Anyone who closely follows the debate about the value of homework at different grades knows about a famous meta-analysis of previous research on the subject, published in 2006 by researcher Harris Cooper and colleagues, which found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement. You might think that educators would have taken that to heart, but because research rarely informs educational policy, it didn’t.
Today, children in preschool — that’s 3- and 4-year-olds — routinely get homework in the form of dull worksheets. A February 2016 report on New York City’s pre-kindergarten program reported this:
Out-of-school enrichment activities was another way pre-K programs engage parents in children’s learning at home. Homework most often consisted of worksheet packets and reading with the child or instructions to practice with children what they are learning at school. Parents in the focus groups voiced strong opinions about homework, with some favoring it and others feeling it was not age-appropriate for preschoolers to have homework; some felt their children had too little and others too much. On the positive side, parents enjoyed engaging with their children and saw homework as a window into what they were learning at school.On the other hand, some parents felt their children had too much homework and preferred their children to spend more time at play. Most felt the daily requirement of reading a book to the child was important and key to their child’s reading and vocabulary progress. One parent pointed out that some of the content of the homework is beyond the child’s knowledge so parents are almost “required” to teach it at home. To encourage children to enjoy reading, one center loans each child a book every week that parents are expected to read with their child.
In Cambridge, Mass., one principal faced the homework issue and did something about it. She is Katie Charner-Laird, principal of Cambridgeport School, which educates students from what it calls “junior kindergarten” through fifth grade. Charner-Laird is a progressive educator who wrote the following piece about what happened when she led her team to reevaluate homework and whether it was important to assign. This appeared on the website of the nonprofit organization National Association for the Education of Young Children, and I am republishing it with permission.
By Katie Charner-Laird
In 2014, I found myself in one too many meetings with discontent parents talking about homework. Some parents felt the homework was not meaningful. Others were upset because they felt there was not enough feedback from teachers. Still, other parents wanted teachers to be individualizing homework more. In each of these meetings, it became uncomfortably clear that I really didn’t know what was happening across the school with regards to homework.
By the end of that year, I had made one firm commitment both to myself and to several parents. We would spend some time as a staff, before the next school year started, articulating our beliefs and approach to homework, and develop what some might call a homework policy.
Over that summer, I read a number of articles about how we have to get better at homework, the argument being that homework is a problem for children and families because it is tedious and doesn’t ask children to think critically and creatively. While I didn’t completely disagree with these articles, I also didn’t find a strong rationale for why we give homework or how much homework we should be giving.
I had heard of Alfie Kohn’s book, “The Homework Myth,” but in truth, I was avoiding reading it. As a former teacher, I had always felt that homework was a critical part of children learning organizational skills and responsibility and a way to practice newly developed skills. Moreover, the idea of getting rid of homework seemed a bit too unconventional. But when I finally did pick up “The Homework Myth,” I couldn’t put it down. One by one, my reasons for considering homework an essential part of the elementary school experience were dismantled.
Time management and organizational skills: Kohn points out that rather than teaching time management to students, homework actually requires parents to do more to organize children’s time.
Newly learned skills: Kohn argues that it is rare that all students need the same practice at the end of a lesson. For some, additional practice may be confusing, while for others, it may be unnecessary.
What the research says: Kohn scoured the research to find that there is no evidence that homework in elementary school leads to an increase in student achievement.
At our opening staff meetings last August, I asked teachers to read excerpts from “The Homework Myth,” and discuss the article with grade-level colleagues. Many teachers were as dumbfounded as I was when challenged to think about their long-held beliefs about homework. I asked each grade level team to decide on a common homework approach for the coming school year. While I knew where I stood on the homework issue at this point, I felt it was important for teachers to make these decisions themselves after I had provided them with research and the opportunities to discuss it. As I met with each grade-level team, I also felt it was my responsibility to ensure that there was some semblance of a trajectory from kindergarten through fifth grade.
The School’s New Homework Policy:
Last school year for the first time, I knew the homework expectations for each class in the school!
- In kindergarten, students dictate stories to their families on a regular basis, but with no official due dates. Parents were encouraged to read to their children, but there were no set expectations for how much or how often.
- Starting in first grade, students were expected to read nightly and this included families reading to children.
- Most grade-level teams opted out of reading logs or other accountability structures, noting that these often devolved into a meaningless checklists lacking accountability altogether.
- Third graders were asked to write nightly. Students determine the content and form of their writing, which is not graded. Third graders are also expected to practice their math facts based on both grade level expectations and personal levels of mastery.
In my experiences as both principal and teacher, parents often voice two significant complaints: homework either took too long, or not long enough; AND parents didn’t understand the homework, so they couldn’t help their child. These issues have been addressed in our new approach to homework. All homework is now open-ended enough to avoid these common complaints.
Teachers give parents information about other elements also taught in class so they can be supportive of the related homework. When a teacher asks students to read for 30 minutes, some students may read 10 pages, and others may read 30. Parents can help children find a regular time to do that homework because the time needed is consistent. Moreover, if a parent wants a child to do more homework, it is quite simple to just have them keep reading. There is no “wrong way” to do the homework. And this has led to many families reporting that the level of stress in their household has decreased dramatically.
So in 2014, Cambridgeport became “the school that doesn’t give homework,” yet I heard repeatedly from students, teachers, and parents about the significant, meaningful work they are doing at home. A fourth grader begged to take home his writing notebook on the third day of school so he could keep working on the story he had started in class. A class of fifth graders requested additional practice problems to take home with them. A father-daughter pair showed me the model they created of the setting of the book they were reading together.
Our school may be giving less homework but we have more students engaged in more meaningful learning activities at home than ever before.