Whittier Elementary Adopts No Homework Policy
Elisa McCulloch believes homework — especially in elementary school — isn’t beneficial.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
The first day of school brought some big news for students at Whittier Elementary School in Ballard. Effective immediately, the school has a new ‘no homework’ policy for all grades.
Whittier Elementary principal Melissa Schweitzer said the request to discuss changing the policy was brought to her this past summer by resource room teacher Elisa McCulloch. After McCulloch presented to her peers during the staff’s professional development days in August, the group had a few days of careful discussion and unanimously agreed to the change.
In a newsletter talking about the new policy that students took home to their parents, Schweitzer included a message from McCulloch, who wrote, “As a staff, we are dedicated to following evidence-based practices to maximize high quality learning experiences for our students and minimizing potential harm. In this case, the evidence indicates a need to take a different approach for homework.”
Over the past few decades, researchers from leading universities, including Duke, Penn State, Arizona and Stanford, have challenged the idea that there’s academic benefit in having children do homework, especially young children.
“Parents often make conclusions about the rigor in the classroom based on the homework their child receives,” says Schweitzer. “Often, teachers are putting these packets together to appease parents and to abide by tradition, while this busywork can breed a hatred of the classroom and education in children.”
The thing that Whittier teachers were most reluctant to give up was the idea of no longer requiring 30 minutes of reading each night.
Reading is still a priority for children, but one that teachers hope to encourage families to do on their own terms. “We want to see children form a love of reading,” says McCulloch. “We hope that families will make reading together at home a regular activity; kids reading for fun, parents reading to their kids, talking through what’s happening in the story.”
McCulloch’s point of view has been influenced by her teaching experiences over the past nine years; prior to Whittier, she spent time teaching in inner-city Chicago, Fairbanks, Alaska, and a Seattle-area private school. Like many of her peers, McCulloch came to the conclusion that homework — especially in elementary school — was not beneficial after years of working with students and parents in the different schools and seeing the universal frustrations.
“A lot the children who really struggle with homework are model students at school,” she says. “They put in so much energy and effort during the day, so when they get home they’re just burnt out and emotionally unavailable. They need time to rest, to play and to be with their families.”
This doesn’t mean learning stops in the classroom. As McCulloch points out, some of the most important lessons young minds can learn won’t happen in homework packets.
Whittier students are still able to check out books to bring home to read for pleasure. Teachers are exploring ways to communicate with parents the themes and topics they’re studying in class, so families can make connections at home, and they plan to provide families with strategies to support and promote authentic learning at home.
Schweitzer and McCulloch have been overwhelmed by the amount of positive response they’ve received from Whittier parents and students, as well as teachers at other elementary schools praising the decision. However, some parents have expressed concerns that the ‘no homework’ policy will prevent their older children from being fully prepared for middle school.
Schweitzer, who has worked in both elementary and middle schools, responds, “Children are learning a strong foundation of time management and prioritization while in the classroom, and as fifth-grade teachers, it is our responsibility to help teach those skills to prepare them for middle school and high school. We also need to let fifth-graders be fifth-graders,” she says. “And we also need to remember that sixth-grade teachers are also conscious of the fact that sixth grade is a big transition year, and they also use that year to help teach kids the skills they will need for the years to come.”
McCulloch adds, “Engaging in play and social situations are so important for their emotional growth and their development. Going to the store, comparing prices, learning about a grocery budget, these are real-life lessons that simply cannot be simulated in a classroom. Children participating in afterschool sports and activities are learning teamwork, leadership, negotiation skills, and crucial social skills.”
Whittier isn’t alone in ending homework assignments; Portland’s Cherry Park Elementary recently made the same announcement, and Schweitzer thinks it will become even more commonplace. “This aligns with what the research says is best, and I don’t see that changing,” says Schweitzer.