If Elementary Schools Say No to Homework, What Takes Its Place?

no homeworkLast 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-12 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 2015 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 “10-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.”