AMHERST — For the past week, while students in Amherst’s public schools have been on vacation, they could focus on celebrating the holidays with their families, pursuing their own interests and not worrying about getting school work done.
Michael Morris, interim superintendent, sent a letter to all parents and guardians Dec. 6 letting them know no homework would be assigned by teachers for the December break, a directive he issued following discussions with student leaders about how homework affects their well-being.
“Many of them have spoken about the stress, particularly as it relates to homework, particularly as it relates to the pace of what they do,” Morris said.
In his memo, Morris said students already complete a significant amount of work outside the school during the year, as well as participating in sports, music and other extracurricular activities. Even though no homework will be assigned during the vacation, the schools still maintain high expectations.
“For our students’ benefit, it is important that we recognize that the winter break is not only used for religious observances and holiday celebrations, but also as a brief reprieve from the continuous academic assignments of the school year,” Morris wrote.
So far, he said, the reaction to his directive from parents and teachers has been positive, despite it likely being unique in the region. Before he sent the memo he talked to other school districts that are striving to strike a balance between educating children and promoting the well-being of the whole child. One where this is taking place is Duxbury, which is a high-performing district.
“We’re not alone. Many other districts are experiencing the same thing,” Morris said.
The decision will also mean an opportunity to evaluate various aspects of homework. In addition to the stress, there are various social justice aspects, as some children have parents with more time to commit to, and there is an understanding that students do work at different pace.
At a recent meeting, Amherst School Committee members discussed the topic and appeared appreciative that homework will not be happening again until the new year.
“It is one of the biggest stressors for kids at a whole range of ages. It’s what I hear about a lot, and it’s where I think kids feel like they fall behind,” said Chairwoman Katherine Appy.
Vira Douangmany Cage said limiting homework could help the social and emotional health of schoolchildren.
Principals who attended the meeting also spoke favorably of the concept.
Crocker Farm School Principal Derek Shea said he has questions about the validity of homework and is not a fan of children getting graded based on how well they do assignments outside the school day, and facing consequences for not completing assignments, such as missing recess.
“I think it puts stress on families sometimes,” Shea said.
The only established norm, Shea said, is that students should be reading regularly.
“I’m ambivalent about the whole piece, other than reading, one must read every night, or be read to,” Shea said. “The rest of it is up for grabs, to be honest with you.”
Wildwood School Principal Nick Yaffe said most projects and research should be done in school, rather than at home.
“I believe, like Derek, reading is the most important thing,” Yaffe said.
For Morris, it’s also about starting the dialogue about homework. “I do think it’s a worthy topic to put in the forefront,” Morris said.
No policy has ever been enacted, but a general practice in the district has been to give students more responsibility with each passing year, beginning with 10 minutes of homework each night in first grade, and adding 10 minutes a night per grade level, so that by sixth grade children are completing one hour of work. Homework becomes more intensive in middle and high schools.
But Morris said this may not be working in reality. “We have a practice that is not actually implementable,” Morris said
Homework usually emphasizes core subjects, such as math, reading and writing, rather than science and social studies.
“It is intentionally a review of existing work, not something new that students are supposed to learn on their own,” Morris said.
University of Massachusetts professor Laura Valdiviezo said giving out more homework doesn’t necessarily lead to positive outcomes in education.
“I wouldn’t be too worried about not assigning homework to students,” said Valdiviezo, interim chairwoman of the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies in the College of Education.
Homework is said to extend learning and provide practice of concepts in a classroom, but researchers are drawing more conclusions that question the benefits.
“Overall, it hasn’t been proved that homework is enhancing learning or deepening knowledge,” Valdiviezo said.
As a parent, she said she could use the time to engage with her child, but observes not all parents and guardians have similar opportunities.
“There’s a diversity of families and some don’t necessarily have the time with their children,” Valdiviezo said.
The unstructured week that is taking place in Amherst can be used to refresh children, which Valdiviezo said may be the best value for students and families at this time of year.
Like in Amherst, Northampton schools don’t have a homework policy, but Superintendent John Provost said the schools follow the practice that students receive more homework as they get older.
Provost said research casts doubt on the effectiveness of homework below grade 3, though reading or being read to is always a good thing.
Similarly, in Easthampton, Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said there are no district-wide homework policies.
Northampton, though, is beginning to evaluate homework. Provost said a group of principals at all grade levels are reviewing research that will guide future practices.
“Instead of heading toward a policy solution, we’re putting homework expectations in the student handbooks,” Provost said.
While not issuing a directive similar to Morris, Provost anticipates that homework will be significantly reduced by most teachers during the winter break, and he wishes students a restful, safe and health time away from the rigors of school.
“We do want this to be a time for students to relax and rejuvenate,” Provost said.
Amherst School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez said it is worth exploring the possibility of eliminating homework at the elementary school level. She said she would like to see a public conversation occur about the pros and cons.
Morris said this will happen, with teachers and parents weighing in on how they feel about homework and examining peer-reviewed research.
For now, though, the winter vacation will be a time off from school work.
“I do think its a real issue that everyone needs a break from time to time,” Morris said. “It seemed like this would be a good time to try this out.”
Scott Merzbach can be reached at email@example.com.