The Homework Question

When David Douglas School District’s Cherry Park Elementary School announced last fall it was banning homework, the news made headlines (“Portland Elementary School Bans Homework!” “Growing No-Homework Movement Comes to Portland!”).

It was seemingly a slam dunk for families beleaguered with both little time and exhausted children who had neither the will, nor the stamina to wade through pages of math problems while the last hours of daylight dwindled outside their window.

So, how has the past year gone?

If the number of schools and teachers that have subsequently adopted no-homework policies is any indication, this once-radical idea could soon become the Portland area’s new normal.

Other schools that have adopted no-homework policies after the Cherry Park announcement include David Douglas’ Gilbert Park Elementary, Portland Public Schools’ Alameda Elementary, Sue Buel in McMinnville, and Canby’s Philander Lee Elementary. Still others, such as West Linn-Wilsonville’s Willamette Primary, Clackamas’ Mount Scott Elementary, and Raleigh Hills Elementary in Beaverton, have decided to leave the decision to assign homework up to individual teachers’ discretion.

Located in a historically underserved part of East Portland, just south of Mall 205, Cherry Park reports 75 percent of its students living at or below the poverty line. Additionally 61 percent of its students are of color, making it one of the most diverse schools in the entire Portland metro area. Many of its parents faced difficulties in helping their kids with homework due to language barriers or other stressors, and administrators felt families might benefit more from positive time together than homework.

Patty Utz, a student-achievement specialist and former fifth-grade teacher at Gilbert Park Elementary, about 3 miles south of Cherry Park, agrees a no-homework policy makes sense in a district like David Douglas, with families speaking more than 30 different languages.

“I think it relieves family stress both for parents that end up having to fight with their kids about doing homework and our families that don’t speak English,” she says. At Gilbert Park, staff members make a concerted effort to emphasize the importance of spending time connecting as a family. In fact, Gilbert Park even maintains a formal written policy that “after school is a time for reading, family time and being physically active.”

“There’s no worries about turning in homework; the kids just have to worry about their classwork,” Utz continues. “We sent home information on ideas for families to spend time together, questions

to ask kids about school and what they are reading at home, along with ideas for family involvement at school. Our thought is that when the first thing parents ask is, ‘Where is your homework?’ it immediately creates stress, whereas asking about their day or something they learned doesn’t.”

Kate Barker, Cherry Park Elementary’s principal, has no regrets after her school’s first complete year of no homework, which she describes as fantastic.

“I think it was the right decision; we’ve had very positive feedback from parents and teachers and the community,” she says. “We’re still very much encouraging reading at home, and we really wanted that shift from just packets of homework to more of an emphasis on positive family activities — making sure everyone has board games, making sure anyone who wanted a ball and mitt could get one, encouraging walking, suggestions about making sure children are getting enough sleep, sitting down at the dinner table together,” she says.

One wrinkle that has cropped up this year, however, has some parents flustered: Schools that maintain no formal homework policy but, rather, allow teachers to assign it or not at their discretion.

Tiffany Brandel is the mother of a fourth grader at one such school: Willamette Primary in West Linn. West Linn, a westside suburb, is a world away from both Gilbert Park and Cherry Park. Eighty-one percent of its school district population is white, with less than 24 percent living in poverty. It might be expected that the majority of Willamette Primary parents can afford the time to help their kids with homework, but Brandel says her son has been loving his year of no homework — and so has she. “It’s great for us as parents to focus on other activities — dinner, getting the kids ready for bed at a reasonable time,” she says. However, she’s concerned about what will happen if her son gets a teacher next year that does believe in homework: “It worries us that once he gets into the next grade level, if he has to go back into the homework mode, he’s going to get frustrated because he hasn’t had to do it for a year.”

In fact, few — if any — districts in the area maintain a formal policy regarding homework. At David Douglas, for instance, “schools have flexibility to handle this in the manner they think fits best with their students and populations,” says district spokesman Dan McCue. At West Linn-Wilsonville, assistant superintendent Barb Soisson says administrators “continually review the purpose of homework” with “an emphasis on using what can be valuable about homework and what it should be rather than an overall homework policy.”

Many principals, though they may not yet be completely on the no-homework bandwagon, have acknowledged the research showing that excessive homework isn’t necessarily correlated with higher academic performance.

In 2005, academic researchers David Baker and Gerald LeTendre published National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling, a comprehensive study on schooling around the word. Their most consistent finding was that countries that assigned the most homework — such as Greece and Thailand — had some of the lowest test scores, while countries with the least homework — such as Japan and Denmark — had some of the highest.

“Undue focus on homework as a national quick fix, rather than a focus on issues of instructional quality and equity of access to opportunity to learn, may lead a country into wasted expenditures of time and energy,” said LeTendre.

Further, in 2016, the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that Finnish children have some of the highest test scores in the world, despite having shorter school days and no homework.

“We had a conversation about being thoughtful about homework and not ever using homework as a punishable offense,” said Lincoln Park Elementary principal Rebecca Chase. “However, we have not gone away from homework completely. I have noticed a huge shift in teachers being more thoughtful about not assigning so much, keeping it focused on review or skill practice (not new learning), giving a week to complete rather than one day.”

But what about the parents who actually want traditional homework?

Despite the overwhelmingly positive opinions of most teachers and administrators, blanket rejection of all homework is still a controversial issue. When Cherry Park’s announcement was made, The Oregonian’s comment section was ablaze with criticism, much of it regarding what some saw as the school “giving up” and “catering to the lowest common denominator” amid a climate of budget cuts and frustration over teacher shortages.

Harris Cooper, chair of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of the book The Battle Over Homework, points out in a New York Times op-ed that “… homework can be a good thing if the dose is appropriate to the student’s age or developmental level.” He argues that homework is not only crucial in helping kids develop good study habits, independence and personal responsibility, but it’s a rare opportunity for parents to see what’s being taught in the classroom and provide further context or supplementation if necessary. Further, some parents worry that the absence of practice time will put their children at a competitive disadvantage, or mask potential difficulties their children may be having in the classroom.

“My feeling,” Cooper says in the op-ed, “is that the effects of homework depend on how well, or poorly, it is used. In general, teachers should avoid extremes. All children can benefit from homework, but it is a very rare child who will benefit from hours and hours of homework.”

Sara Davis is the mother of both a kindergartener and third grader at Philander Lee Elementary in Canby, which is also experimenting with no-homework policies. Like Brandel, she agrees having no homework has been a great experience for her family. “I have enjoyed it,” she says. “It makes evening time much more peaceful and reduces stress on my kids.” However, she admits that sometimes she’d like to know a little more about what her kindergartener has been up to in the classroom. “[He] struggles a little,” she says. “Sometimes I would like a couple little sheets to come home so I know what we need to do to help him.”

Barker says she’s dealt with this issue at Cherry Park as well, and, like at Alameda Elementary in Portland — which formally describes its policy as “homework optional” — is more than willing to provide homework for parents who feel it’s necessary.

“There have been a few parents who have come and requested that they’d want to have homework for their children,” she says. “We offer at the beginning, that if you do want your children to have homework, we would be happy to provide those resources.”

Given the enthusiastic reception of parents and administrators alike after a year-long test drive, Oregonians shouldn’t necessarily be surprised if more schools next year look into giving homework the heave-ho.

To that end, Cherry Park principal Barker has some words of advice for other teachers or administrators who may be considering doing away with homework.

“It’s important to have really clear communication,” she says. “For us, it’s always important to include the research. It’s not just something we’re going to try; [no-homework policies are] backed up by multiple research articles and books, which we examined before making the decision. It’s also important to keep flexibility in mind — if there are families that want to have extra practice, we allowed that to happen. If there are children who need extra help, we provide that structure for them as well.”

“The most important thing is that it be a community decision, not top-down,” she added. “It’s not just something I decided; it really came from our community of teachers as well as parents. You need to have that buy-in.”

Kat Merck

Kat Merck

Kat Merck is a freelance writer and editor who admittedly spends way too much time online. A Portland resident since 2006, she also enjoys reading, cooking and exploring the city with her husband and young son.
Kat Merck

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  • Kim Wilson

    I’m not opposed to homework. However, the problem is the workload teachers are sending home after a six hour school day for kids 11 and younger. The monotony, hours away from family and free time, and lack of creativity is frustrating. For parents who are able to pick their children up at 2:15-3:30 they have the time. However, we are mostly in a dual income (or single parent) generation. Children aren’t coming home from aftercare until 6:00 pm, then left to do one hour of homework, dinner, bathe and bed. This doesn’t leave time for family bonding, chores, or much needed exercise and play- that is now stripped from their day. Elementary children should be just that…..children. They should be able to act and play like children. If teachers can not successfully teach cirriculum in six hours (especially with very little to no recess, PE, art, or music) then we need to rethink the structure of how our children are being taught.

  • Sandy Monroe Farmer

    As a guardian/grandmother for 9 year old twins who have been in separate rooms with with different teachers, homework has been difficult for us all! From first grade through just-completed 3rd grade, teachers have been sending homework home with the girls. I didn’t get home from work until about 5:30, fix dinner, and tried to work in the homework, most of which is written in “language” I am unfamiliar with (math, in particular), using a way that is way too long to get to the answer, as we once did. So, I am not able to help them. I am against homework! Students should have time in class to get their work done, not sending home extra work and short-changing parents and children from family enjoyment in the evenings before bedtime. Children need evening time to “regroup” themselves, not doing homework until bedtime, then dreaming of homework and, upon awakening, being thrust into yet another day of school and homework!