Why some schools are abolishing homework in favor of self-selected reading

"The quality of homework assigned is so poor that simply getting kids to read, replacing homework with self-selected reading, was a more powerful alternative," said Professor Richard Allington.

Why some schools are abolishing homework in favor of self-selected reading

This September, the 20,000 elementary school students of Florida's Marion County public school district will enter school with the promise that they will not be doing any more homework as part of their daily school life. The policy is introduced by the county's new superintendent Heidi Maier. She motivated her decision with research that shows that homework does not improve achievement for younger students, but time free from school type activities is important for their development. The policy will exclude some occasional assignments, like science projects or research papers.

The no homework policy is a rarity in the U.S., where the demanding emphasis on standardized test scores leads to a constant pressure, on students and teachers, for rigorous preparation starting as early as possible. In Finland, however, where students have consistently been amongst the top performers on international academic assessment tests like PISA, homework is not considered an important tool for academic success (nor are standardized tests considered an important tool for its measurement).

In addition to doing away with homework, Maier will encourage parents to spend quality time with their kids each evening, reading to them for at least 20 minutes. While there is no solid evidence that homework is beneficial for academic success in younger kids, there is plenty of evidence that reading is. Maier cited the work of Richard Allington as support for her decision. Allington is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, and has dedicated his career on studying early literacy.

"The quality of homework assigned is so poor that simply getting kids to read replacing homework with self-selected reading was a more powerful alternative," Allington said in an e-mail for the Washington Post. “Maybe some kinds of homework might raise achievement but if so that type of homework is uncommon in U.S. schools."

While Maier encourages reading all types of texts to increase reading comprehension, some research has shown that at least when it comes to increasing empathy, the type of reading assignment matters.

Emanuele Castano and David Kidd conducted five studies in which they gave participants excerpts from different types of texts: popular fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing. Afterwards they administered a Theory of Mind test which measures a person's capacity to understand that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from their own. The results of the studies showed that literary fiction but not popular fiction or nonfiction increased Theory of Mind skills.

So far, Maier says that parents are welcoming the change and so are teachers.

"I am in support of the no-homework policy," said Lisa Fontaine-Dorsey, a third-grade math and science teacher at Wyomina Park Elementary School. “I didn't give homework anyway. I think they need to go home and play and do something healthy, like sports. All day at school they are pressured with the test, test, test environment. They need to go home and get away from that. It will be beneficial to the students."

As for any older students hoping for homework-free days, there are no plans for introducing the policy in middle school or high school. Research shows some positive academic effects of homework in these age groups.

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