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Putting ‘no homework’ to the test



Teachers report decreased student anxiety in the classroom as a result of no nightly worksheets.

SHUTTERSTOCK

Homework-free evenings, once a pipe dream of countless school-aged children, are a reality in about a dozen Seattle district schools, including Whittier Elementary. Seattle’s Child reported in September 2016 that Whittier was adopting a “no homework” policy based in part on research conducted by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, which found a positive correlation between homework and academic success but only for students in grades 7 to 12, not elementary-aged children. A year later, how has this change impacted the Whittier community?   

“No loss with no homework,” says Scottie Nash, mother to a sixth-grader and second-grader. She values the new emphasis on unstructured play and believes it strikes a good balance between learning and family time. At home, her children participate in a dedicated reading time after school as recommended by Whittier teachers. Though homework isn’t formally assigned, classroom work that’s incomplete at the end of the day is sent home with the student to be finished.

Whether the omission of homework is a benefit “is dependent on the teachers,” says Brian Sayer. He clarifies that his two children, in kindergarten and second grade, “have good teachers.”

Special Education teacher Kyle Robinson-Jaynes, who works with students that might struggle academically, says not having homework has improved students’ opinion of school.

Steph Turner-Busiel, a performing arts teacher at Whittier (whose children, a sixth-grader and third-grader, attend another homework-free Seattle district school), is effusive. She cites decreased student anxiety in the classroom as a result of being unburdened from nightly worksheets. At home, she enjoys the freedom “to plan learning extension activities with [her] children that don’t involve a piece of paper and pencil.”

Some parents are more guarded in their opinion. Gwen Weed describes her husband as “surprised and disappointed” last September when he learned that homework was no longer part of the school culture. She likes the idea of homework as a “habit setting” exercise, though she admits she has access to other options. At Curriculum Night, her son’s teacher provided a long list of resources to help parents incorporate learning activities at home. Weed has no concerns with her son having more play time — he’s only in kindergarten, after all — but feels that when he’s older, homework will be an external deadline to push him: “We’re human. Homework is a forcing function.” She adds, “But I can see how families with two working parents might view this differently.”

Whittier principal Melissa Schweitzer describes the past year as a “learning curve year.”  To gauge the effects of the no-homework policy, over the summer she sent an online survey to parents of the 495 Whittier students. One common theme surfaced from the comments: parents wanted to partner with the teacher but felt communication was lacking. As a result, teachers are reaching out to parents more, which now includes sharing completed student work every two weeks online. Parents know exactly what their children are learning.

“Elevated teacher practice” is another benefit of the new policy, according to Schweitzer: “Teachers have had to rethink how to cover the material without homework.” As a result, they’re considering the curriculum differently by determining the heart and meaning behind what they teach, trimming away the extraneous and maintaining appropriate pacing of the material while still meeting statewide common core standards. Teachers are also offering parents more real-life applications to reinforce concepts taught in the classroom.

More changes are ahead, including the spring STEM Fair, which traditionally has comprised projects that students worked on at home. Schweitzer admits that parents were likely over-involved in many STEM projects judging by the number of students unable to comprehensively answer questions about their projects. The STEM Fair was optional in spring 2017; not surprisingly, it had a lower-than-usual participation rate. This coming year, Schweitzer foresees a classroom-based assignment that will be student driven and require active learning.

Though it’s too soon to evaluate how the no-homework policy will affect more objective measures like test scores, teachers and parents are happy with the stronger partnership forged between educators and families and with the fact that parents can tailor home learning to their children’s needs. Clearly, removing homework has presented new learning opportunities to everyone involved.

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