Some high schools have homework-free weekends

Several high schools in Maryland have scheduled homework-free weekends  this fall. The Washington Post reports that no homework was assigned this weekend at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County. Last weekend Watkins Mill High School, also in Montgomery County, had a homework free weekend.

“Wootton High School in Rockville, which gave its students a homework-free weekend in September, offered sessions to help seniors with their college essays and provide information about the federal financial aid application,” Donna St. George reports. “The concept goes back to 2008.”

Nationally, dozens of schools have created occasional homework-free weekends as students take more advanced and honors classes and have become increasingly over-scheduled with other activities, said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who has worked with schools across the country on such efforts as part of a nonprofit called Challenge Success.

In response to the Post article, one comment from “webg” was, “This year MCPS reduced the school year from 40 weeks to 39 weeks but didn’t reduce the amount of work. The number of hours in school might be the same, but the amount of time left for doing homework and other tasks is reduced by a week.”

“ThinkTwiceWriteOnce” commented, “Homework is highly overrated, just ask Finland and note their academic outcomes. There IS a better way.”

More schools avoid assigning homework

Are we giving students enough time in school or not? If they do have a long enough school day, should teachers also assign homework? This question is especially relevant in elementary schools. Valerie Strauss recently wrote about an experiment in not giving homework in second grade:

Second-grade teachers at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Va., had an idea: Look at the research on how homework affects young students and do what it says.

They read studies done by Harris Cooper, a neuroscientist and Duke University psychology professor, and learned that he found no solid evidence that elementary schoolchildren benefit from academic homework. They hatched a plan to stop assigning it and only ask kids to read, which Cooper and other researchers have found to be useful for young children. Principal Harold Pellegreen gave them permission to go ahead — as long as they evaluated the impact by looking at test scores during the year.

Also, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Kelly Elementary School banned homework for all students this year after the district extended school by two hours a day. Now I would be interested in the reaction of parents in the schools which had two hours more in the school day and then still expected the students to lug home backpacks full of homework.

Baltimore County doesn’t give grades for most homework

Baltimore County won’t give grades for homework. A new grading policy took effect at the beginning of this school year on a trial basis, the Baltimore Sun reports. “Under the policy, explained in a 60-page document available on the county schools’ website, homework is not graded, teachers cannot give a student a failing grade lower than 50, and students who don’t perform well on a test or assignment can redo it to get a higher grade.”

Teachers will report behavior, effort, class participation and whether the student has done homework on the report card, but it will not be counted as part of the grade. Homework will be assigned but not graded. There are exceptions for longer assignments such as an English essay or a biology lab report, which will continue to be graded, White said.

Some parents excuse their children from homework

Too much homework? Some parents are just opting out. “The conversation about banning homework, especially for young children, appears to be growing in popularity, even among teachers themselves,” Amy Joyce reports. “When a second-grade teacher in Texas recently sent a letter home explaining that she no longer would give homework, the letter went viral. Most important to parents, studies show that homework for younger children doesn’t actually correlate with improved school performance, and in fact, can hinder learning.”

Some say that schools should assign less homework

Two Washington Post columnists recently reported on efforts to reform homework policies. Jay Matthews, in How to end homework for moms, cited guidelines from former Stuart High School principal Mel Riddle:

1. Homework should be considered independent practice and should not be assigned until teachers have conducted guided practice in class of the concepts and skills being learned.

2. Homework has to apply key learned concepts that already have been taught and practiced in class and should not be so overwhelming that it won’t be done. He presented research that indicated the ideal number of math problems in a homework assignment is just five.

Valerie Strauss reports that the California PTA adopted a resolution calling for homework that’s “reasonable, relevant, and reinforcing.”

Vicki Abeles, producer and co-director of the film Race to Nowhere, argues that homework “should be completely eliminated in the elementary grades and severely curtailed in middle and hgih school.”

Twenty minutes of recess should be a minimum, not a maximum

The Master Schedule proposed for Fairfax County elementary schools last week includes a provision to “provide twenty minutes of recess each day within the regular elementary schedule.”

It is good to see that Fairfax is preparing to provide more than the current 10 minutes per day allotted to recess. However, my impression is that the new 20-minute schedule for recess is both a minimum and a maximum amount of time. Is this correct, that 20 minutes is the maximum amount of time for recess? I hope this is clarified before the next work session on the proposed schedule.

I think it would be better to devise a schedule that allows up to 30 minutes per day for recess. So I hope the new recess policy specifies a recess period of between 20-30 minutes per day.

When First Lady Michelle Obama visited Hollin Meadows Elementary School four years ago, she supported the school’s policy of allowing 30 minutes for recess.  At the time, Hollin Meadows was one of 16 schools in Fairfax County that allowed students to stay in school for a full day on Mondays.  Therefore, the students had enough total time in school to be allowed more than 10 minutes of recess per day.

Here are the remarks  made by Ms. Consolla, a staff member at Hollin Meadows, during the First Lady’s visit  November 18, 2009:

….And our latest efforts have focused on recess.  And in a time when many schools are decreasing the amount of recess or even eliminating recess, we’ve actually extended it.  We went from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.  And I would love to say that the driving force was to lower childhood obesity or to increase physical activity — but it wasn’t; I’d be lying to you if I said that.  It was, again, the social/emotional needs of the children.

Because we know that when kids are engaged in productive free play they develop self-responsibility, they practice skills such as negotiating, they communicate with each other.  And this is critical to their academic success and to their healthy well being.  So we kind of back-doored with the physical fitness piece of this.

But it wasn’t just about adding 10 minutes to the recess time.  We looked at how the quality of the recess — and so what we did was we looked at activities that were inclusive and that would get those kids active for the 30 minutes.  So there’s no sitting on the sidelines and there’s no waiting your turn. It’s go, go, go.  The more running, the better.

Teachers cannot keep their children out of recess because they’d miss their homework or because they were misbehaving in class.  Recess is as important as reading and math and science and social studies.

Here is a question Mrs. Obama had for the principal of Hollin Meadows, Jon Gates:

MRS. OBAMA:  Well, a question, Jon, because Hollin Meadows, again, has its share of struggles.  You’ve got a pretty diverse population base.  You’re dealing with high-needs kids.  Yet you’ve managed to find the time with the current resources to add recess — and that’s something that you hear; or at least I’ve heard as a mother, that it’s not done because there’s no time in the curriculum, because of testing and other requirements — but you’ve managed to do it in addition to adding nutrition education into the curriculum.

So I guess one question is how have you managed to do what many others have said is impossible to do under the current structure?

PRINCIPAL GATES:  Well, I think that in many ways some of what we’ve done is counterintuitive.  You think, well, if we need more time for the academics then we should cut out something like recess.  But what we know is that when a child has had a chance to be physically active, when they’ve had a chance to have free choice, that those things then — it pays off when they come back into the classroom and they’re ready to attend, they’re ready to learn.

Further support for 20 minutes of recess as a minimum rather than a maximum was recently expressed by the School Health Advisory Committee (SHAC).  Its Final Report 2013-14  was presented to the Fairfax County School Board May 29. SHAC recommends:

A minimum of 20 minutes of supervised recess per day will be provided to all elementary school students, during which physical activity is encouraged. Recess will be scheduled before lunch whenever possible. In larger schools where recess before lunch cannot currently be provided to all students on the same day, classes will rotate recess times equally, before and after lunch throughout the year.

Garza listens to supporters of full-day Mondays

The final stop of Superintendent Karen Garza’s listening tour of Fairfax County was held at Lake Braddock Secondary School February 24. The Connection reports that half-day Mondays and the length of school days were among the concerns brought up by parents:

Lisa Daniel said at the meeting that she is concerned with instructional time in schools, especially due to standardized testing pressures.

“We’re trying to squeeze too much into too little time,” Daniel said of half-day Mondays for elementary school students in Fairfax County.

Michele Menapace, a former president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, also attended the meeting and reports that four of the 21 speakers supported full-day Mondays. “One of the speakers in favor of restoring full-day Mondays was a teacher, who said only 1 Monday a month is free for teacher planning time.  The other 3 Mondays are consumed by meetings or mandated activities that co-opt planning.”

Michele also reports that five of the speakers supported later start times and two speakers supported “more recess, less homework and/or more free play to encourage socialization, mediation, etc. (not to mention reducing stress.

“The other topics mentioned by more than one speaker:  less testing, improved autism instruction & better training for autism teachers, the school budget & CIP data.”

Standards of Accreditation and the school day and school year

It seems clear to me that Virginia has a standard for the school day that applies to all public schools and it doesn’t matter whether the schools calculate the standard school year as 990 hours or 180 days. Here are some citations from the Standards of Accreditation:

“Standard school day” means a calendar day that averages at least five and one-half instructional hours for students in grades 1 through 12, excluding breaks for meals and recess, and a minimum of three instructional hours for students in kindergarten. (p. 4).

“Standard school year” means a school year of at least 180 teaching days or a total of at least 990 teaching hours per year. (p. 4)

8 VAC 20-131-150. Standard school year and school day.

A. The standard school year shall be 180 instructional days. The standard school day for students in grades 1 through 12 shall average at least 5-1/2 instructional hours, excluding breaks for meals and recess, and a minimum of three hours for kindergarten.

B. All students in grades 1 through 12 shall maintain a full day schedule of classes (5-1/2 hours), unless a waiver is granted in accordance with policies defined by the local school board. (p. 35)

Here is an excerpt from the Guidance Document Governing Certain Provisions of the Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in  Virginia 8 VAC 20-131:

STANDARD: 8 VAC 20-131-150. Standard School Year and School Day (ADOPTED: October 26, 2006)

  1. A.  The standard school year shall be 180 instructional days. The standard school day for students in grades 1 through 12 shall average at least 5-1/2 instructional hours, excluding breaks for meals and recess, and a minimum of three hours for kindergarten.

Guidance

Section 22.1-79.1 of the Code of Virginia states the following: “C. Individual schools may propose, and local school boards may approve, pursuant to guidelines developed by the Board of Education, alternative school schedule plans providing for the operation of schools on a four-day weekly calendar, so long as a minimum of 990 hours of instructional time is provided for grades one through twelve and 540 hours for kindergarten. No alternative plan that reduces the instructional time in the core academics of English, mathematics, social studies, and science shall be approved.”

The Board of Education is not required to approve an alternative schedule.  Local school boards shall ensure that the minimum instructional day shall be at least five and one half instructional hours for grades one through twelve and a minimum instructional day of three hours for kindergarten. In addition, the instructional hour requirements in the four academic areas as outlined in 8 VAC 20-131-80, 8 VAC 20-131-90 and 8 VAC 20-131-110 must be met. (p. 24)

KIPP students show significant improvement

A Washington Post editorial notes that a new study shows that students in KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools “showed significantly greater learning gains in math, reading, science and social studies than did their peers in traditional public schools.”

What is different is a high-intensity approach to learning in which KIPP students are in school longer (an average of 9 hours a day, for 192 days a year, compared with 6.6 hours per day, for 180 days, for traditional schools) and spend an additional 35 to 53 minutes on homework each night. Whether these methods can be adopted by traditional public schools is unclear; even KIPP officials acknowledge the difficulty of successfully ramping up operations. But it should be equally difficult to turn a blind eye to this study and not consider the possibilities its findings offer other children.

Some schools limit or eliminate homework

Lisa Gartner, writing in The Washington Examiner, reports that at Gaithersburg Elementary School, students are asked to read every night; however, they are not given homework. This year, this Montgomery County school will also assign monthly projects in math or science; however, the projects won’t be graded.

The Examiner article points out that some educators now question the rough standard of 10 minutes of homework per grade level per day that many school systems follow. Gartner notes that the University of Sydney in Australia recently published a study finding that homework added no real benefit to elementary-level learning but paid off for high school juniors and seniors.

Lucy Gunter, the Fairfax County School Board’s student representative, says, “Limiting homework time should be  a goal of this board.”

At the school board’s Instruction work session held July 19, the homework policies for Cunningham Park Elementary School and South Lakes High School were presented. Here are the two policies:

Cunningham Park Elementary School
Homework Policy

At Cunningham Park Elementary, we believe:

  • Children shall engage in homework for the purpose of pre-learning, checking for understanding, or practice.
  • Children shall have homework they can complete without help.
  • Children shall have a balanced life including academics, social, emotional, and physical activities.
  • Having homework students are able to complete on their own provides them with a positive self concept and a sense of self efficacy. [Read more…]