New York school abolishes homework. Does homework do any good?

A growing number of schools are doing away with homework. Some experts think it's a step in the right direction. 

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Xavier Cattelona works on homework in the room he shares with his brother in Hillsdale, New Jersey, in 2010.

One prominent homework abolitionist says that when the principal at P.S. 116 in Manhattan stopped assigning homework, instead encouraging students to do self-guided after-school activities with family, she “took a rare and tiny step toward common sense.”  

“The topic of homework has received a lot of attention lately, and the negative effects of homework have been well established,” principal Jane Hsu wrote in a letter sent home to parents last month, according to the website DNA Info. “They include: children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities and family time and, sadly, for many, loss of interest in learning.”

However, the letter also recommends limiting the time kids spend on TV, computers, and video games, and urged parents with concerns to speak to their children's teachers.

Author Alfie Kohn, of Boston, author of the book 'The Homework Myth,' agreed with the decision. “What is disturbing is that this makes headlines because all the research and evidence point to the fact that no elementary school in America should be making students work a second shift with homework because there are no proven benefits.”

“Homework is all pain and no gain,” Mr. Kohn says. He is also known for his blog which covers a range of education topics and talking points for both educators and parents.

He illustrates his point by talking about how it is often a common practice for elementary school teachers to tell students to “read for 20 minutes.”

“Telling kids how much and how long they have to read is an excellent strategy for making kids hate reading,” Kohn says. “Good teachers, their goal isn’t mindless compliance but rather tapping into the excitement and inherent interest a student has in reading.”

According to Kohn, in the 10 years since the publication of his book he has been swamped with email and letters from parents lamenting the amount of “mindless” “cookie cutter” homework that is sent home with young students nationwide.

Kohn urges principals to rethink standardized homework policies.

“Requiring teachers to give a certain number of minutes of homework every day, or to make assignments on the same schedule every week (for example, x minutes of math on Tuesdays and Thursdays) is a frank admission that homework isn’t justified by a given lesson, much less is it a response to what specific kids need at a specific time.” 

According to Kohn, “Such policies sacrifice thoughtful instruction in order to achieve predictability, and they manage to do a disservice not only to students but, when imposed from above, to teachers as well.”

He adds that a growing number of schools across the nation have contacted him to say they have now done away with traditional homework assignments.

This is often done in favor of allowing kids the free time to read and study as fits their interests. Parents are encouraged and enlisted by the schools in the process of getting kids interested in the subject matter they learn during classroom hours.

“The schools that have given up assigning homework report uniformly fabulous results,” Kohn says. “Still, it’s a minority position.”

In a blog post titled “Homework An unnecessary evil? … Surprising Findings From New Research” the author delves into published research which calls into question both the effectiveness and necessity of giving homework to students at both the elementary and middle school levels.

Hannah Sinha, head of a Manhattan Montessori School, one of a national string of private schools advocating that education be individualized, offers up a third perspective on the homework debate.

Ms. Sinha disagrees with the notion of abolishing homework, but suggests that it be reduced and tailored to the abilities and schedules of both the students and the parents who must assist them with its completion.

“I can’t imagine giving 35 children the same homework assignment. Education is half school and half home."

A running vote on the website Debate.org asks the question “Should schools abolish homework?” is currently running at 56-percent in favor to 44-percent against the abolition.

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