Homework every night used to be a given. Now, elementary principals and teachers are giving their practices a second look. How can the work they assign be meaningful, purposeful and not stressful for students and families?
At the start of the school year, Jackson Elementary School teachers and administrators changed how they approach homework after Principal Scott Eastman met with parents at the end of last year. Some expressed concern and frustration over the stress that “excessive” homework caused.
Eastman did extensive reading and research over the summer and told parents in a newsletter he found “virtually no research that indicates homework at such a young age has a strong correlation with academic success.”
“I agree with Scott,” Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller told the News&Guide. “Most research on grades K-6 shows very little direct benefit from homework. Teachers are moving away from the expectation of homework every single night. Now it depends on the day or the individual student.”
Miller said a current trend is to make homework more purposeful and mindful of time. He believes “it’s a myth if we justify homework by saying that we’re preparing students for the next level — because the next level is changing too.”
While it’s true that as kids get older, they need more repetition and independent work time, Miller said the overall trend is giving less homework and focusing on in-class engagement.
“Third-, fourth- and fifth- graders are continuing to read independently at home,” Miller said. “The biggest shift parents will see is not having the expectation of math homework every night.”
Teachers who are gradually making the switch are seeing positive results.
“It’s definitely a paradigm shift,” teacher Amy Asbell said. “I used to be a huge proponent of sending homework home: I was a stickler.”
Asbell, who teaches fifth-grade math, science and social studies at Colter Elementary School, said homework used to “really drive her instruction.” Sending worksheets home allowed her to gauge if students could complete concepts taught in class independently or if they needed more time before moving on.
Now, the EngageNY math curriculum provides “exit tickets,” or exercises to complete at the end of the day. Asbell said this new way of checking student progress works well. Now she can differentiate — an educational term meaning to individualize or customize — homework to fit students’ needs each day.
Asbell saw firsthand how too much homework could negatively impact kids.
“Sometimes, homework was a stressor that caused anxiety,” she said. “These kids all do so many after-school activities, and I also believe they should be having dinner with their family.”
Like other teachers making the shift to a more flexible approach, Asbell provides supplemental activities for parents who request it.
“If they want it, I’ll send it,” she said.
She also gave examples of what parents could do that combines spending time with their children and bringing educational concepts home.
“Homework doesn’t always have to come in the form of a worksheet from teachers,” she said. “Bake cookies and have them double the recipe to work on fractions.”
Miller agreed with the approach that homework should be building on, not replacing or adding on to, instruction during the school day.
“You don’t go home to learn,” he said. “Learning happens at school.”
Eastman and others have noticed some parents like homework as a way of staying informed about what their children are learning.
“Is homework the right way to make parents aware of what is happening in school or are there other ways?” Eastman asked, explaining the next steps for the Jackson Elementary building leadership team: “We want homework to have a real educational purpose.”
A Jackson Elementary parent survey showed “most families indicated that they wanted a reasonable approach to homework and were appreciative that we’re taking a close look at this.”
The vast majority of parents surveyed — 325, a response rate Eastman is proud of — felt daily reading at home was necessary for children’s educational achievement. The 64 percent of parents who returned the survey agreed with the National Parent Teacher Association recommendation of roughly 10 minutes per night per grade level of homework.
The survey also indicated that parents value play, family, sports, music, art and outside activities as key learning activities after school.
Eastman thinks that the discussion around homework is extremely important and shouldn’t be rushed.
“Judging by the parent responses we had, we owe it to our parents and to our school community to do a good job of discussing this and making the right decision about homework,” he said.
“Homework really gets educators and parents going,” he said. “We need to figure out what the community wants.”