Why one Massachusetts elementary school is banning homework

The Kelly Community School is banning homework this year, much to kids' delight. But will the trade-off – longer school days – pay off in the long run?

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A student goes through his homework at Phipps Neighborhoods Cornerstone Center at Soundview Houses on April 13, 2015 in Bronx, N.Y. Cornerstone is a free after school program where kids come to do homework and experience activities such as ballet and fencing. The Kelly Community School in Holyoke, Mass., has expanded the school day and eliminated homework in favor of enrichment classes instead this year.

It sounds like a dream for students – one school in Massachusetts has decided to ditch homework for the entire school year.

For students at the Kelly Elementary School in Holyoke, Mass., however, evenings of freedom will come with a price – an extended school day that some educators say won’t do them any good.

The Kelly School’s decision to extend the school day has some observers questioning what good a longer school day (even with no homework) can do for children who are already overextended. Holyoke's decision is just part of a larger nationwide discussion about relevance of homework to educational quality, a discussion exemplified this past week by one Texas teacher's viral decision to do away with homework for her second-grade class. 

“It is my opinion that the additional time in front of teachers will benefit students,” says Kelly Community School Principal Jacqueline Glasheen in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “The most impact in a student’s education is brought on by a teacher.”

The decision to extend the hours students are in school was mandated by the state, after the entire school district went into state receivership, or state custody over the schools, in 2015 because of low test scores and performance. For middle schoolers, says Ms. Glasheen, that means an extra hour tacked on to the end of the school day. But for elementary schoolers, the district added an hour at the beginning and end of the school day, changing the daily schedule from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

According to Glasheen, lengthening the school day allows the Kelly School to provide students with a variety of learning experiences, in and outside of a traditional classroom environment. The extra time will be used to give kids swimming lessons at a local YMCA, add enrichment hours, and provide additional classroom instruction.

Yet although all of those things sound good in theory, some education experts say that adding hours to the day is not enough.

Thomas Hatch, a professor of education at Columbia Universitys Teacher’s College, says extended days can be successful when there is a balance between academic work and extracurriculars.

“There are a lot of schools that are just extending school time,” Dr. Hatch tells the Monitor. “Maybe [the Holyoke schools] have reached a better balance between their extracurriculars and other activities.”

In practice, Holyoke’s schedule restructuring has given Kelly School students an additional four hours a week in enrichment classes, a benefit they would not have experienced under the old schedule. Students also get a 30-minute lunch break and two recesses that total 30 minutes each day. “Special” periods (art, music, and gym) have been extended from 40 minutes to 55 minutes.

What this means is that of the 10 hours that have been added to school instructional time each week, six-and-a-half of those hours will be devoted to enrichment or athletic pursuits. The other four-and-a-half hours will be additional academic instruction, or just under an hour per day.

Some education analysts, such as Alfie Kohn, the author of “The Homework Myth” and “The Case Against Standardized Testing,” say that extended days are less of an enrichment decision than an obvious front for schools seeking to boost their test scores because the additional school hours are intended to provide more classroom instruction to prepare for standardized tests.

This appears to be the approach in Holyoke. With the district in receivership, the state mandated additional hours of schooling as part of its recovery plan. The plan’s success will eventually be tested by scores on statewide achievement tests, as well as qualitative assessment.

“The larger problem here is the relentless push of children to raise test scores by making them spend increasing amounts of time on academics,” Mr. Kohn tells the Monitor. But he adds that “more time does not equal achievement, and there’s a cost to children’s development in other areas.”

Yet the Kelly School’s decision to abandon homework in exchange for longer school days indicates a desire to be humane in the face of longer classroom hours. The results of the school’s yearlong experiment will eventually be a data point in a much larger discussion about the merits of homework, particularly for elementary schoolers.

“As we built the fuller school day, we weighed the value of homework,” says Glasheen, who tells the Monitor that the school decided that outside activities were more important to overall development than out of classroom work, particularly at a time when many parents are unfamiliar with modern teaching concepts, such as those in Common Core math, and feel unable to help their children with their homework. 

Still, Kohn says, there’s an underlying problem with what is happening in many schools, including Holyoke, that cannot by remedied by abandoning homework.

“This is not a story about homework or even about longer school days,” Kohn says. “It is about how kids are sacrificed at the altar of test scores.... Standardized tests mostly measure two things: how wealthy or poor kids are, and how much time has been taken away from meaningful instruction.”

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