By: Katie Charner-Laird
Last school year, 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 school year started this year, articulating our beliefs and approach to homework, and develop what some might call a homework policy.
Over the 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 include 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 this year.
So last year, 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 was begging 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.
Katie Charner-Laird is the principal of the Cambridgeport School, a PreK-5th grade elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to being a principal, she taught grades 3-6 and was a literacy coach.