputnik. Homework spiked again in the 1980s with the release of the now-famous “A Nation at Risk” report, which indicated that American students were falling behind their peers in other parts of the world.

Today, though, worry about excessive homework is competing with anxieties about student achievement and global competition. The situation is compounded by an urge among parents “to have as much control over their children as possible,” Dr. Fass said.

“What you are looking at is the tension between that progressive view that children need to be protected from being adults, and still these parents want their kids to succeed,” she said.

The National Education Association and the National PTA have weighed in, suggesting that students get 10 minutes of homework per grade, starting in first grade — what educators sometimes refer to as the “10-minute rule.” Dr. Cooper also endorses this policy.

The focus for many anti-homework parents is what they see as the quality of work assigned. They object to worksheets, but embrace projects that they believe encourage higher-level thinking. At P.S. 11 in Manhattan, even parents who support the no-homework policy said they often used online resources like Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides free educational videos. The school’s website also includes handwriting exercises, scientific articles, and math and reading lessons. Sophie Mintz, whose son is in second grade at the school, said that the no-homework policy had afforded him more time to build elaborate Lego structures.

But parents with fewer means say the new policies don’t take into account their needs and time constraints, and leave them on their own when it comes to building the skills their children need to prepare for the annual state tests.

Ms. Sierra, the P.S. 11 parent who opposed the change, said that although the school included test prep materials on its voluntary homework site, she had a hard time getting her children to do the work.

“Now I can’t say, ‘Your teacher wants you to do this,’” she said. “It’s just me.’”

Guadalupe Enriquez, another mother at P.S. 11, who works as a housekeeper, said she looked to the school to provide and monitor work at home. “Having a little bit of homework is good,” she said.

At P.S. 118, the school in Park Slope, a homework policy that started last fall replaced required worksheets with voluntary at-home projects. Tensions have arisen there because the projects often turn out to be videos of after-school activities like gardening or science experiments, in which parents take a guiding role. Some children do presentations about family trips. Elizabeth Garraway, the principal, said that some families had expressed concerns that they didn’t have the time and resources for exciting after-school activities or exotic family vacations.

She is working hard to dispel the idea that only certain after-school activities deserve attention, she said, and has encouraged families to consider play dates and trips to the park as good topics for presentations.

“You can do a presentation on anything,” she said.

At the school on a recent morning, she showed off the results. In one third-grade class, a boy recently wrote, directed and recorded a “fireside chat” with his father, who played President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A girl arrived at school ready to showcase a PowerPoint presentation on Greek mythology. And Mia Bornstein, 8, showed up one morning with a broom handle bearing an oversize scroll that outlined life in ancient Egypt. Mia said she had worked on it with her mother, an artist.

How much time had she spent on it? Hours.

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At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.

Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was  decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.

“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”

That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.

The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.

“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.

Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.

Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.

Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great  a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.

In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.

“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”

Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?

No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.

“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”

Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.

Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.

“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”

Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.

“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”

Reinventing Homework
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?

One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.

Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.

“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”

But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.

“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”

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