Elementary school students in one Florida school district are going to find a welcome new — but controversial — policy when they return to school for the 2017-2018 school year next month: no traditional homework.
They are being asked to do one thing to help them academically: Read for 20 minutes a night.
Heidi Maier, the new superintendent of the 42,000-student Marion County public school district in Florida, said in an interview that she made the decision based on solid research about what works best in improving academic achievement in students.
(That may seem like something of a no-brainer, but in the world of education, policymakers are notorious for making a great deal of policy without knowing and/or caring about what the best research shows.)
The policy will apply to all elementary school students in the district — about 20,000 — but not to middle or high school students. Maier, an expert on reading acquisition who started running Marion schools in November after serving as lead professor of teacher education at the College of Central Florida, said she is basing her decision on research showing that traditional homework in the early years does not boost academic performance but reading — and reading aloud — does.
[Odds stacked against reading for pleasure]
An often-cited meta-analysis of research on the subject, published in 2006, found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement and has only a modest effect on older students in terms of improving academic performance. While homework has long been one of the most contentious issues in K-12 education, there does not exist any experimental study of the possible effects of assigning homework.
But experts say research is clear on the benefits of daily reading, with students picking their own books, reading aloud and listening to a fluent adult reader.
Maier cited the work of Richard Allington, an expert on reading acquisition, who has researched and written extensively on how to teach students to read.
“The quality of homework assigned is so poor that simply getting kids to read replacing homework with self-selected reading was a more powerful alternative,” Allington said in an email. “Maybe some kinds of homework might raise achievement but if so that type of homework is uncommon in U.S. schools.”
Maier said that students would be allowed to select their own reading material and would get help from teachers and school libraries. For those children who have no adult at home to help them read — the same students who had no adult at home to help them with their traditional homework — volunteers, audiobooks and other resources will be made available.
Maier said that she has received feedback from parents and teachers, most of whom applaud the decision but some who are skeptical. “We need to make our message clear and explain why this is beneficial,” she said, adding that town halls for parents and others will be held soon.
Homework has been a hot-button issue for educators and families for more than a century. In the late 1800s, a Civil War hero turned Boston school board member, Francis Walker, thought math homework harmed children’s health and pushed the panel to ban it as part of a nationwide anti-homework fever. The Ladies’ Home Journal called homework “barbarous,” and many educators said it caused nervous conditions and heart disease in children who would benefit from playing outside instead.
Homework, of course, came to have importance in education — with kids as young as 3 and 4 now getting some — and proponents now say it helps cement information into kids’ memories and teach them to establish routines.
Marion County will be joining a small group of schools and districts whose leaders have decided to trade traditional homework for daily reading in the elementary school grades. While there are no definitive results, educators report that test scores and other learning has not suffered.
What happened when one school banned homework — and asked kids to read and play instead
A new wrinkle in the research about the real value of homework
A TIMSS (Trends in Math and Science Study) survey, conducted in 2007, revealed that fourth grader students in countries that set below average levels of homework were more academically successful in math and science than those in countries that set above average levels. In Japan – ranked second in the results table – only three percent of students reported a particularly heavy workload of over three hours a night while a staggering 20 percent of Dutch students – whose scores were in the international top 10 – claimed to do no homework whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to countries like Greece and Thailand, where higher workloads have done nothing to rectify lower scores.
These results are not alone in debunking the myth that homework in any way benefits the academic performance of elementary students. So why, we should ask, are policymakers and educators so hell-bent on enforcing it? In his 2006 publication The Homework Myth, prolific author and outspoken critic of the current educational system Alfie Kohn set out a well argued and evidentially attested thesis saying that the purpose of homework is twofold. Firstly it’s meant to instill an air of competitiveness in children, not only within the physical classroom, but, because of the quantitatively driven approach of policy experts, within the global classroom – against China, Singapore and Finland, for example. Secondly, homework is used as a weapon to combat adults’ inherent mistrust of children, keeping them busy so they don’t run riot. This latter suggestion may baffle belief, but a concerned parent’s response to the suggestion that homework be banned (‘we have to have homework… otherwise the kids won’t have structure and they will just come home and fool around’) attests to its current orthodoxy.
The thing about homework is that is doesn’t work. As shown by numerous studies, it brings no educational benefits, acts as a root cause of conflict between children, parents and teachers and has detrimental mental and physical effects on children that, by the fact that they’re avoidable, are absolutely inexcusable. Children are not the only ones to fear the evils of homework though. Teachers, under increasing amounts of pressure to meet targets, cover curricula and achieve grades, are incentivized to set more and more of it and grade more and more of it; something that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t so aware of its utter pointlessness.
The most important problem, however, is that homework is more closely associated with punishment than with pleasure. Made to be completed during time that should be spent engaging in creative, playful and recreational pursuits, homework doesn’t even have the courtesy to be enjoyable by nature – as is completely apparent from my students’ faces when I fulfill my duties to the school in setting it for them. And such truth is not surprising when you consider that for homework to be enjoyable, it would have to be everything it’s not: optional instead of mandatory, creative rather than prescribed and objectively appreciated instead of subjectively assessed. Improvement to our children’s education, until we redefine what our definition of education really is, can only be achieved through one thing, its removal.