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Say No To Homework

Last April, Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Texas, sent a short note to her students&#; parents informing them that she would not assign any homework for the remainder of the school year. An approving parent posted the letter on her Facebook page and it quickly went viral, eliciting scores of supportive comments from parents, educators, and, of course, students. There were a few dissenters, but the buzz the letter generated was the latest and perhaps strongest sign yet that homework &#; a stalwart tradition of K education in the United States &#; was in the doghouse.

Long before Young&#;s letter, however, many schools had already begun to question the assumptions behind homework, namely its academic value and overall appropriateness for students in elementary school.

A study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy suggested that elementary students were being assigned significantly more homework than what is recommended. (The National Education Association and the National Parent Teachers Association endorse the &#;minute rule,&#; which states that that students should do no more than 10 minutes a night per grade level.)  Other studies have identified homework as a major source of stress for all students &#; a repercussion educators and parents have been calling attention to for years.

As to its impact on student achievement, the research is at best mixed. Evidence that homework is beneficial to elementary school students is virtually non-existent. Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of &#;The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents,&#; says homework can lead to improvements in student learning in higher grades if it is designed and implemented properly. But too much can do more harm than good.

&#;We really need more work on subject matter, on homework quality, on the level of inquisitiveness that it engenders and the way it motivates,&#; says Cooper, who believes high school students need some homework because it can help them learn how to study independently if they move onto college.

Many high schools are getting the message about student stress and are looking for ways to lighten the homework load. The so-called &#;no homework&#; movement is focused on elementary grades, but framing the choice as &#;no homework vs. homework&#; is misguided, according to Maurice Elias of Rutgers University and co-author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting and The Joys and Oys of Parenting.

&#;Ideally, we want children to understand that they are always learners.  In school, we refer to them as &#;students,&#; but outside of school, as children, they are still learners,&#; Elias explains. &#;So advertising a &#;no homework&#; policy in a school sends the wrong message. The policy should be something like, &#;no time-wasting, rote, repetitive tasks with no clear instructional or learning purpose will be assigned.'&#;

Whether it&#;s called &#;homework,&#; &#;continued learning,&#; or something else altogether, the key is to make reading, writing, and performing arithmetic a part of everyday family interactions. &#;Educators can and should provide developmental guidance to parents on how to to do this,&#; says Elias.

Taking Away the Anxiety of Learning at Home

The lack of research supporting formal homework in lower grades gave Jake Toomey, principal of Discovery School at Four Corners in Gilbert, Mass., the confidence to move forward with new homework guidelines in October. The change grew out of discussions between Toomey and two other elementary school principals in the district.

&#;We were all hearing the same thing about homework,&#; Toomey recalls. &#;There were inconsistent practices and we heard from some parents about the workload. And then we checked the research and found there wasn’t a correlation between elementary students who do homework and academic success.&#;

My students are coming to school feeling way more positive about what they are able to accomplish at home with their parents. There&#;s valuable data in that as well&#; &#; Bharati Winston, teacher

Homework just seemed to be a chore for all involved &#; the student, teacher and parent.

In October, Four Corners implemented new guidelines that permitted teachers to end formally assigned homework, along with the tracking, logging, and accountability procedures that went with it. The task was to design a new approach that engaged parents and reinforced student learning without this baggage. No more homework? Not strictly-speaking, but definitely &#;less drama and tears,&#; Toomey says.

Teachers at Four Corners now collaborate with parents on activities children do at home that incorporate lessons covered during the day.

&#;We give suggestions to parents on enrichment activities they can do with their kids,&#; explains second grade teacher Bharati Winston. &#;They can be fun. I&#;ll suggest apps on smartphones or tablets that are educational. There are guidelines and expectations. There should, for example, be some level of reading, some sort of math, but there&#;s no homework log and much less pressure.&#;

Teachers check-in regularly with the parents, and Winston sends out a weekly email featuring new suggestions for activities.

If a student is struggling with a particular lesson, &#;we still might provide an enrichment activity for home practice,&#; says Winston. &#;We always take the academic pulse of each child so a more formal style of homework may be necessary. It&#;s a case-by-case basis.&#;

The new guidelines have been in place only for a few months, but the feedback from parents and educators has so far been very positive. At the end of the school year, educators will take a more formal look at how the new guidelines affected student learning.

&#;In education, we tend put a lot of clout in the data for academics,&#; Winston cautions. &#;But I can tell you I have seen no tears or anxiety in my students this year, compared to last year when I would see it maybe once a month over a missed or incomplete homework assignment. So my students are coming to school feeling way more positive about what they able to accomplish at home with their parents. There&#;s valuable data in that as well.&#;

Amy Clipston had a request that was a new one for her daughter's first-grade teacher.

Many parents had marched in to demand that their children, even those who couldn't tie their shoes yet, get more homework. Clipston was the first to request the opposite - that her daughter opt out of homework altogether.

"I felt my child was doing quite fine in school," said Clipston, a chemist with three children, noting that her daughter's schoolday in the highly competitive Lower Merion School District was 61/2 hours, with a minute recess. "I felt 10 to 20 minutes of homework a night was not accomplishing anything."

Her request, which the teacher approved, represented one small step for a movement slowly gaining momentum in schools in the Pennsylvania suburbs, New Jersey, and around the country: questioning, scaling back, or, in a handful of schools, even eliminating the nightly homework ritual once thought as all-American as junior proms and cafeteria food fights.

For decades, homework's value has been hotly debated.

But now a growing legion of critics say the notion that America can close the learning gap with China or India by stuffing kids' backpacks with math worksheets as early as kindergarten is backfiring - creating a nation of stressed-out, sleep-deprived children, despite scant scientific evidence they are actually learning more from the reams of homework.

Some school administrators are starting to listen. Radnor School District has unveiled a policy stating that homework shouldn't "interfere with the student's health and wellbeing."

Several New Jersey districts, including Princeton Public Schools and the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District, are experimenting with banning take-home assignments on designated nights or weekends and school vacations.

An elementary school in Gaithersburg, Md., has banned homework altogether in favor of 30 minutes of nightly reading. And under the radar screen, parents such as Clipston - she says there are others in Lower Merion - are quietly opting their kids out of the daily grind.

That is all music to the ears of Vicki Abeles, who triggered widespread debate on test and homework pressure with her documentary, Race to Nowhere, and is back with another film and book, Beyond Measure, to look at schools that are breaking the mold. She said educators should be seeking work-life balance for students just as some high-tech companies are doing for employees.

"A lot has been written about adults having real time off from the workday, and that it improves creativity and productivity," Abeles said. "We're doing the exact opposite with kids. It's insanity."

The anecdotal complaints from parents and teachers about the harmful impact of students emailing completed assignments at 3 a.m. or kids spending sunny weekend days inside on a laptop are increasingly supported by scientific research. The American Psychological Association survey, for example, found that 45 percent of U.S. schoolchildren were stressed-out by school - and homework was the leading cause.

Many schools try to stick to 10 minutes for each grade level, but some, particularly private ones, load on a lot more. For example, St. Joseph School in Downingtown has a policy of starting with 30 minutes for first and second grade up to minutes for seventh and eighth grade.

"The kids are overwhelmed," said Tom Di Giulio, a Latin teacher at Cedarbrook Middle School in Cheltenham. "It's too much. I'm getting work sent in to me at 12 o'clock at night," sometimes 1 and 3 a.m.

Zach Masterman, 15, a sophomore at Lower Merion's Harriton, knows what Di Giulio is talking about. After putting in a full day of school, after-school activities, and choir practice, he comes home and dives into three hours of homework nightly. "I'm really busy," he said. "I have a ton of things to do."

While high schoolers are expected to hit the books every night, Stephanie Brant, the Gaithersburg principal, said she was surprised when she initially got pushback from some parents when she eliminated homework.

They were worried, she said, that their kids wouldn't be prepared for middle school. But now, not only have other schools in her district jettisoned the worksheets, a middle-school principal also thanked her for sending him devoted readers.

"We demand so much of our students during the day," said Brant. "You can often be doing homework that is rote - addition or whatever - and the second you do one wrong problem, you're doing 25 wrong."

But conventions are hard to break. Cathy Hall, assistant head of school at elite Episcopal Academy, said teachers there are keenly aware of the "homework dilemma" and are being "intentional" in what they assign students. Yet at a school that boasts of its Ivy League admissions, time spent on homework is ultimately a personal decision, she said.

And in Lower Merion, opting out of homework - even with a teacher's blessing - is "a violation of policy," said spokesman Doug Young. "Homework is part of the school experience."

It doesn't have to be, say some critics.

Alfie Kohn, who wrote The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing a decade ago, said that numerous studies fail to find any link to improved learning.

"There's really dubious academic benefit to homework at any age, especially in younger kids," Kohn argued.

What's more, he and Abeles argue, too much homework can cause considerable harm, raising levels of frustration, anxiety, and family tension while robbing time for imaginative play and outdoor exercise, and - most importantly - crushing the potential to get excited about learning.

More parents are asking the same questions. "Many feel homework has kind of taken over, especially at the high school level," said Cheryl Masterman, Zach's mother. "I just had a situation with my fifth grader the other night, and he was up really late and totally freaking out and melting down."

Anne Heffron, principal of Merion Elementary in Lower Merion, explained: "We're trying to build habits with kids, and get children into a pattern of being independent, taking responsibility and developing organizational skills."

Heffron said she gets mixed reactions from parents on the homework issue: Some want more, some less, and some are bothered when they see their child struggle with an assignment. "I think sometimes homework is a bigger stressor for parents than for the kids," she said.

But Abeles said it's the stress on kids that concerns her the most. She said she was inspired to launch Race to Nowhere after school pressures were blamed for the suicide of a year-old California girl.

Abeles noted that she opted her son out of homework in elementary and middle school, and now he's doing well with his high school assignments.

"How many hours a day can they be spending on academics?" Abeles asked. "They need to develop in other ways. They need time with families and friends. They need time to do nothing."

kboccella@dfknj.wz.cz

@Kathy_Boccella

Published: The Philadelphia Inquirer