No-Homework

Last August, an elementary school teacher’s note went viral after it effectively banned homework from her classroom. Parents (and many teachers, for that matter) seemed to welcome this policy with open arms, sharing the note on social media and wishing their own schools would follow suit.

“Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” teacher Brandy Young wrote at the time. Instead, she asked her students spend their afternoons eating dinner together as a family, reading, playing outside, and getting to bed on time.

Basically, she recommended that young school kids get a chance to just be kids, which sounds pretty stinking awesome — and necessary — to me.

Now, a year later, another school’s no homework policy is making headlines. This past July, Marion County Public Schools in Florida announced that it would be eliminating all homework, too, asking students to read for 20 minutes each night instead.

In a statement to Babble, the school district outlined the reasoning behind this decision, which will affect all elementary school students in the district:

“Superintendent Dr. Heidi Maier eliminated the everyday, meaningless taxing homework many students dealt with every night in the past,” the statement reads. “We’re talking about the pages of math problems and other exercises some teachers assigned simply for the sake of assigning homework. Research from Dr. Richard Allington (University of Tennessee) indicates that kind of homework does not benefit students as much as believed. What does benefit students is reading at least 20 minutes each evening with family members.”

Um … can we get a standing ovation for this? I know I’m not the only parent out there who actually dreads those busywork math and reading sheets (maybe even more than my kids). I’m glad to know that it’s not just me — and that research actually backs me up on this.

The research referred to by the Marion County Public Schools is from Dr. Richard Allington, who has argued that reading is a much more effective form of after-school enrichment than homework. Other research seems to come to similar conclusions, especially at the elementary school level. For example, a 2006 Duke University meta-analysis of available research on homework found that the correlation between homework and student achievement was only really meaningful at the middle and high school levels. But for elementary school students, homework pretty much did nothing in terms of student achievement.

This is all fine and good, right? But the question is, would a no homework policy really be as wonderful and effective as it sounds? Well, according to Marion County Public Schools, the answer is a resounding YES. Just a few weeks into the school year, they’re already seeing great results.

“So far, we’ve received astounding support for the decision,” a representative from the district tells Babble. “We now have students wanting to read each evening. In fact, some parents have shared their children won’t even put down their books for dinner and other events each evening.”

Holy moly! Those results sound pretty fantastic to me.

Marion County Public Schools tells Babble that their district isn’t an anomaly though. In fact, no homework policies are cropping up all over. “Marion County Public Schools is not the first district to make this choice,” the representative tells Babble. “We’re simply the one in the limelight right now for doing so.”

And they seem they be entirely correct. Just a quick Google search will yield quite a few school districts that have made headlines over the past few years for adopting no homework policies.

Take the Orchard School in Vermont, where teachers voted unanimously to replace homework with nightly reading and play. Six months later, The Washington Post reports that the school found that no students have slipped academically, and some students may actually be improving academically. Overall, educators at the school describe their students as having “time to be creative thinkers at home and follow their passions.”

Well, don’t we all wish our kids had just a little more time for creativity and fun at home? I know I do.

Babble was able to catch up with educators across the country whose schools have adopted similar policies and are seeing similar incredible results.

Faith Kwon is a second-grade teacher in East Palo Alto, California with a master’s degree in education from Stanford University. Kwon tells Babble that she has a no homework policy for her second graders because she has not seen any research backing up the need for homework. And most importantly because she wants her students to start their education with a positive outlook and relationship to school, and she fears homework in the early years might “sour” that.

“I am constantly considering the fact that my students have at least a decade of schooling left in their academic careers, and I want them to love school forever,” Kwon tells Babble.

Kwon says she understands why some parents feel that homework is necessarily, if only because it gives them an opportunity to assess their kids’ progress and open up a line of communication between the teacher and the parent. But she feels that there are other, more effective ways to do that.

“I don’t think worksheets or reading logs or writing sentences serves to address the communication issue,” says Kwon. “I think teachers and caregivers need to be more intentional and effortful in communicating as members of a collaborative team.”

Teresa Hichens Olson, Director of Programs at Great River School, a charter school in Minnesota, is on the same page as Kwon. Olson tells Babble that Great River School hasn’t assigned homework in the entire 14 year history of the school.

“We have goats and chickens and believe strongly in hands-on learning,” Olson tells Babble. “We have a 3-hour work time every day for elementary where a child can work independently or in a group. In middle school and high the principles are the same but the student may choose to work at home at home with larger projects.”

Sounds pretty idyllic, huh? As for how it’s worked out for them, Olson says it as amazing as it sounds. “Students feel connected, have strong relationships with their teachers, and don’t do repetitive work,” Olson shares with Babble. “We were rated the best school in Minnesota in 2015 by US News Report, but more importantly our students love learning, and the act of thinking.”

Woven through all the stories coming out of schools that have adopted a no homework policy is the theme of students taking the reins to their education and feeling empowered in their learning journeys.

To me, homework has always seemed to be a method schools use to keep their students accountable and teach a certain amount of self-discipline and vigor. I’m all for that, but maybe we need to start trusting that our kids can learn those skills without homework by being the passionate, curious, natural learners they already are.

I’m totally on board. Are you?

Article Posted 7 months Ago

If you're a parent of a child in grade school, you're likely familiar with the ordeal: You wrestle your child into a chair to finish his or her homework -- a bevy of assignments that are sometimes frustrating and occasionally incomprehensible. After an hour (or two, or three) of negotiation, occasional tears and shouting, everyone is exhausted.

And you're left wondering: Is all this homework really necessary?

For an increasing number of educators in New Jersey and nationwide, the answer is no. In recent years, Woodbridge Township, Princeton and West Windsor-Plainsboro school districts have experimented by either doing away with traditional homework or opting for "homework-free" days or weekends. The "no homework" movement is proving especially popular with parents (and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- young students), who see it as an opportunity for children to spend more time with family or pursue their own passions. 

Experts say the movement is growing, even as conventional thinking still holds that homework is a good way for young students to establish an academic routine, and concerns remain about the ability of American children to compete globally.  

Of course, who wouldn't like more recess and less homework?

Though no local studies have tracked the trend, New Jersey public schools have placed restrictions on homework since at least 2013, when students and parents reacted favorably to limits on homework in the Hopewell Valley School District. The district later extended the policy, setting specific time restrictions, like one that disallowed third graders from doing more than 30 minutes of assignments. 

In 2015, Princeton schools began periodically implementing homework-free weekends, following the lead of West Windsor-Plainsboro schools (which began offering some homework-free nights in 2014). And last year, Robert Mascenik School #26 in Woodbridge Township deemphasized traditional homework in favor of reading. Administrators said children should spend the time playing and interacting with their families. So did Port Reading School #9, another elementary school in the same district.

In 2016, the no-homework movement went viral when Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Godley, Texas, sent a note to parents letting them know she wouldn't be giving any homework. Young explained that research didn't bear out the benefit of homework for young students, saying it was more important for them to play and get to bed early. 

Parents are celebrating no-homework policies as a kind of forward-thinking approach to early education. Consider Jennifer Rittner, who felt that her son Theo's kindergarten homework was so unnecessary and detrimental that she was willing to put him in private school. 

"I can't draw, I can't do math, I can't read," he would say. Rittner, who lives in Montclair, placed part of the blame on the "depressing" worksheets that followed Theo home after school. When first grade rolled around, he left for a private school -- the Montclair Cooperative School. 

There, students kept nightly journals where they could log whatever they wanted to read. Later, they were assigned "ownwork," for which they performed and logged a weekly "self-initiated task." For Theo, now 7, that could mean playing darts or making a paper airplane.

Jennifer Rittner of Montclair looks at a graphic novel with her son Theo, 7. Partly because of the worksheets a teacher sent home in kindergarten, she moved him to a progressive school for first grade. (Amy Kuperinsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
 

"The work that we do with children needs to be productive, not just kill time," says Amanda Marchesani, Theo's former teacher at the school. She reconsidered her approach to homework after hearing Alfie Kohn, a scholar of progressive education known for his views on reward-based learning (no gold stars, please) and grading (it shouldn't exist), speak at a conference. 

Does that mean teachers who see homework as indispensable -- even at a young age -- are wrong?  

In 2006, Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at Duke University, published an analysis of research conducted between 1987 and 2003, finding that even a little bit of homework could have a positive influence. But the association held strongest in grades seven to 12; younger students did not demonstrate the same benefit. 

Theo says he liked his new teacher's version of homework, called 'ownwork,' simply because it was 'fun.' (Amy Kuperinsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
 

Homework, he wrote, could trigger loss of interest in a subject or make students see school in a negative light. Despite this, he advised teachers to put stock in the "10-minute rule," the notion -- endorsed by the PTA and National Education Association -- that 10 minutes of homework should be added per grade level, starting with 10 in first grade and topping out at two hours in 12th. 

So are worksheets like the ones assigned to Theo in kindergarten really going to help students get into Harvard one day? Rittner thinks the push to start so young is reflective of parental neurosis.  

"I think it's generalized social anxiety that children in our country are falling behind children in other countries," says Rittner, who teaches social justice and design for graduate students at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Still, many educators believe that young children should do homework to foster a love of learning, says Kedra Gamble.

"Homework when done well is a wonderful place to do that," says Gamble, assistant professor at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education in New Brunswick. 

She adds, "The function of school is very different than it was 20, 30 years ago. You can get content from everywhere. Now we're teaching them to think, to posit questions, to conduct research, to solve problems."

Steven Isaacs teaches a game design class at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge where he asks students to design their own games in the context of Minecraft, covering topics such as narrative and coding. A former special education teacher, he was never a fan of homework. Why? It changes the focus of school, he says. 

Steven Isaacs teaches game design at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge and was never a fan of giving homework. 'It's not about the learning, it's about the finishing the homework, and that really bothers me,' Isaacs says. (Stuart Ramson for Microsoft)
 

"It's not about the learning, it's about the finishing the homework, and that really bothers me," Isaacs says. He frames his class as a "studio" where students pick passion projects.

"When a kid has agency and is excited about something, there's a good chance when they come home they're going to continue working on that," Isaacs says.

But in the face of school benchmarks, creative freedom isn't always a possibility. Not all districts have the resources of the Bernards Township School District, and priorities can be different in a disadvantaged school. 

 

Moreover, in high school, hours of homework remain a necessary part of life as students move towards college. For those hoping to get into a top school, this can mean a fiercely competitive admissions process. If relieved of homework in subjects like math, history and English, would students become less desirable candidates for the academic rigor that awaits? 

Well, no. But yes, too. Ashley Kollme is a college counselor for IvyWise, a New York college planning company that ministers to New Jersey students whose parents plunk down thousands of dollars for tutoring and advising -- in effect, giving them more homework. 

Following a full slate of extracurriculars that creeps into early evening, students come home to so much work that they end up sacrificing sleep, she says.

"Something has to give," Kollme says. "There are only 24 hours in a day." An oppressive amount of homework doesn't necessarily mean better college preparedness, she says. 

"Colleges are not focused so much on just the numbers -- what are your test scores and what are your grades," Kollme says.

The broader question: "Do you have a love of learning?" 

 

Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at akuperinsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKup or on Facebook.

 

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