Homework overhaul in schools

Along with reducing stress, districts seek to give more purposeful assignments based on students' needs and interests
By: | March 7, 2018
At the Design39Campus, part of Poway USD in Southern California, students can design their own homework projects based on their interests.At the Design39Campus, part of Poway USD in Southern California, students can design their own homework projects based on their interests.

Many elementary school students in Marion County Public Schools spend more than 20 minutes per night reading with family members. Parents in the central Florida district also report their children feel less stressed this school year, which has led to more robust and relaxed family time, Superintendent Heidi Maier says.

In class, teachers lead more vibrant conversations—particularly about the books students choose to read at home—and a marked improvement in vocabulary.

How did Maier and her team of educators achieve this? They eliminated homework in elementary school.

“We no longer have the rote worksheets and endless math problems—the research says this stuff doesn’t result in academic gains” she says. “What does result in academic gains is reading aloud 20 minutes a night, which also builds bonds between the child and family member when they talk about what book to read.”

The changes in Marion County—which has concurrently scaled back assessments to give teachers more in-class instruction time—reflect a wider shift away from homework at all levels of K12.

And when it comes to the homework that’s still assigned, educators are re-envisioning its academic purpose as districts everywhere try to drive academic gains but reduce stress. There is also a push to give students more time for family, friends and extracurricular activities.

It may be hard to find the exact data that shows either boosts or declines in student performance due to cutbacks in homework, says Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework (ASCD, 2009).

“When schools pull back on homework, we’re not seeing negative impacts” says Vatterott, who is preparing an updated edition of her book. “Schools are saying kids are more engaged, more curious, and that they have more time to think about learning and to enjoy learning.”

Work that can only be done at home

One force behind the shift is the age-old question about who’s actually doing the homework, particularly when it involves younger students.

“We tried to be honest about how much homework is legitimately done by students versus their parents” says Matt Townsley, the director of instruction and technology at Solon Community School District in Iowa. “How much of doing homework is just the parent sitting there finding the right answer?”

At the same time, some parents still consider homework an essential part of learning. That’s why, starting in the 2017-18 school year, Solon’s elementary school teachers now give homework suggestions instead of requirements. The recommendations are based on each student’s learning needs, Townsley says.

This philosophy, which includes encouraging all elementary school students to read every night, was a natural outcome of the district’s shift in 2012 to standards-based grading.

“We have no weekly homework expectations” Townsley says. “Students may be asked to do something like interview their parents—something that can be done only at home. We’re not asking them to just practice more of what they’re doing during the day.”

At Solon High School, homework no longer counts toward a student’s final grade. The district didn’t want students to be able to pad their grades simply by consistently turning assignments in on time or completing extra credit, Townsley says.

When parents demand more homework, teachers will provide resources, such as websites where students can practice specific skills. “We believe that a student’s grade should be based on what they learned, not a combination of how much they’ve learned and how much they’ve done” he says.

Beyond the test scores

There are two key reasons that Beechwood Independent Schools, a high-performing district in Kentucky, left homework out of a new series of grade 5 through 8 seminar courses designed to develop students’ creativity, critical thinking and other workforce skills, says Superintendent Mike S. Stacy.

“One hundred percent of the work happens during the school day because it’s a collaboration between students” Stacy says. “Plus, we want to see their thought processes at work. We want to have it happen in front of our eyes where we can guide the kids as opposed to just sending work home where we have no idea who’s doing it.”

The tech-heavy seminar classes require students to solve real-world and local problems in engineering, business, information technology, communications and other subjects. One group of students, for instance, has been working with officials in their home city of Fort Mitchell to design solutions to traffic problems.

“We’re expecting to impact quality in certain areas that may have nothing to do with an ACT or state test score—it’s to create a person who is successful in business or industry” Stacy says.

Stacy next hopes to bring the reduced homework philosophy to traditional courses such as algebra and AP history. “We were starting to see only compliance coming from homework, as opposed to real added value” Stacy says. “We don’t want to be asking kids to do an enormous amount of work at home if there’s no return on the investment.”

Personalized homework

Not all students go home to an environment that’s conducive to doing homework, and not all children get help from family, says Beth Nelson, director of teaching and learning and technology at Norfolk Public Schools in Nebraska. The district reduced homework with an eye toward equity.

Any assignments sent home will cover topics already taught in class, meaning homework will never require students to tackle new concepts, she says. “Even though rigor is a concern, that is something we feel wholeheartedly needs to occur during the day with the instructional leader in the classroom” Nelson says.

The district also hopes to reduce family stress, she adds. “Families need time at the dinner table, they need time to strengthen their relationships” she says. “We think that much of the behavior we deal with during the day could be avoided if families were allowed a little more time at night to be a family.”

The district also wants more moderation and purpose when it comes to older students, who do benefit from some amount of homework. “We want to shift from giving everybody the same kind of homework to a true differentiation based on what a student’s learning needs are so they work on what they need to work on” Nelson says.

Who owns students’ time?

In a similar vein, students at Design39Campus, a K8 school in Poway USD near San Diego, get to design their own homework based on their interests and learning goals.

For example, students have programmed websites, have written about their digital photographs, and have kept wellness journals about time spent outside, Principal Joseph Erpelding says. The school calls its philosophy “HELO” or “home extended learning opportunities.”

Along with regular reading and vocabulary-building, teachers want students to have plenty of time to practice math facts in the real world, such as by helping parents keep a budget at the grocery store. Homework is never graded, and never assigned over weekends or breaks.

The school’s first cohort of eighth-graders recently moved on to high school, and are outperforming their classmates by as much as 10 percent in reading and math, Erpelding adds.

For some educators, such as Ginna Guiang-Myers, director of curriculum at Eureka USD in Northern California, the homework question comes down to who directs students’ activities outside the class.

“Who owns that time after school? Do educators have claim on that time?” asks Guiang-Myers, whose K8 district will finalize a revised homework policy this spring after parents lobbied for a reduction. “Parents may say, ‘You already have eight hours of my child every day. Do you have a right to claim the others?’”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.