Amy Clipston had a request that was a new one for her daughter's first-grade teacher.
Many parents had marched in to demand that their children, even those who couldn't tie their shoes yet, get more homework. Clipston was the first to request the opposite - that her daughter opt out of homework altogether.
"I felt my child was doing quite fine in school," said Clipston, a chemist with three children, noting that her daughter's schoolday in the highly competitive Lower Merion School District was 61/2 hours, with a 20-minute recess. "I felt 10 to 20 minutes of homework a night was not accomplishing anything."
Her request, which the teacher approved, represented one small step for a movement slowly gaining momentum in schools in the Pennsylvania suburbs, New Jersey, and around the country: questioning, scaling back, or, in a handful of schools, even eliminating the nightly homework ritual once thought as all-American as junior proms and cafeteria food fights.
For decades, homework's value has been hotly debated.
But now a growing legion of critics say the notion that America can close the learning gap with China or India by stuffing kids' backpacks with math worksheets as early as kindergarten is backfiring - creating a nation of stressed-out, sleep-deprived children, despite scant scientific evidence they are actually learning more from the reams of homework.
Some school administrators are starting to listen. Radnor School District has unveiled a policy stating that homework shouldn't "interfere with the student's health and wellbeing."
Several New Jersey districts, including Princeton Public Schools and the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District, are experimenting with banning take-home assignments on designated nights or weekends and school vacations.
An elementary school in Gaithersburg, Md., has banned homework altogether in favor of 30 minutes of nightly reading. And under the radar screen, parents such as Clipston - she says there are others in Lower Merion - are quietly opting their kids out of the daily grind.
That is all music to the ears of Vicki Abeles, who triggered widespread debate on test and homework pressure with her 2010 documentary, Race to Nowhere, and is back with another film and book, Beyond Measure, to look at schools that are breaking the mold. She said educators should be seeking work-life balance for students just as some high-tech companies are doing for employees.
"A lot has been written about adults having real time off from the workday, and that it improves creativity and productivity," Abeles said. "We're doing the exact opposite with kids. It's insanity."
The anecdotal complaints from parents and teachers about the harmful impact of students emailing completed assignments at 3 a.m. or kids spending sunny weekend days inside on a laptop are increasingly supported by scientific research. The 2013 American Psychological Association survey, for example, found that 45 percent of U.S. schoolchildren were stressed-out by school - and homework was the leading cause.
Many schools try to stick to 10 minutes for each grade level, but some, particularly private ones, load on a lot more. For example, St. Joseph School in Downingtown has a policy of starting with 30 minutes for first and second grade up to 120 minutes for seventh and eighth grade.
"The kids are overwhelmed," said Tom Di Giulio, a Latin teacher at Cedarbrook Middle School in Cheltenham. "It's too much. I'm getting work sent in to me at 12 o'clock at night," sometimes 1 and 3 a.m.
Zach Masterman, 15, a sophomore at Lower Merion's Harriton, knows what Di Giulio is talking about. After putting in a full day of school, after-school activities, and choir practice, he comes home and dives into three hours of homework nightly. "I'm really busy," he said. "I have a ton of things to do."
While high schoolers are expected to hit the books every night, Stephanie Brant, the Gaithersburg principal, said she was surprised when she initially got pushback from some parents when she eliminated homework.
They were worried, she said, that their kids wouldn't be prepared for middle school. But now, not only have other schools in her district jettisoned the worksheets, a middle-school principal also thanked her for sending him devoted readers.
"We demand so much of our students during the day," said Brant. "You can often be doing homework that is rote - addition or whatever - and the second you do one wrong problem, you're doing 25 wrong."
But conventions are hard to break. Cathy Hall, assistant head of school at elite Episcopal Academy, said teachers there are keenly aware of the "homework dilemma" and are being "intentional" in what they assign students. Yet at a school that boasts of its Ivy League admissions, time spent on homework is ultimately a personal decision, she said.
And in Lower Merion, opting out of homework - even with a teacher's blessing - is "a violation of policy," said spokesman Doug Young. "Homework is part of the school experience."
It doesn't have to be, say some critics.
Alfie Kohn, who wrote The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing a decade ago, said that numerous studies fail to find any link to improved learning.
"There's really dubious academic benefit to homework at any age, especially in younger kids," Kohn argued.
What's more, he and Abeles argue, too much homework can cause considerable harm, raising levels of frustration, anxiety, and family tension while robbing time for imaginative play and outdoor exercise, and - most importantly - crushing the potential to get excited about learning.
More parents are asking the same questions. "Many feel homework has kind of taken over, especially at the high school level," said Cheryl Masterman, Zach's mother. "I just had a situation with my fifth grader the other night, and he was up really late and totally freaking out and melting down."
Anne Heffron, principal of Merion Elementary in Lower Merion, explained: "We're trying to build habits with kids, and get children into a pattern of being independent, taking responsibility and developing organizational skills."
Heffron said she gets mixed reactions from parents on the homework issue: Some want more, some less, and some are bothered when they see their child struggle with an assignment. "I think sometimes homework is a bigger stressor for parents than for the kids," she said.
But Abeles said it's the stress on kids that concerns her the most. She said she was inspired to launch Race to Nowhere after school pressures were blamed for the suicide of a 13-year-old California girl.
Abeles noted that she opted her son out of homework in elementary and middle school, and now he's doing well with his high school assignments.
"How many hours a day can they be spending on academics?" Abeles asked. "They need to develop in other ways. They need time with families and friends. They need time to do nothing."
Published: The Philadelphia Inquirer
When teachers learned last school year that the District was planning to replace the ironically named “Gradespeed,” we were initially hopeful that the new grading system would be faster and more user-friendly. The new system, “Infinite Campus,” does offer some useful features, but it also appears to be a Trojan horse, concealing three harmful policy changes in the guise of shiny new technology.
The first two changes, setting 50 as the absolute floor for a student’s quarterly grade and lowering a passing grade from 65 to 60, will artificially inflate graduation rates by simply lowering the standards for graduation. The last change, mandating four fixed grading categories regardless of student age or subject matter, will rob teachers of the ability to exercise professional judgment in designing assessments for their classes. These changes reflect two common trends in urban schools. Instead of providing more rigorous supports for students who are behind, the District lowers standards. Instead of empowering teachers to create learning spaces that meet the unique needs of their students, the District imposes an uninformed, one-size-fits-all policy.
The changes to minimum grades make it much easier for students to pass. With 60 as a passing grade, along with the fixed 50 floor for quarterly grades, a student can now earn one 90 (in the first quarter, for example) and do no more work (or even come to school) for the rest of the year, but still pass.
These changes seem part of a broader effort to manipulate graduation rates. Starting last year, the District signed a contract with the company Edgenuity for online “grade improvement” courses. According to the District’s quarterly fiscal report, dated May 15, 2017, the District gave $203,105 to Edgenuity in that quarter alone. With Edgenuity, students who had failed classes could, with as little as 10 hours of online class time, revise failing marks to passing grades (then a 65).
Back in May, Zoë Kirsch at Slate.com detailed how districts across the country are using these online “credit recovery” classes to boost graduation rates. She cited one study, by the American Institutes for Research, that showed that students using such classes to “make up freshman algebra” perform significantly more poorly than those in traditional classrooms. The article also detailed how students used online search engines to quickly work through these classes and contended that in some cases, students paid others to complete online coursework for them.
Here in Philadelphia, Superintendent William Hite has touted rising graduation rates as a sign that his leadership has been effective. And although it is unclear how much programs like online credit recovery have contributed to the increase in the graduation rate, we do know that raising that rate is an important marker for this administration. Schools, too, are fixated on graduation rates, because a major part of each school’s state evaluation, the School Performance Profile, is based on improving that statistic. We are concerned that this pressure to raise graduation rates will not result in better-educated students, but rather in a larger number of graduates who have not met basic standards. If we want better outcomes for our students, we need to provide more and better resources, not simply “juke the stats.”
Nationwide, only 40 percent of high school seniors are proficient in reading. For black and Latinx students, who make up the majority of Philadelphia’s student population, these numbers are much lower. Raising the graduation rate is meaningless unless we are also investing the resources necessary for students to learn to read and succeed beyond high school.
We also object to the District’s insistence that all classes use fixed categories and percentages for grade calculation: 40% for tests, 30% for “performance-based learning,” 20% for classwork, and 10% for homework. As far as we can tell, these percentages are not based on any research study or pedagogical philosophy. In general, they give too much weight to test-taking, which already has a too-prominent place in city schools. And although a 40 percent weight on testing may be appropriate in some subjects and some grades, in others it is nonsensical. Should 40 percent of a student’s middle-school art grade be based on tests?
Hite has justified this policy as a way to standardize the process for grading students across schools and make it easier for parents to understand how their children’s grades are calculated. However, Hite himself suggested that teachers can enter projects into the test category, undercutting his own argument for clarity and standardization. In fact, most teachers we know are finding ways around the new grading categories (for example, by entering all grades into the “classwork” category), proving that the policy is simply another bureaucratic hurdle for teachers that will add no real value for students or parents.
In cases like this, it is important to remember that teachers are the experts on child development and learning. They work closely with their students every day, and they constantly think about effective assessment. Most teachers have created and refined grading systems over many years, with the intention of challenging students to do their best work. Teacher-generated grading policies take into consideration the specific culture of a school, and the best teachers adjust their grading throughout the year as they learn about their student’s strengths and weaknesses as learners. The best teachers are, as the scholar Lisa Delpit says, the warm demanders who “expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”
Instead of supporting teachers in this work, the District has shown a blatant disregard for our professional judgment. As much as possible, teachers should be given discretion when it comes to creating a classroom environment that supports learning. When the District considers modifications to important policies, such as changes to the way students are assessed, it should consult with teachers. When the District invests millions of dollars in curricular materials, they should first ask teachers and students what they need. One primary reason that teacher attrition is so high and there is a national shortage of qualified educators is that teachers want a bigger voice in school policies and plans.
As Philly teachers, we know that urban schools have much lower graduation rates than their suburban counterparts. As members of the Caucus of Working Educators, we see this as a symptom of the systemic underfunding of the schools where children of color and poor children are educated. If we want Philly’s children to graduate at the same rate as children in Lower Merion, we need to fund our schools in the way that Lower Merion does. Artificially raising the graduation rates is just a way to paper over a very serious injustice.
Steve Petro teaches at the Academy at Palumbo. Amber Burnett teaches at Abraham Lincoln High School. Shaw MacQueen teaches at Mitchell Elementary.