Second-grade teachers at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Va., had an idea: Look at the research on how homework affects young students and do what it says.
They read studies done by Harris Cooper, a neuroscientist and Duke University psychology professor, and learned that he found no solid evidence that elementary schoolchildren benefit from academic homework. They hatched a plan to stop assigning it and only ask kids to read, which Cooper and other researchers have found to be useful for young children. Principal Harold Pellegreen gave them permission to go ahead — as long as they evaluated the impact by looking at test scores during the year.
“The philosophy in second grade is that there is a lot of academic work going on during schools hours,” he said. “Typically, we were giving homework on top of it. We decided we wanted them only to worry about answering these questions: ‘Who am I going to play with today?’ ‘What activities am I involved in?’ ‘What is my family doing tonight?’ We didn’t want them worrying, ‘Am I going to have time to finish my homework tonight?’ ”
Homework is a perennial subject of intense interest. In the late 1800s, a Civil War hero-turned-Boston school board member, Francis Walker, thought math homework harmed children’s health and pushed the panel to ban it as part of a nationwide anti-homework fever. The Ladies’ Home Journal called homework “barbarous” and many educators said it caused nervous conditions and heart disease in the young, who instead should be playing in the sunshine.
Times changed and homework became a central part of the education experience, with proponents saying it is vital to cement information into kids’ memories, teach them discipline and make sure they cover enough material so they can be prepared for standardized tests given every spring. Today, even preschoolers who are 3 and 4 years old are given homework.
Yet educators increasingly are wondering whether it should be given at all to elementary schoolchildren, with much of the questioning driven by Cooper’s research as well as books such as Alfie Kohn’s “The Homework Myth.” Some critics noted that it was unfair that some students had parents at home to help them and others didn’t, and that’s why the high-poverty Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced at the start of the 2013-2014 school year that it was banning homework.
In 2015, Katie Charner-Laird, principal of Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Mass., which educates students from preschool through fifth grade, decided to get rid of homework that parents and students considered busy work. The new policy required first-graders, for example, only to read nightly. Third-graders were required to write something nightly — though it wouldn’t be graded — as well as practice math facts. The result, she said, has been that families spend more time doing interesting activities together.
The subject got widespread attention last month when a second-grade teacher at a Texas elementary school sent a note to parents saying that the only homework students would have would be to finish what they hadn’t completed in class. She said that families should instead eat, read and play together. Kelly Elementary School in Holyoke, Mass., just banned homework for all students for the 2016-17 school year after the district extended school by two hours a day.
And now second-graders at Taylor Elementary will start the school with no homework. Parents learned of the new policy in a letter that said in part:
“This is a major change in our instructional program, and we are carefully considering its impact on our students’ learning. We will be tracking data carefully every quarter to evaluate the impact of the policy. We will also regularly seek parental feedback to help us best meet the needs of all students.”
So far, the program has the approval of the PTA; President Stacy Reed said the organization is in full support. But it would not be surprising if some parents who believe their children learn discipline from homework are skeptical and give their children assignments anyway.
Pellegreen said he has seen the homework research and understands both sides of the issue. If test scores drop, he said, the pilot program may be modified but he trusts his teachers.
“I value them as educators and knowing our children, and so I listened,” he said. “Their points were very valid to me. And with Arlington public schools focusing not just on academics but the whole child as well, this was a perfect opportunity for us to do a pilot program and try it.”