Some Schenectady students’ book bags have gotten a little lighter this year as their teachers have eliminated homework.
“I don’t get any, which is awesome,” said Schenectady High School sophomore Amanda Jabonaski. “Teachers don’t believe in it.”
Jabonaski said all her work is done in school, which is how she thinks it should be.
“You shouldn’t have to do homework outside of school. You should be able to rest and chill,” she said.
The merits of homework have been debated nationwide, and, like many education issues, there is an array of philosophies.
The Schenectady City School District is testing a homework-free initiative, according to Superintendent Laurence Spring. Spring said school officials are particularly trying it out on ninth graders, the group of students most at risk of dropping out if they fail the grade.
With only a 58 percent high school graduation rate, the district is looking for ways to retain students. Out-of-class assignments are treated as practice and only tests count in determining grades, according to school officials.
Some schools across the country have also implemented no-homework policies. In 2007, Grant Elementary School in Glenrock, Wyo., eliminated homework. The Helendale School District in California instituted a no-homework policy in 2009 for first- through eighth-graders.
Schenectady teachers have a great deal of autonomy in deciding how much homework they assign, how it’s graded and how much credit students should receive for it, according to Spring.
One reason for the experiment is that some research has shown homework is only valuable when a student already understands the material. The homework then reinforces those skills. If the student isn’t getting it, doing the homework may be counterproductive, Spring said.
“Before we give kids a bunch of stuff to do, we should make sure they’re reasonably good at it,” he said.
Another reason why it may not be fair to count homework toward student grades, Spring said, is the home environment. Some parents carve out a quiet space for their children to do their homework and make sure they complete assignments — even helping them, if necessary. They might also have access to a computer and the Internet.
Other children living in poverty or disruptive environments don’t have that quiet space, resources and parents who have the ability to lend a hand.
“Some kids are truly very much on their own to do their homework,” Spring said. “You’re really not grading these students’ knowledge and ability to do these things; you’re grading their level of support at home.”
That argument is backed by national education expert Alfie Kohn, author of several education books, including “The Homework Myth.”
“Those who have parents who have spare time or who are well-educated themselves can assist, whereas kids who don’t have that benefit fall farther behind,” he said.
Kohn pointed out that French President Francois Hollande is proposing to eliminate homework on the grounds that it exacerbates the achievement gap. Research fails to find any benefit to assigning homework to students before they are in high school, and even then, it is debatable, according to Kohn.
“The disadvantages of homework are clear — frustration, exhaustion, lack of time to pursue other interests, potential loss of interest in learning,” he said.
The nature of homework also changes as students progress through the grades, according to Spring. In kindergarten, homework is more about getting the parents engaged in their children’s learning. His daughter’s kindergarten homework might consist of reading a book with her mother or father and writing down the author’s name, what the title was, how much time they spent reading and who was the main character. Other assignments may involve practicing writing letters or drawing a picture of something they did.
His second grader has math problems to practice, as well as identifying continents on a map.
“It’s not like she’s got an hour’s worth of homework,” he said.
By the time students get to middle school, they often have homework in multiple subjects — perhaps 15 minutes per class, according to Spring. When they arrive at high school, the amount of homework varies depending on the course. That homework is less about worksheets and more about researching and writing papers and doing projects, Spring said.
“Students who are taking a very heavy load — some of our advanced academic courses — can end up with significant amounts of homework,” he said.
Junior Sabrina Ragnauth, 17, is one of those students. She is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program and says she has 1 to 2 hours of homework each night.
Although she doesn’t like doing it, she said it is beneficial or “you’re going to come to school the next day and forget everything you learned.”
Spring said another new approach being studied in Schenectady is “flipping the classroom,” where students learn the lesson outside of school, then receive assistance from teachers during class time. The Khan Academy has put this into practice by creating video mini-lessons on thousands of topics that are posted on the Internet. Students can log in and learn some of these basic principles, then get assistance in class.
Spring said some teachers are even taking the “home” out of homework and letting students complete assignments in school, where they have access to computers and help from teachers, if needed.
Doing away with the traditional take-home homework is an approach favored by Kim Bevill, owner of Colorado educational consulting firm Gray Matter. Bevill, a teacher for 14 years, said she would prefer to keep the work in class, where she can make sure students are doing it correctly.
She said traditional homework — such as filling out worksheets and solving word problems — are not effective.
“A majority of our thankless time goes into assessing homework that our kids slap together,” she said. “Our elementary school kids are doing a minimum of an hour or 2 hours a night in Colorado, all in the name of increasing performance, and there’s absolutely no research that supports it.”
Not everyone has the same approach. Bevill added that other countries — such as Japan — also don’t assign much homework. However, that doesn’t mean students are doing nothing after school.
“When they go home, they have parents that make them sit and read,” she said.
Among the new type of homework she would like to see assigned is for parents to make sure their children are playing a musical instrument. Research has shown students who play a musical instrument also take science, math, engineering and technology courses.
She said parents should make sure their children have time to play, which stimulates innovation and creativity.
Children should also be physically active, because studies have shown students who are fit perform better in school. Students should also be getting at least 9 hours of sleep a night, she said.
Parental involvement is key, and the family should be eating dinner together 5 days a week, according to Bevill. Parents should also try to get their children to read for pleasure, which will also improve their academic success.
“You’re trying to expose them to as many pieces of literature until you get your kids excited,” she said.
Other districts are sticking with traditional ways of dealing with homework. Joby Gifford, principal of Jefferson Elementary School in the Schalmont Central School District, said homework typically averages 10 minutes per grade level — about 10 minutes in kindergarten and first grade, 20 minutes in second grade and so on. That doesn’t include recreational reading, which he said the district hopes students are doing on their own.
Teachers have a great deal of flexibility in how they assign the work, Gifford said.
“There are some teachers that give out the homework on Monday night for a whole week, and that requires students to budget their time. There are some teachers that give out homework on a nightly basis,” he said.
Schalmont Superintendent Valerie Kelsey said homework is an important part of the academic experience.
“We only have the kids a short time in school,” she said. “Homework is a time to reinforce the skills. It’s a time for the student to work with the parent. The bar’s been raised. We all need to work together; kids need to work independently.”