Gaithersburg school says no homework — just free reading

Two years ago in a column on how schools could save money, I suggested replacing elementary school homework with free reading.

“Throw away the expensive take-home textbooks, the boring worksheets and the fiendish make-a-log-cabin-out-of-Tootsie-Rolls projects,” I wrote. “Eliminating traditional homework for this age group will save paper, reduce textbook losses and sweeten home life. Students should be asked instead to read something, maybe with their parents -- at least 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 20 minutes for second-graders and so on.”

Many readers liked the idea, but they and I were sure it would go nowhere, particularly in the Washington area. Many children here see homework as a welcome rite of passage, like getting a library card or being allowed to watch the seamier shows on the CW. Many parents equate heavy homework with good teaching.

Nonetheless, to my astonishment, an elementary school principal in Montgomery County—a homework hotbed—has just junked regular after-school assignments in favor of free reading and other unorthodox requirements. Stephanie Brant, principal of Gaithersburg Elementary, is not following my suggestion. This is her idea based on extensive work with students and deep familiarity with the importance of learning to read.

The school’s parents are still getting used to it. Cory Siansky, a technology consultant who is secretary of the Parent-Teacher Association, said he and his wife, a teacher, think Brant is a wonderful principal but want their daughters to develop the habit of doing academic work after school. “The behavior of homework is more important than the content of homework,” he said.

Brant is reassuring her parents that there will be assignments beyond the current 30 minutes of free reading, with parents reading to younger children. She and her teachers are planning homework, like research on animals, to inspire critical thinking and more reading of non-fiction books.

Brant said backpacks full of traditional homework don’t help much. “I know we need to get away from worksheets,” she said. Research shows that although homework in high school, and to a certain extent in middle school, correlates with higher achievement, elementary school students who do homework score about the same on standardized tests as those who don’t.

Brant, 34, grew up in Northern Virginia, attending Robinson Secondary School and James Madison University. She read to her son Aidan, 5, and daughter Isabella, 2, while they were still in the womb. As a beginning first-grade teacher in Northern Virginia, she said, “I had a passion to teach kids how to read.”

She hasn’t lost it. Seventy-five percent of Gaithersburg Elementary students are from low-income families. This summer Brant scheduled stops at several apartment complexes every Tuesday and Thursday to hand out the donated books she carried around in her grey Acura TSX.

Brant sees her new homework policy as one way to enhance the district’s new curriculum emphasizing reading--including more non-fiction and technical material. “This is a really big shift in what kids have to do,” Brant said. The school has a new glog---an internal blog—that allows them to share reviews of what they have read.

She is working with parents to address their concerns. Siansky and his wife, for instance, are worried that 30 minutes of free reading doesn’t mean much to their second-grader Emily and kindergartner Hannah. Like many Montgomery parents, their children already spend much more time than that with books.

Hannah has long anticipated, with great excitement, the new responsibilities of being in school with the big kids. So her parents have arranged a basket, just for her, full of brain-teasers, puzzles and other intriguing exercises.

“We call it homework,” Siansky said. That seems like a fine solution to me. But what matters most is getting children into the habit of picking up a book.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.

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