Massachusetts Schools Homework Policy

There are two words all students love to hear from their teacher: ‘no homework’.

A Massachusetts school is saying just that to students as they are returning to classes, but it’s not being done entirely to create extra time for after-school fun in the last few days of summer – it’s part of a bid to turn around less-than-stellar performance.

“At my school, it was like ‘go big or go home,’” said Jacqueline Glasheen, the principal of Kelly Full Service Community School in Holyoke. “We have to do something different.”

The kindergarten through eighth grade school in western Massachusetts is part of a public district that went into receivership in April 2015 after the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education labeled it chronically underperforming.

“My school in particular has made slight gains, but my kids are well below the proficiency line,” Glasheen told FoxNews.com. Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said last year that only one in three children in Holyoke public schools are reading at grade level, while Glasheen noted that 98 percent of the student body is enrolled in a free or assisted lunch program.

Now the school hopes that the no-homework policy, coupled with an extended, eight-hour school day – which for some of its younger students is two hours longer than past years – will raise performance in the classroom.

“We are doing this not because we don’t think kids need homework, but because we think we are giving kids very rigorous instruction for eight hours,” Glasheen told FoxNews.com. “We want them to hang out with families, have dinner, do extracurricular activities and go to bed.”

“We constantly hear from educators that they need more time”

- Jacqueline Reis, media relations coordinator for Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

In addition to extended recess periods, the school is intending to provide more targeted learning time for struggling students in the form of small group instruction and one-on-one sessions with teachers.

The changes made from the way instruction was handled in past years are key as to whether or not the program will succeed, according to Thomas Hatch, an associate professor of education and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at the Teachers College at Columbia University.

“The essential thing in all of this is not necessarily how much time you spend in school or out, but what you do with that time,” Hatch told FoxNews.com. “You can’t say just because your school day is longer your kids are going to perform better.”

A 2006 study published in the Review of Educational Research journal found that the average student in classes where homework was given would score 23 points higher on tests compared to students in classes where homework was not.

“If a district or school discards homework altogether, however, it will be throwing away a powerful instructional tool,” Robert Marzano, who leads an educational research company, wrote in an article for Educational Leadership magazine.

“Perhaps the most important advantage of homework is that it can enhance achievement by extending learning beyond the school day,” he added.

Students aren’t the only ones seeing changes this year, as teachers in Holyoke are facing an extended workday as well.

Glasheen says the switch into receivership “took away many of the powers of the local unions” regarding how the district would operate going forward, but added that the two union representatives on her staff were in favor of the no homework policy. Teachers will be getting extra compensation out of the school’s budget as part of a deal worked out with the state receiver, she added.

Hatch says the added time in the classroom could relieve some pressure teachers are facing.

“If students are doing better and they find out kids are making progress in ways they didn’t know before, that could go a long way in terms of helping out teacher burnout,” he told FoxNews.com.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it isn’t aware of other schools in receivership having a no-homework policy, but the shift to a longer day is “an effective ingredient for school turnaround.

“We constantly hear from educators that they need more time,” Jacqueline Reis, the department’s media relations coordinator, told FoxNews.com.

The Buffalo Academy of Scholars, a private school that already has a no-homework policy, says its structure where students complete assignments under supervision by teachers during the day is getting positive feedback from parents.

“Completing the work in school eliminates the frustration students and their families have when a student lacks the knowledge to complete the work without adult help, the challenge parents face when assigned work differs from the work they completed as students, and ultimately removes a major stressor for the student and family,” Executive Director Meg Keller-Cogan told FoxNews.com.

In Texas, a teacher at the Godley Elementary School in Johnson County wrote in a letter sent home to students that there would be no homework given in her class this year because "research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance." The note has since gone viral.

The changes at the Holyoke school this year will be evaluated next summer.

But for now, the switch to a no-homework policy will make it easier for parents as the school year begins.

“It’s one less thing off parents’ plates,” Glasheen said.

By James Vaznis and Nicole Fleming Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent 

ESSEX — When Charlie Virden started the fifth grade this year in this seaside town, the 10-year-old right away noticed a big difference, as if a heavy burden had been lifted.

“I can’t believe how light my backpack is!” he exclaimed to his parents.

That’s because Essex Elementary School, in a bold move sure to delight students and many parents, has stopped assigning homework. Worried the nightly assignments were robbing students of time that could be better spent playing or relaxing with family, educators called a temporary truce in the homework wars.

“In the preceding grades, they would be loaded with these binders for homework,” said David Virden, Charlie’s father, who worried it cut into family time.

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Essex joins a small but growing number of schools nationwide, including the Kelly Full Service Community School in Holyoke, that are doing away with homework. The idea is to let young students just be kids after school.

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It is also to reduce the potentially harmful pressure for students to excel.

“It’s great to know that these kids can spend their afternoons and evenings running around and playing, which is exactly what kids should be doing,” said Jonti Rodi, whose two sons attend Essex Elementary.

For decades, teachers and parents have fought a tug-of-war over homework, from the proper amount to whether assignments were meaningful or mere busywork. Consensus is almost impossible, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“If you walk into a meeting with parents any time after September, and ask them if students are receiving too much homework, half the hands will go up,” Scott said. “Then if you ask them if students are not receiving enough homework, the rest of the hands go up.”

But opposition to homework has intensified, Scott said, as school districts place a stronger emphasis on students’ well-being after years of ratcheting up the rigor of instruction to meet state standards.

At the Kelly School in Holyoke, which went into state receivership last year, teachers initially pushed back against the idea of banning homework, worried that students needed the practice.

But since the school day had been lengthened — by an hour for middle-school students and two hours for elementary students — educators were particularly worried about piling on too much work in the evening.

Principal Jacqueline Glasheen said she was persuaded to give a no-homework policy a try after surveys of parents, students, and teachers showed overwhelming support for the idea, as well as research that raised questions about homework’s effectiveness.

“We think more face time with a teacher who is providing high-quality instruction will get students further than homework,” she said.

Research on the impact of homework on student achievement in elementary schools has been scant and inconclusive.

Duke University researchers, who in 2006 conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of the issue, concluded that the correlation between homework and achievement was much stronger among secondary students than with those in elementary schools.

But the study, which reviewed more than 60 research studies on homework over a 15-year period, also warned that too much homework can be counterproductive.

Many schools follow what is known as the “10-minute rule,” which calls for 10 or 20 minutes of homework a night for first-graders, with an additional 10 minutes of nightly homework added in each successive grade.

But a study last year, published in the American Journal of Family Therapy, found that students in the early grades were receiving up to three times as much homework than is typically recommended.

“The side effects of homework are very destructive” because it can lead to anxiety and depression for students and parents alike, said Robert Pressman, an author of the study and the director of research at the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology in Rhode Island.

At Essex Elementary, which had been following the 10-minute rule, teachers had been debating informally for years about the value of the assignments and whether they were causing families too much stress.

Last year, the Manchester Essex Regional School District created a committee to look at the issue, which led to the trial program at Essex Elementary School.

Under the program, teachers are not sending students home with worksheets, math problems, and other traditional homework assignments. But they are strongly encouraging students to read at home every night, and will sometimes send students home with classroom projects to finish.

“Our hope is that students feel less pressure and have more time to engage in other pursuits and passions outside of school,” said Emily Dwyer, a first-grade teacher who served on the homework committee.

Superintendent Pam Beaudoin said the school district will decide at the end of the year whether to ban homework at other schools.

“It’s a deep dive for us,” she said. “I don’t know if a blanket approach is one that will fit all. We are going to start a conversation in each school.”

After school Monday, Ava Dennesen, 9, played with her younger brother outside their home, free from her usual homework burden. They climbed a tire swing, chased each other around the lawn in a game of tag, and conducted a mock swordfight.

As she starts fourth grade, Ava has been more at ease without homework, her mother, Amy Dennesen, said.

“She can be a kid,” said her mother. While not opposed to homework, Amy feels that it can be a bit intense for the younger grades when children are still “so, so little.”

Ava, who had math and reading homework almost every day last year, said she had mixed emotions when the school principal told the kids about the new policy.

“I thought, a little ‘yay!’” she said, “But I’m going to miss it, because I really like math.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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