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.”
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.”
By James Vaznis and Nicole Fleming Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent
ESSEX — When Charlie Virden started the fifth grade this year in this seaside town, the 10-year-old right away noticed a big difference, as if a heavy burden had been lifted.
“I can’t believe how light my backpack is!” he exclaimed to his parents.
That’s because Essex Elementary School, in a bold move sure to delight students and many parents, has stopped assigning homework. Worried the nightly assignments were robbing students of time that could be better spent playing or relaxing with family, educators called a temporary truce in the homework wars.
“In the preceding grades, they would be loaded with these binders for homework,” said David Virden, Charlie’s father, who worried it cut into family time.
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Essex joins a small but growing number of schools nationwide, including the Kelly Full Service Community School in Holyoke, that are doing away with homework. The idea is to let young students just be kids after school.
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It is also to reduce the potentially harmful pressure for students to excel.
“It’s great to know that these kids can spend their afternoons and evenings running around and playing, which is exactly what kids should be doing,” said Jonti Rodi, whose two sons attend Essex Elementary.
For decades, teachers and parents have fought a tug-of-war over homework, from the proper amount to whether assignments were meaningful or mere busywork. Consensus is almost impossible, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“If you walk into a meeting with parents any time after September, and ask them if students are receiving too much homework, half the hands will go up,” Scott said. “Then if you ask them if students are not receiving enough homework, the rest of the hands go up.”
But opposition to homework has intensified, Scott said, as school districts place a stronger emphasis on students’ well-being after years of ratcheting up the rigor of instruction to meet state standards.
At the Kelly School in Holyoke, which went into state receivership last year, teachers initially pushed back against the idea of banning homework, worried that students needed the practice.
But since the school day had been lengthened — by an hour for middle-school students and two hours for elementary students — educators were particularly worried about piling on too much work in the evening.
Principal Jacqueline Glasheen said she was persuaded to give a no-homework policy a try after surveys of parents, students, and teachers showed overwhelming support for the idea, as well as research that raised questions about homework’s effectiveness.
“We think more face time with a teacher who is providing high-quality instruction will get students further than homework,” she said.
Research on the impact of homework on student achievement in elementary schools has been scant and inconclusive.
Duke University researchers, who in 2006 conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of the issue, concluded that the correlation between homework and achievement was much stronger among secondary students than with those in elementary schools.
But the study, which reviewed more than 60 research studies on homework over a 15-year period, also warned that too much homework can be counterproductive.
Many schools follow what is known as the “10-minute rule,” which calls for 10 or 20 minutes of homework a night for first-graders, with an additional 10 minutes of nightly homework added in each successive grade.
But a study last year, published in the American Journal of Family Therapy, found that students in the early grades were receiving up to three times as much homework than is typically recommended.
“The side effects of homework are very destructive” because it can lead to anxiety and depression for students and parents alike, said Robert Pressman, an author of the study and the director of research at the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology in Rhode Island.
At Essex Elementary, which had been following the 10-minute rule, teachers had been debating informally for years about the value of the assignments and whether they were causing families too much stress.
Last year, the Manchester Essex Regional School District created a committee to look at the issue, which led to the trial program at Essex Elementary School.
Under the program, teachers are not sending students home with worksheets, math problems, and other traditional homework assignments. But they are strongly encouraging students to read at home every night, and will sometimes send students home with classroom projects to finish.
“Our hope is that students feel less pressure and have more time to engage in other pursuits and passions outside of school,” said Emily Dwyer, a first-grade teacher who served on the homework committee.
Superintendent Pam Beaudoin said the school district will decide at the end of the year whether to ban homework at other schools.
“It’s a deep dive for us,” she said. “I don’t know if a blanket approach is one that will fit all. We are going to start a conversation in each school.”
After school Monday, Ava Dennesen, 9, played with her younger brother outside their home, free from her usual homework burden. They climbed a tire swing, chased each other around the lawn in a game of tag, and conducted a mock swordfight.
As she starts fourth grade, Ava has been more at ease without homework, her mother, Amy Dennesen, said.
“She can be a kid,” said her mother. While not opposed to homework, Amy feels that it can be a bit intense for the younger grades when children are still “so, so little.”
Ava, who had math and reading homework almost every day last year, said she had mixed emotions when the school principal told the kids about the new policy.
“I thought, a little ‘yay!’” she said, “But I’m going to miss it, because I really like math.”James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.