Elementary school students in Marion County, FL might have more free time after their superintendent put a ‘no homework’ policy into effect. Instead, officials are asking parents to step in.
When the school year begins Thursday at Marion County Public Schools in central Florida, the district’s 20,263 elementary school students will come to class sure of one thing: No matter what the school day brings, most nights they won’t have homework.
Instead, Superintendent Heidi Maier is urging families to read with their kids every night for at least 20 minutes — any book, newspaper or magazine of their choice. The Bible works, as does Popular Mechanics, Harry Potter or Walter the Farting Dog.
The move comes as schools nationwide revisit longstanding policies on homework, especially for young children. What was once a bedrock principle of the school year is now under the microscope as research shows few benefits, and as families complain about evenings spent stressing over problem sets.
Maier said her teachers can make exceptions for special projects such as book reports or science fairs, but that otherwise she’s discouraging the practice of sending home worksheets and other materials intended to give kids more practice.
Homework has long been “a catalyst for arguments at night with family members,” Maier said. “That’s something we want to avoid.”
Recent research has mostly been focused on homework assigned to older students — and it shows mixed results.
A 2013 study, led by Indiana University researcher Adam Maltese, found a positive relationship between homework for high school sophomores and performance on standardized tests. But it found little correlation between more homework and better math and science grades. The researchers concluded that perhaps homework “is not being used as well as it could be.”
Maltese and his colleagues pointed out that if high school teachers most nights assign just one hour of homework, that amounts to about 180 class periods of 50 minutes apiece. Essentially, they noted, an hour of homework each night adds another class period to the school day. But it brings only a “very modest” boost in achievement.
Research on the benefits of homework for younger students is less definitive. Actually, Maier said, it’s basically non-existent. Pressed on whether simply giving students extra time at night to cover material has a benefit, she replied flatly: “Show me the research.”
What about more time to practice skills? Nope, she said. No evidence.
Duke University researcher Harris Cooper, whose work has helped define much of what we know about homework, pointed out in 2015 that there was “very little correlation between homework and achievement” in the early grades.
As students get older, the correlation gets stronger, he said, but he noted that the correlation could be caused both by homework helping achievement and by “kids who have higher achievement levels doing more homework.”
But he said homework may have other benefits. For instance, it keeps parents aware of what their child is learning in school. “I’ve had some very emotional parents come to me about having been told by teachers that their child is struggling, that there might be a learning disability,” he said. “The parents don’t necessarily see it until they see their child work on homework.”
Richard Allington, the University of Tennessee scholar whose research Maier cites for her reading assignments, has said that even if some kinds of homework raise achievement, that type of homework “is uncommon in U.S. schools.”
On the other hand, Maier said, freeing up teachers from grading homework gives them more time to prepare for class and more time to teach. She said other research shows that the nightly reading sessions help instill a love of reading that carries beyond the school year.
Research on how much homework kids are actually doing these days is a bit confusing. When the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2012 asked students how much homework they had the previous night, 22% of 9-year-olds said they had none; 57% said they had an hour or less. Just 17% said they had an hour or more (and 4% said they had homework but didn’t do it).
A longitudinal analysis of NAEP data by the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless in 2014 found that more 9-year-olds were regularly doing homework than their parents’ generation: In 1984, 35% of students reported no homework the previous night. By 2012, that had shrunk to 22%.
But the share of 9-year-olds reporting an hour or more of homework was also down by two percentage points in that same period, from 19% to 17%. The percentage reporting less than an hour of homework had risen from 41% to 57%.
Loveless also found that 27% of 17-year-olds reported having no homework. And the share of 17-year-olds who spent more than two hours a night on homework remained unchanged at 13%.
Loveless said the data showed that the percentage of kids who are genuinely overworked “is really small.”
All the same, “no-homework nights” are quietly emerging nationwide. In Vancouver, Wash., schools plan to eliminate homework for students through third grade.
In the suburban Houston Katy Independent School District, schools this year will observe six “family nights,” during which teachers will be discouraged from assigning homework.
In a Facebook post last August that went viral, Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher at Godley Elementary School in Texas sent home a letter telling parents there would be no formally assigned homework during the school year. She urged families to eat dinner together, read together, play outside and get their child to bed early.
“Children need a foundation,” Young wrote. “They need to sit at the dinner table and debrief with their support team.” She added, “Parents, the homework is for you now. Praise your children for a hard day’s work when they get off the bus today.”
But in other areas where educators have moved to take the pressure off kids, parents have pushed back. In the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District near Princeton, N.J., parents — many of them immigrants from China, India and Korea — in 2015 complained of “dumbing down” their children’s education. “What is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future,” parent Mike Jia said.
Many schools have long subscribed to the “10-minute rule,” which suggests that schools assign no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level — first-graders bring home just 10 minutes of work, while ninth-graders have 90 minutes. Twelfth-graders, by these guidelines, are assigned about two hours’ worth of homework nightly.
That may work in middle school and high school, where the idea was developed, said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education. But she said researchers who developed the idea didn’t test it out at the elementary school level.
“Nobody did any research on third grade to see that 30 minutes is the optimal time,” she said. “Everybody just extrapolated down.”
The National PTA, which endorses the 10-minute rule, advises: “Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework.”
Pope, who is also co-founder of Challenge Success, a research and intervention project that “aims to reduce unhealthy pressure on youth and champions a broader vision of youth success,” said schools she works with stress the need to give kids more playtime, family time and downtime.
She calls these “protective factors” that help kids thrive. Homework, she said, impedes that.
For those who say kids need homework to practice skills, she says that may be true for older kids, but not for younger ones. In high school, she said, “You come prepared, just like an adult would come prepared to have a meeting. But at the early years? No. Other things need to take priority at home.”
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo
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