The cover story for Newsday, July 8, 2018, was entitled Debate on Homework: Parents and Educators Across LI React to Long Beach Decision to Eliminate Traditional Studies. I was very interested to see how Long Beach was going to roll out their no-homework policy for kindergarten through third grade and to understand why they want to do away with homework. Was it because the type of homework children received was being perceived as busy work? Or perhaps the homework being sent home was the kind of work that really should be taught in school? To my surprise, the reason given for abolishing homework was to have children “read” more at home. Now this sounds reasonable since reading is pivotal to success in every other subject, but I wonder how will this actually look? The school district also states it wants to see children play after school and interact with their parents through authentic learning opportunities. Again, this sounds reasonable based on the importance of play in early childhood. Who doesn’t want to see children engaged with their parents in activities such as “working on a puzzle together or doing a craft or tending a garden or going to the library?” According to Linda Kraemer, an education professor at Molloy College, “There are tons of opportunities for learning that don’t look like homework.” The superintendent of Long Beach, Jennifer Gallagher, said in a letter to parents she wants every family to WRaP: WONDER, READ, and PLAY. I am not sure what “wonder” would look like – I guess she means to encourage curiosity. In any event, as I read the article, I “wondered” about accountability, the practical aspects of abolishing homework, and who actually benefits from this policy.
Having all children read more at home is easy to say but not so easy to accomplish. Just like some children pretend-read in school during the “Drop Everything and Read” time, better known as DEAR time, many children will continue this charade at home. And this doesn’t even account for the 20% of children who have difficulty reading and the more than 60% of students who are not functioning at grade level proficiency. Even if they spend more time with books at home, the non-readers will likely be using inefficient strategies such as whole-word guessing and relying on context cues to try to “word-solve” on their own. If the beginner readers are given easy, leveled books that contain lots of pictures and predictable, repetitive text to support their “reading,” how will the parents or teachers know if the children are actually reading or merely taking a “picture walk” to get the gist or figure out the plot? If they are told in school to skip words they don’t know and use meaning cues to read unknown words, won’t they continue to avoid reading words they have not memorized? How will this hoped-for daily reading help them become independent readers if they use books that do not require decoding? Poor practice will just make these poor habits permanent in long-term memory and not much will be gained for the weaker students. On the other hand, the students who can already read will get stronger, further widening the achievement gap.
Long Beach and other districts that follow a no-homework protocol assume that parents will be home with children after school, ready to play and interact with them. Many families with two working parents or single parents working two or three jobs do not have the time or energy to be creative problem-solvers with their children. It is noble to make play a priority, and many districts, such as Patchogue-Medford, have implemented changes to accommodate more time for movement, but it is entirely different to expect all children to have families and caregivers able to enrich their lives with wonder. The superintendent of Patchogue-Medford, Michael Hynes, believes it is an “amazing step,” and “most important, is what’s best for children.” But is this best for children? It depends on our definition of homework. Homework should be a time to consolidate learning and review what was learned during the school day. It should not be hours spent on busy work or work that was not taught in class. It should also never be used as a punishment. For many children, this much-needed practice time to see if they can independently do the work allows parents to monitor what their children are doing in school and, if necessary, intervene. Assignments that are carefully chosen and used judiciously will still allow for plenty of time to “WRaP.”
So, who benefits from a no-homework policy? I am sure teachers are very pleased not to have to worry about planning or marking homework. It takes away some of the pressure to have to assign work and stay on top of it. The principal should be relieved as well; checking on quality and quantity of assignments is usually the responsibility of the building administrator. And finally, parents can come home from work without the added pressure of their children’s homework. This is a win-win-win for everyone, except for the children who really need structure in learning and could use this much-needed time to review.
Faith Borkowsky, Founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties. Her book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, is available on Amazon and B&N. See information on her book and an interview with Ms. Borkowsky: https://highfiveliteracy.com/book/