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Menlo Park banning homework

Original post made by PAUSD Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Feb 27, 2007

One elementary school in Menlo Park has banned conventional homework. How would that wash here. I hate being homework police for my kids, but even worse, I hate some of the projects my kids have to do. I am not a crafts person, but what is the value of making a model of a mission? Certainly nothing because generally it is the parents doing the work. And as for science fair, I certainly see no merit in timing how long the flavor of various brands of gum last (this is when the students do it themselves, rather than the parent).

The worst example of this was when my son and a friend spent hours with an electronics kit, learning all about transistors, etc. and following instructions made a device for a science project with flashing lights and bells. They unfortunately got a very poor grade for this as the device "had no scientific purpose". The whole point as far as I was concerne was what they learned in the process, not how scientific the results were. Unfortunately, the teacher did not see it this way and the grade stood. It proves to me that the education value of homework is not what it should be.

Comments (26)

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 27, 2007 at 10:29 am

Now if they add study halls where there is a real insistance on study, perhaps the backpacks that are generating a surge of Chiropractor employment can be eliminated, too.

Posted by Jay
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 27, 2007 at 1:14 pm

I am all in favor of getting rid of the craft assignments that continue into the seventh grade. I am hoping they won't in the eighth.

But, eliminating homework is crazy. American schools already have less days of instruction, and less hours, than the rest of the world.

Posted by k
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 27, 2007 at 2:26 pm

I heard about this briefly yesterday on one of the news radio stations - they mentioned Menlo Park and ALSO, oddly, I thought I heard them say it applied to Palo Alto (speaking rather generally of Palo Alto, perhaps making it sound like PAUSD was stopping all homework - though "PAUSD" was not mentioned!), though they also specifically named a school I have never heard of - I don't recall the name - as one stopping homework!

I can tell you at the high school level in PAUSD they have 40 lb backpacks (if they are taking an academic course of study) and they get plenty of homework. I don't know what the radio listeners made of this news story (if it was KGO people all over would have heard it), but they may have gotten the wrong impression of Palo Alto!

It's really hard to debate the value of homework because whether it's valuable depends on so many factors: the student's needs, the teacher's style and methods, the course, the subject matter, the potential for getting solid practice and drill without overkill, the potential for being creative, etc. I would never support getting rid of homework entirely.

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 27, 2007 at 4:36 pm

I remember having to revisit the entire K-12 curriculum as my kids went through school - a pure exercise in boredom, releived only ny the fact that I knew I was helping my children, and having an opportunity to interact with them. In a real sense, I felt that their homework was my homework. Something is wrong with this picture.

There is too much emphasis on pure reading, writing and mathematics. What about social skills? How about interpersonal skills, and intrapersonal skills? What about musical, spatial, and kinesthetic intelligence? What happened to physical education? We're putting an absurd amount of pressure on our kids, while emphasizing things that are only *part* of the skill set that they'll need to thrive in a complex world. I suggest a good review of the ideas of Howard Gardiner
Web Link

For starters, with a bit of added whimsy, I think we should integrate homework with household needs:

1) Learn weights, numbers, arithmetic, and measures as your kid measures out laundry detergent, dish-washing liquid, etc, as s/he performs daily household chores.

2) Teach how to reading and conversation through daily assignments that ask the child to read something if her choosing, and discuss it with parents, at the dinner table, after which the child will help with clean up.

3) Teach childrenn how to read nutrition labels on everything they eat (at least the first time) - have them write or report orally on what in the food they consumed was good for them, and/or bad for them, and why.

4) Encourage outdoor play - structured and unstructured. The more, the better.

5) Encourage the use of gaming, but try to make it a *social* experience. Kids shut up in their room for hours with their Wii cannot be a good thing for developing social skills, long term.

Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 27, 2007 at 9:23 pm

I thought Addison was considering some sort of homework limitation.

Ohlone doesn't have traditional homework. Work that's not completed goes home and in the younger grades, books are taken home to read, but no homework is given. So far, my child seems to take what's learned in school and then creates projects at home that reflect what's been taught. Don't know if it will last, but if it does, I'll have one self-motivated child.

Homework seems to have limited use in grade school. With bright kids, it's counterproductive if the child's learned the skill as it makes them inclined to tune out.

Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 27, 2007 at 9:26 pm

Congratulations to the principal at Oak Knoll. I hope his actions have a ripple effect over to Palo Alto. I just heard Denise Pope (author of "Doing School") speak tonight. She said that in a meta analysis of 166 studies of homework in elementary school there was almost no correlation between homework and academic achievement. There is a correlation in middle and high school but it disappears after you are doing more than one hour a night.

Homework eats into family time and into children’s opportunity to follow their own passions. Pope cited studies that show that children who have time for unstructured play (instead of having their after-school time filled with planned activities and homework) are more creative, better problem solvers and more self reliant. These are the sort of children we need, not robo-students who are great at acing tests but can’t think their way out of a paper bag.

We only need to look within our own school district to see that this can work – Ohlone has a no homework policy and their students do as well as students from the other elementary schools academically in middle and high school and beyond.

The Ohlone practice, as I understand it is to expect a certain amount of work from children. If they want to goof off in class they can, but they need to complete the work. So the child can give herself homework, but only as a way of making up for what she didn’t get done when she had the opportunity in school. That fosters the child’s sense of responsibility for their own education early on as well as affording her a chance to know, and manage, her own learning practices.

I hope the entire PAUSD adopts this practice. Children will still achieve, but be less stressed, have better study habits and have more time for the invaluable learning that happens during unstructured play because of it.

Posted by Wolf
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 28, 2007 at 12:04 am

It would be nice to get some reference to that meta analysis claiming no correlation. My understanding is that there is a decent correlation between homework and achievement. I can understand that there is no significant impact in very early grades (say up to grade 2) but it seems unreasonable that there is no correlation above that, or that 1 hour is generally enough. The time really depends on the subject matter and the student habits and skills. All this not to say that some -- possibly significant, depending on the teacher -- amount of homework is not a simple busywork. I have seen plenty of garbage homework in Palo Alto over the years. But good and sustained homework is important both for learning sufficient material and for study skills. Let's have the reference please.

Posted by Name
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 28, 2007 at 9:40 am

I'm a parent at Oak Knoll, and I can tell you that the recent news reports about banning homework are inaccurate. Menlo Park has not banned homework. Principal Ackerman has taken some iniative this year to reign in homework loads that were becoming excessive, but there has never been any direction to eliminate homework altogether.

Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 28, 2007 at 9:53 am

Wolf -- I'm going to email Denise Clark Pope today to try and get that reference.

In the meantime you might be interested in the following article published recently in the Wall Street Journal under the headline "Schools Turn Down the Heat on Homework." You can see it here without a WSJ subscription Web Link

One particuarly relevant quote: "The 2003 Third International Study of Mathematics and Sciences, by Dr. David P. Baker and Dr. Gerald K. LeTendre at Penn State University, which collected a large amount of data from schools in 41 nations, shows that many countries with the highest scoring students, such as Japan, the Czech Republic and Denmark, have teachers who give little homework. Countries with very low average scores, like Thailand, Greece and Iran, have teachers who assign a great deal of homework."

My main point is twofold: that we're underestimating the learning that goes on (and needs to go on) outside of formal academic schooling. There's a cost to children when we fill up their days only with school work and adult-plannned activities - especially in elementary school.

The other point is that the way we do it now doesn't do our children (i.e kids in high-pressure, high-achieving school districts) any favors. According to Pope, around 50% of all UC students currently require remedial math and english teaching when they enter the school (yes, half!). This is at institutions that take only students with the very best SAT scores in the state (i.e. the very highest achievers in math and english!).

What's the disconnect here? Pope suggests that the problem is retention. What our children are good at is cramming information for exams which they promptly forget. We need a better system that teaches them real skills of reasoning and composition -- one that isn't about the amount of work you cram into a day, but which takes the time to really teach you something.

As you prepare to go to college, I think homework is a fine thing. For elementary schools, I'd like to see the entire PAUSD adopt Ohlone's policy -- my understanding is that the children are better, not worse off, for it.

Posted by Palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 28, 2007 at 11:52 am

While I think some homework is valid (reinforcing math skills, learning how to do research) much of what my two children receive is busy work. How does drawing a picture help you learn? Coloring vocabulary cards for a high school French class? Building a model of a PA landmark? Alphabetizing spelling words? Many projects seem to happen so the teacher has nice things to display in the classroom as opposed to a project that teaches.

I would like teachers to give thoughtful, relevant homework - and perhaps actually do the work before they assign it (it often takes MUCH longer than the teacher anticipates.)

I have also found that teachers with school age or older children give relevant, time appropriate homework more often than those without children. (Perhaps all teachers should be required to help a few kids with homework as part of their training.)

Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 28, 2007 at 12:00 pm

Just wanted to quote Principal David Ackerman of Oak Knoll Elementary:

"The preponderance of research clearly shows that homework for elementary students does not make a difference in student achievement. . . . Even the most ardent supporters of homework have only been able to produce evidence of associative rather than causal relationships."

And this:

"In addition, it is not surprising that there is no research that demonstrates that homework increases a child's level of understanding, improves their attitude toward school or inspires a love of learning."

True, he's not got rid of homework completely. But he's heading in the right direction, surely. Can we hope Palo Alto schools will do the same, or better?

Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 28, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Wolf -- try Duke professor of education Harris Cooper in his book, The Battle for Homework. He's pretty much the expert when it comes to the effects of homework on achievement, it seems.

Here's a quote from Slate's coverage of the homework issue at Web Link The story is well worth a read.

"In The Battle Over Homework, Cooper has crunched the numbers on dozens of studies of homework for students of all ages. Looking across all the studies is supposed to offer a fairly accurate picture even though the science behind some of them is sketchy. For elementary-school students, Cooper found that "the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement … hovered around zero." "

The article notes that Cooper continues to support the 'ten minute rule' (i.e. allotting ten minutes per grade level per night up to a maximum of 2 hrs at high school) -- but he did, after all, invent that rule so he's not a neutral party.

Maybe an hour a night in middle school and two hours at high school is justifiable. But when his own research shows no impact at elementary (and takes time from things that children need to be doing otherwise, like playing), then I think we need to ditch the 10 minute rule for the first five years.

Posted by Wolf
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 28, 2007 at 11:44 pm

Simon - I'm not ignoring you, but I'm busy for couple of days so this will have to wait.

Posted by Euro Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2007 at 8:09 pm

As far as the homework I see from my children, there is very little value in any of the homework until high school.

From my own school days, homework came in two categories. The first was memorisation, poetry, Shakespeare speeches, etc. and pretty useless. The second category was written work, usually essay type answers to questions for most subjects. The value of this homework was not in the homework itself necessarily, but in the fact that I had to correct all my mistakes. Any spelling mistakes had to be written three times each at the bottom of the homework and any other mistakes, e.g. sentences that did not explain my thoughts well, incorrect information, etc. all had to be re-written. This all had to be done and the homework handed in again at the beginning of the next class with that teacher and if the corrections were done well, it would increase the grade and often this made the difference from a B+ to A- which made it worth doing.

I never see my children reviewing old homework and putting right what the teacher suggested. This means that it is not only not helping the student, but wasting the teacher's time if any comments are not even acknowledged. I would like to see homework really being used as a teaching tool not just a method to grade. Otherwise, there seems to be very little value to the homework.

I agree that most of the project orientated homework is pointless, particularly when it is so often the parents' work rather than the student's. I have actually had my older child paying my younger child with either money or candy to do things like coloring homework. Now that does teach an interesting lesson, although I am sure not one the teacher intended.

Posted by Palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2007 at 4:38 pm

It seems like most parents are on the same page - how do we get the schools to agree?

Posted by A PARENT
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 5, 2007 at 9:07 pm


Posted by Wolf
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 5, 2007 at 9:22 pm


I apologize for the time lag.

Cooper is indeed the recognized expert in the US. However, neither the Slate reporter, nor Alfie Kohn whom she was quoting, did justice to what Cooper is actually saying.

Slate quoted Cooper saying that "the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement [in elementary grades] … hovered around zero." Alfie Kohn summarized his findings on the issue in Phi Delta Kappan of 9/2006 Web Link where he says that “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.” Yet what Cooper says is much more nuanced. Kohn quote is taken from the 1989 (first) edition, and it is not repeated in the second (2001) or third (2006) editions as Cooper studied the subject more. Yet Kohn hides this fact in a footnote. The fact is that there are very few good studies of homework in elementary grades, but this that exist do show a small positive correlation. The following is what Cooper chose to highlight in his latest edition as the summary of his finding on this topic:

"With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically different from zero. […] For high school students … the effect of homework can be impressive. Indeed, relative to other instructional techniques, homework can produce an above-average positive effect on adolescents’ performance in school." [Summary, p37]

This is a far cry from "no correlation." Kohn also attacks Cooper’s findings that where correlation exists, it is only for what Kohn implies are simple-minded unit tests. Yet this is what Cooper actually has to say on those "unit tests.":

"Casual model studies provide a picture of the positive effect of homework on achievement that is consistent with the experimental evidence. Furthermore, these studies suggest that the findings of the experimental studies may be more widely applicable because they used cumulative and broader measures of achievement and used students much more representative of the range of student types." (emphasis in original, p. 25)

Maybe the best is to summarize Cooper’s findings in his own words, from an op-ed piece he penned: Web Link

"The homework question is best answered by comparing students who are assigned homework with students assigned no homework but who are similar in other ways. The results of such studies suggest that homework can improve students’ scores on the class tests that come at the end of a topic. Students assigned homework in 2nd grade did better on math, 3rd and 4th graders did better on English skills and vocabulary, 5th graders on social studies, 9th through 12th graders on American history, and 12th graders on Shakespeare."

Alfie Kohn has not seen yet a test he likes, and from his attack on homework it seems there is no homework he likes either. A better review of the homework issue than the Slate one was written by Jay Mathews, one of the few educational reporters still worth their name, in Nov. 21, 2006 Washington Post: Web Link

Homework can be the great equalizer for kids who didn’t get it in class in the first time – they have a chance to practice and catch up at their leisure. There is no question, however, that often homework is given in thoughtless and haphazard way, and it rarely allows the kid to practice as much as s/he needs but no more. Some thought should be given to how to limit such excesses.

Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 5, 2007 at 10:35 pm

Thanks, Wolf, for your considered response. I'm going to check out your references as soon as I have a chance. I still think we need to weigh the costs to family life and the loss of time for valuable unstructured play against the gains you are citing – especially in the early years. But I agree with you that the chance to catch up is valuable, too. I also agree that if homework can be thoughtfully structured within a school and carefully managed so as not to be 'busy work,' it would be a lot more acceptable. Homework like that, and which stuck to the ten minute rule, I could probably live with.

In a sense it's an extension of what I understand to be the Ohlone model. At Ohlone your homework is to finish the work you otherwise should have completed in school. Similarly, I'd like to see a model where your homework is what you need to bring you up to speed with the rest of the class. So homework would be differentiated rather than predetermined. It’s more work for the teacher, but the educational outcomes ought to be superior – you leave no child behind, so to speak, but you also minimize the costs (of missing free time to find and follow your passions, of time with family, of burn out at an early age) to children who don’t need to be doing it.

Maybe this is already common in PAUSD -- I'd be curious to hear from any parents, teachers or students whether that is the case.

Posted by Palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 6, 2007 at 12:10 pm

I have found there to be very little differentiated homework in PA with the possible exception of spelling. Almost all homework is assigned to the whole class, at least half is busy work (why are our kids coloring in HS?). Homework should either be something which reinforces a skill you have not yet gotten or challenges you in a way you need to be challenged. Ask most kids why they are assigned homework and if they see any value in it - not that they shouldn't be required to do it, but it is much easier to perform a task if you see its value.

Posted by Get a Grip
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2007 at 1:45 pm

There are a couple very important skills that are reinforced by homework, that only homework can provide:

1. The ability to do homework. Well, if you don't think that's a skill, try getting to middle school or high school or college without having established a good homework habit.

2. The ability of parents to get involved in child's learning. I am a working mom - if it weren't for homework I'd have ABSOLUTELY NO OTHER WAY to engage in what my child is learning at school. And when my child is struggling with something, I have found that my spin, being different than the teacher's spin, is often enough to jiggle something loose that little brain, that the teacher didn't quite reach. Didn't that ever happen to you - you didn't "get it" at school, but the way your mom showed you made sense? (sometimes vice versa! and sometimes it takes Mom and Dad, and three or four tries!) It takes a village!

3. The ability of a kid to manage time and organize self, project and deliverables. My children's teachers, starting all the way back at first grade, have all given the kids homework in different methods. Some hand out a small item each night (one night at a time) reinforcing the habit of sitting down a the table with a pencil even if for at least a little bit each night. Some hand out a packet in the beginning of the week, with a checklist, so the child learns the habit of working through that list as the week progresses and the idea of keeping up (doing a little each night) to keep organized and not get behind. As you progress, the kid is hit with more open ended projects, reports, etc., that HAVE to be accomplished in steps. And some things - particulary technology related things in this district - they HAVE to get at home! They just don't get enough internet time, or Word or Excel training in school. All these forms of homework serve the kids well in terms of organizing themselves, and creating building blocks (successful habits they'll NEED in the future.)

I always thought the science fair project in elementary schools was sort of dumb, because really, 'what kind of bubble gum lasts the longest' is so NOT a useful question - but DUH - it's the PROCESS that needs to be learned, and reinforced - and not process for the sake of process, but process for the sake of what they'll face in the future.

Maybe some of the PRESSURE kids are under in our schools is because many of the kids aren't developing the right 'success in school' skills they need to keep up.

By the way - reading and learning information out of a textbook, instead of being spood fed everything by a teacher, is another SKILL that kids need to learn along the way - it doesn't come naturally. Keeping calendars, keeping their work organized, and minding what's due, and all that is skill, not natural born instinct.

And especially when parents work and the home is not a well oiled machine, they don't get alot of ingrained organizational skills at home, they need to learn the homework skills.

I think eliminating homework would be dumb.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2007 at 2:36 pm

Get a Grip

You do raise some good points. However, some other issues mentioned by other posters are not covered by your points particularly the last paragraph in the original posters's comment and the comment about homework not needing to be corrected and handed back to the teacher. If there was follow through all round, then homework would be a much better idea.

Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 6, 2007 at 2:52 pm

Get a grip -- rationalizing homework because it teaches children how to do homework strikes me as circular reasoning. There has to be a better reason than that.

I take your point about understanding what your child is doing -- but couldn't you and the school could find other ways to communicate about that? Do any Ohlone parents feel out of touch with their child's schooling because of the Ohlone approach to homework?

And I see how it can help to have another adult help a child when he or she is struggling – that’s why I like the idea of differentiated homework. Under that model, just the fact that your child had homework would tell you your child needed help.

I think homework is important in high school and I agree that you need to learn how to manage your own time. My concern is to move the pressures on our children out of elementary school as much as possible. Why can't the first years of middle school be the time you learn how to establish good homework habits, for example?

Your third point is that children need to learn how to manage their own time – again, that is exactly what Ohlone teaches. But it does that within the context of a no-homework policy. Children only have homework at Ohlone if they have not managed their time well. That sounds ideal to me – their students gain the skills you want them to but they are not unnecessarily burdened by the ‘busy work’ and loss of free time that worries me.

Sure, a blanket ban on homework through all years of school is educationally irresponsible. But it seems to me that there’s room to improve the assignments that our children are given, and to lessen the amount of time they are required to spend on them, especially in the early years. I believe we can do both these things without sacrificing the teaching of good study habits or reducing academic outcomes – indeed the reason to do them is precisely that they should result in better academic (and social and emotional) learning in our children.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2007 at 4:28 pm

It seems that this is not happening in Menlo Park only. According to today's Palo Alto Weekly, Addison Elementary school are taking note of what is happening in Menlo Park's Oak Knoll School and surveying parents about the homework issue. It appears that they are not talking about banning homework per se, but getting rid of busy work and repetitive practices while trying to make homework more user friendly.

I think all our elementary schools should take note. This is particularly relevant now that we are into Daylight Savings Time and it is light well into the evening. Kids should have the time to be kids and homework should be kept to a minimum.

Posted by Anamika
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 24, 2007 at 10:32 am

"Get a grip's" reasons sound valid to me !

The amount of homework out children bring home is not too much (not too sure how Hoover works .. have heard parents say that there is a lot of homework due every day )

So, our elementary kids (lower grades) come home with a few pages of homework every week .. parents are complaining about this ?? At the lower grades this is more of a discipline - this is one step towards the higher grades. This is teaching them accountability, this is teaching them responsibility.

I am not for homework every day, I am not for 100 sheets of homework coming home every Friday for the elementary school kids, but I am definitely for some homework coming in every weekend and the children learning the process of completing it, getting assessed on it.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2007 at 10:48 am

Homework is a fine discipline if that is what it is. I am in agreement that practicing writing, reading, maths, spellings, etc. are valid homework assignments that the lower grades can and should be doing at home with minimal help from parents. Not that parents should not be part of the process, but that the idea is that the teachers are teaching and the parents are supervising.

What I do not appreciate is the kind of homework that involves the family's involvement in projects which end up being the parent doing a stunning project for some and the student doing a great job for a student, but definitely not up the standard as what another student's parent has done. Science fair projects, mission building projects, etc. which are not what I would call homework or fair projects for kids when some are getting all the work done by parents and others are not.

Posted by Anamika
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 24, 2007 at 12:16 pm

Parent - I agree about the spectacular "project" part. Time and again we see such displays at the science fair/other homeworks - and this has been discussed on these forums too.

There is no easy way out during this - when the elementary grade child comes home with "I want to participate in the science project" - what does one do as a parent? It is beyond the capacity of the child in the lower grades of elementary to think of a project. It is the responsibility of the parent to figure out (more than one) ideas that are relevant to the age. I appreciate the fact that my child wants to participate, is showing interest. We end up explaining the ideas - ultimately the decision is left to her. (Result of this has been - choose the project that seems most fun - like tossing a slice of bread with one side toasted ). Children at lower grades, perceive things from their parent's eyes. As long as my child is comfortable with the work she has done, I am happy and supportive. There are tasks that, us , as parents have to help - there is no work around.

Parents complain about too much homework, requiring too much participation - my question is - why not be supportive and help the children as and when they need? Why try to achieve the ultimate best result and get some prize? Your child is not learning much from this process - all the projects, homework are designed so that the child gains something, however small that may be. Aren't we, as parents, doing a dis-service to the children by getting involved more than essential in their homework? Lets leave the micro-managing aside ..

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