One Miami-Dade school says no to homework; will others follow?

Children in a kindergarten class read at Henry S. West Laboratory School in Coral Gables, which has instituted a new policy this year to significantly decrease the amount of homework given to students. Instead, the school is encouraging parents to spend more ‘quality, unstructured time’ at home with their children in the evenings.
Children in a kindergarten class read at Henry S. West Laboratory School in Coral Gables, which has instituted a new policy this year to significantly decrease the amount of homework given to students. Instead, the school is encouraging parents to spend more ‘quality, unstructured time’ at home with their children in the evenings.

This year, one Miami-Dade school is trying something radical: Ending homework.

At least, the mandatory kind.

Students at the Henry S. West Laboratory School, a public K-8 in Coral Gables, will no longer be graded on homework or penalized for failing to finish it. No student will have to miss out on a family dinner to finish an essay or skip soccer practice to complete a math packet. They might get an optional worksheet to help reinforce something they struggled to learn in class, or simply be encouraged to read at home. But the homework battles, at least at this one Miami-Dade school, are over.

Barbara Soto Pujadas, the principal at West Lab, as the school is known, said the decision reflects growing concerns that students, and their families, are overstressed and over-scheduled

“We are a community where in most cases we have both parents who are working and it’s a lot on the families,” she said. “The kids have after-school activities, we have a very rigorous curriculum, and then to extend that at home when a lot of times the kids are getting home after 4:30, 5 o’clock, it’s a lot.”

So far, West Lab appears to be the exception to the rule in South Florida. But it’s the latest sign that a growing campaign against grueling academic schedules — spread largely through parents’ Facebook and Twitter posts and pages — is being heard. Slowly but surely, a few schools and a few teachers across the nation have started to experiment with getting rid of homework altogether.

Two elementary schools in Massachusetts made headlines recently for ditching take-home assignments. In August, a letter from a second-grade teacher in Texas on her new no-homework policy went viral. The letter, which encouraged parents to use the time to “eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and get your child to bed early” was shared on Facebook more than 65,000 times in the week after a parent posted it online. Experts also have weighed in on the tipping point of the homework load, where it turns from beneficial to joy-sapping drudgery.

Homework has long inspired strong feelings — and creative excuses — in children, but it has more recently become an area of growing concern for parents in a scholastic system increasingly focused on high-pressure, high-stakes standardized testing. In South Florida, parents have created a Facebook group called “Occupy Homework,” a play on the Occupy Wall Street movement, to advocate for a lighter homework load.

Miami-Dade school board member Larry Feldman said he hears complaints about homework across the county.

“Homework by itself in my opinion is not something that should be handed out as if it were a pill for everybody because it’s not,” he said. “Homework could be going home and reading an article or asking your parents ‘What did you do today?’ ... the kinds of things that bring families back together again.”

In March, in response to what the district called an “inordinate amount of correspondence” from parents, Miami-Dade administrators sent a letter to schools reminding teachers to assign a manageable amount of work.

The district has a policy that recommends an hour of homework or less for younger children: 30 minutes in kindergarten and first grade, 45 minutes in second and third grade, and 60 minutes for fourth- and fifth-graders.

But an unscientific Miami Herald survey conducted last fall found that 84 percent of parents said their children had too much homework. Over a third of the respondents said their kids spent between one and two hours on homework every evening, and some said their kindergartners spent an hour or more a day. For younger kids especially, experts say, that’s probably too much.

“The first thing to know is that homework for elementary school kids does not improve academic skills,” said Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “If you look at kids who get homework and kids who don’t get homework and how they do in reading, writing and math, there’s really no difference.”

Instead, Brosco said parents can enrich their child’s education by giving them time to play, taking them to a museum or teaching them about their family history. “We sometimes confuse the goals of school as learning how to read and write and do math. Those are just skills and they’re important skills to learn, but the greater goal is that you want your child to be curious, to learn about the world.”

At West Lab, the new approach is something teachers and administrators have been discussing and researching for several years. In August, at the first faculty meeting of the semester, principal Soto Pujadas shared an article on homework overload and said to the teachers, “Maybe this will be the year that some of you will want to be the ones to be the trailblazers.”

Soto Pujadas and her assistant principal, Michelle Sanchez-Perez, wanted to make sure the idea had broad teacher support, so they sent teachers an anonymous survey and received an overwhelmingly positive response for replacing mandatory assignments with voluntary, individualized ones.

It’s so much better. Less stress, less tears, less chaos, and it’s easier to get him to bed on time.

Jana Hertz, mother of a student at West Lab

So far, the new policy — explained in a letter Soto Pujadas sent to parents — has also gotten a positive reception from parents.

Jana Hertz has a 9-year-old son in fourth grade at West Lab. Last year, getting him to sit down and complete lengthy homework packets was a struggle, so her son would often have to squeeze in homework time “on the run” in between activities. Hertz said the lighter load this year has enabled her son to focus on doing a good job when he does get work, rather than rushing to finish it.

“It’s so much better. Less stress, less tears, less chaos, and it’s easier to get him to bed on time,” she said. Her family has taken advantage of the additional time in the evenings to play board games and enjoy family dinners, she said.

Cristina Ramirez has two children at West Lab, a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader. So far this year, her fifth-grader has only gotten homework once, and it was make-up work for a day when he was absent from school.

“I love it. Life is already so busy that to do random work just for the sake of doing it doesn’t make any sense to me, and if the research shows that with less homework kids are still able to achieve the same amount, why on earth do that?” she said.

Ramirez said she thinks that parents have a responsibility to make sure they put the extra time to good use.

“I don’t think it will automatically translate to time together; sometimes it’s easier to stick your kid in front of the computer and the TV and you do your thing,” she said. “But if a parent takes that initiative, that opportunity, they’ll find that that space and that time is now free [for family].”

Denise Pope, the co-founder of the Challenge Success Center at Stanford University, an education policy resource center, agreed that parents should use free time in the evening for family bonding, free play and getting to bed on time. She said parents should resist the temptation to enroll their children in a lot of extra activities or give them workbooks to fill the time.

Some parents, Pope said, are resistant to the idea of less homework because they believe homework teaches children about responsibility and time management, even though she says the research does not support that. “If you were to design the best possible way to teach kids time management or responsibility, it would not be to put a piece of paper in your backpack and bring it home.”

For middle school students, Pope said researchers have found a correlation between homework and academic achievement, but only for up to an hour or at most an hour and a half of work.

West Lab was previously an elementary school and became a K-8 center last year. The school added a sixth-grade class for the first time this year and plans to add seventh and eighth grade as the current sixth-grade class progresses. Soto Pujadas does not believe the policy will affect students’ success in high school, where heavy homework loads are the norm at many schools.

“If you’re doing what’s right for the child developmentally, at the elementary level, all you’re doing is giving them the foundation to be a whole child academically, socially and emotionally, so when they do get to [secondary school], they can handle that rigor,” Soto Pujadas said. “What you don’t want to do is send children to secondary school already burned out.”

Parents at Sunset Elementary, another high-performing school in the Coral Gables area, hope West Lab’s policy will catch on at their school. Many of the parents who responded to the Herald’s survey on homework last year had children at Sunset.

Osamudia James’ daughter is a second-grader at Sunset. Last year, she was getting between an hour and an hour and a half of homework every day and James felt that a lot of it was “busy work.”

James, a law professor involved with the Occupy Homework group, said she would leave work early to pick up her daughter instead of putting her in after-school activities so that she had time to finish the homework and still get to bed early. James also used an app on her phone to keep track of all of the assignments.

“It created stress for her because she would do it to please me, [but] she was distracted, she was tired, she didn’t want to do it,” James said. “She said she didn’t like school. I’m an academic, so it broke my heart that she said she didn’t like school.”