Mark Trifilio, principal of the public pre-K-5th grade Orchard School in Vermont, sat down with the school’s 40 educators last summer to discuss the soon-to-start new school year and homework — how much kids were getting and whether it was helping them learn.
Trifilio had been pondering the issue for some time, he said, concerned that there seemed to be an uneven homework load for students in different classrooms within the same grade and that the differences from grade to grade didn’t make sense. He had looked up research on homework effectiveness and learned that, generally, homework in elementary school isn’t linked to better academic performance — except for after-school reading.
So at that meeting with teachers, he proposed an experiment: stopping all homework in every grade and asking students to read on their own at home — or, if they were not ready to read on their own, to do it with a parent or guardian. He said he was surprised when every one of them — classroom teachers as well as those who work with special-education students and English-language learners — signed on to the idea.
“All 40 voted yes,” he said, “and not just yes, but a passionate yes. When do you get 40 people to agree on something?”
So they instituted the policy, as this page on the school website shows:
No Homework Policy
Orchard School Homework Information
Student’s Daily Home Assignment
1. Read just-right books every night —
(and have your parents read to you too).
2. Get outside and play —
that does not mean more screen time.
3. Eat dinner with your family —
and help out with setting and cleaning up.
4. Get a good night’s sleep.
What’s the result?
Six months into the experiment, Trifilio says it has been a big success: Students have not fallen back academically and may be doing better, and now they have “time to be creative thinkers at home and follow their passions.”
Students are asked to read every night. Families are provided book recommendations, but kids are not required to fill out logs (because, he said, “we know that we all make up logs”).
Trifilio said he conducted a family survey asking about the policy, and most parents at the nearly 400-student school responded. The vast majority supported it, saying their kids now have time to pursue things other than math work sheets, and many report that students are reading more on their own than they used to. He said a small minority of parents are concerned that students are missing learning opportunities from doing homework and won’t be prepared for middle school.
The Burlington Free Press recently quoted parent James Conway as saying this about his son Sean, who is in kindergarten: “My son declared on Monday that he can read now and that he doesn’t need any help. So, something is working.”
What does the research say about the value of homework? While academics continue to study the subject, a meta-analysis of research on the subject, published in 2006 by researcher Harris Cooper and colleagues, is often cited. It found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement and has only a modest effect on older students in terms of improving academic performance.
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(Correction: Earlier version mistakenly said kids were being asked to read at school when it was supposed to be at home.)
What parent doesn’t want their kid to thrive at school? Most of us would do anything to help our little ones hit academic and developmental goals.
It turns out, doing so might be easier than you think. The most effective way to help our children succeed has little to do with baking pies for school fundraisers or rushing to school meetings.
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“Parents matter a lot, but it has less to do with engagement with the school and more with engaging with your child,” said Elizabeth Dhuey, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who focuses on the economics of education.
That’s what clearly emerged from a broad review of the available research on the impact of parents’ involvement conducted by People for Education, a Toronto-based charity.
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Here are the four activities that emerged as having the greatest positive effect on kids’ performance in school and overall development, according to the report:
Parents having high (but reasonable) expectations of their children
In other words, if you expect your kids to do well in school, they probably will.
“A series of systematic review articles found high parental expectations […] had the greatest impact on student achievement,” reads the report.
This doesn’t mean demanding perfect grades, but “rather consistently communicating [your] belief in [your] children’s potential,” according to People for Education.
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Parents talking with their children, particularly about school
Know what works a lot better than helping your kids with homework? Talking with them about what’s going on at school.
According to a major study of 25,000 U.S. schoolchildren, simply chatting with your children about their school activities had a greater impact on their performance than checking their homework or limiting their screen time.
Indeed, another review of parental involvement in homework found its effects to be “negligible to nonexistent, except among the youngest students,” the report noted.
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Parents reading to or with their children
Parents who can’t afford to live in the best school districts can “mitigate a lot of that disadvantage” by reading to or with their children every day, said Dhuey.
There’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of reading to very young children, but it’s very important to keep that up beyond the baby and toddler years, she added.
“While the letter-sound correspondence that children learn at school is vital, the motivation, comprehension and strong oral language skills children develop through conversation and reading together with their parents creates the crucial foundations for successful literacy in primary years and beyond,” reads the report.
That holds true even for older kids. Talking about the books your children are reading on their own is just as beneficial as bedtime stories.
Unfortunately, this is an area where parents often fall short. A survey of Ontario children, for example, found that only 21 per cent of those in grade 3 read together with a parent or guardian “every day or almost every day.”
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Parents helping their children develop positive attitudes towards learning and strong work habits
Did you hate school when you were a kid? You might want to pretend otherwise in front of your youngsters.
Positive attitudes toward school and stressing the importance of education is crucial, Dhuey told Global News.
Fostering positive feelings about learning means taking on a key support role, “helping kids handle distractions, negotiating crises of confidence, praise for effort and persistence or constructively handling conflict while being positive about school as a whole,” according to the report.
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So what about school meetings and activities?
Keeping the lines of communications with teachers and principals open is, obviously, important. But participating in countless council meetings or volunteering at the school “is less closely linked to achievement,” according to People for Education.
A separate study of Toronto schools by the C.D. Howe Institute also found little correlation between school fundraisers and students’ academic success and grades.
“Passionate discussions are taking place about whether differing fundraising capabilities across public schools have a direct impact on education outcomes, and the prevailing opinion is that they do,” wrote David Johnson, one of the two authors of the report. “However, through comparing funds raised at similar schools – schools similar in the structure of grades taught and similar in terms of the background of their students – we discover that the apparent fundraising disparity diminishes substantially.”
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That’s likely because the amount of funds parents are able to raise amounts to a few hundred dollars per students at most. By comparison, the Toronto School Board had a budget of about $11,000 per student in 2011-2012, the research noted.
“The very small amounts of money involved brings into question the strength of any association of funds raised and [academic outcomes,]” Johnson wrote.
Helicopter parenting, in other words, may be a waste of time. Just sit back, relax, sit your children on your lap and read them a good story.
© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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