At Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, teachers weren’t allowed to assign homework over last weekend so students could enjoy Homecoming festivities without stressing out.

Sounds like a great idea. In reality, not so much.

Here’s how freshman Victoria Chang described her weekend: Both days were spent doing homework, including writing a rough draft of a paper and studying for a Spanish test. Even though the paper was due Tuesday, the same day as the test, Victoria knew she wouldn’t get everything done, including long-term assignments, if she took the weekend off.

So, the homework-free weekend? “It didn’t work,” she says.

Victoria said that although teachers weren’t allowed to assign homework from Thursday through Monday, she and her friends found that work assigned earlier and long-term projects weren’t off the table. “Every class was kind of doing the same thing,” she said.

Scott Selman, a media services technician who advises the Student Government Association, said he heard the same story from a number of students. But while there’s no sympathy for students who left long-term projects until the last minute, Selman was dismayed to hear that teachers increased students’ workload earlier in the week to make up for the lost weekend.

To be fair, teachers had been unhappy with the plan because they worried about fitting in everything they need to cover in the curriculum. That pressure was only increased because students essentially weren’t given homework over recent weekends when Jewish holidays were being celebrated, Selman said.

“This may not have worked out as well as we wanted it to, but we still tried,” Selman said.

The subject of homework – how much to give and the quality of assignments – is a burning issue in Montgomery County Public Schools, where parents complain of stressed-out students with over-scheduled lives, yet expect classes to be continuously rigorous and challenging.

After a showing of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, last year, which illustrated how school stress is literally making some students sick, Churchill had decided to give the homework-free weekend a try. After all, most adults who work from 9 to 5 don’t have to go home and put in another four hours of work. So why should students? Selman asks.

But that thinking bumps right up against our culture of over-achievement in MCPS, especially at a nationally ranked high school like Churchill.

“Half the time, I feel like we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth,” Selman said. “Yes, we have to reduce stress. But the next conversation is we have to keep our test scores up,” he said. “It’s very tough to figure out how to strike a balance. We want to give kids free time and to keep [schoolwork] challenging and have them perform as well.” 

Dr. Michael Doran, principal of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, notes that the conflict over homework is not a new one – nor is it an issue that can be easily resolved.  In fact, there’s no consistency throughout MCPS schools in how much to assign or what makes a good assignment, he said.

“I do think homework is overused,” Doran said.

Wootton has had more success in giving its students a break. For three years, students have been given a homework-free weekend in September with the idea that they can focus on other things, like getting college applications done.

This year, 180 seniors showed up at the school on a Saturday for assistance in writing essays for college applications. About 260 juniors came to take a sample SAT or ACT test to see which suited them better, Doran said.

Sophomores were advised to check out a website for the PSAT to prepare for taking test the following week in school and freshmen were urged to focus on completing service learning hours. Next year, the school may try to provide service learning opportunities on site over the weekend as well, Doran said.

Despite some criticism from teachers that all students wouldn’t participate in the activities, Doran continues to think a homework-free weekend is a good idea.

“Even if only half of the students benefited, the benefit was so great, it was worth the fact that some of the kids didn’t do it,” he said.

Both Churchill and Wootton will continue to offer homework-free weekends – Churchill’s next will occur at prom time – while staff and administrators continue to ponder how to solve the homework problem.

“As symbolic as it is, a homework-free weekend is not really a solution,” Doran said. “A real long-term solution is to talk about homework and really embed better practices.”  

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com