It sounds like a dream come true for most students — a school banning homework. But that’s what happened last year at Prince of Wales Public School in Barrie, Ont., where, for several years, staff had questioned whether homework was doing any good. The stories were not pretty:children who cried over homework or were so stressed they could barely sleep. Families that had to plan their schedules around after-school assignments. Often, parents would write notes explaining that their children simply couldn’t get it all done.
So teachers and administrators at Prince of Wales sat down to take a look at the research and were surprised by what they learned. “They could not find anything that demonstrated a strong positive correlation between homework and improved grades,” says principal Jan Olson. At best, it resulted in tiny improvements, he said; at worst, homework was hindering kids’ achievement.
It made them wonder: So why are we making kids do it?
The history of homework
Kids aren’t the only ones who protest against homework. The subject has long been a source of debate in education circles. Some say the battle lines were drawn in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that schools in the United States needed tougher standards and more homework — not more funding. This philosophy made gains in Canada too, perhaps most markedly when Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government of the 1990s ushered in a tougher curriculum and introduced standardized testing, now the norm across the country.
Fast-forward to 2006, when controversial books, such as The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn and The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, tapped into the frustration families were feeling about being bogged down by too much homework. These authors argued that decades of research have shown that homework isn’t even very helpful. Plus, they said, it’s being given to kids when they’re too young. Lee Bartel and Linda Cameron, husband and wife scholars at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE), surveyed more than 1,000 parents across Canada on the topic, and discovered that kids in kindergarten were already taking work home.
Plenty of parents told the OISE researchers that their children’s homework was too hard and that teacher instruction was inadequate. One parent compared the situation to home-schooling. Bartel argues that some of what is generally accepted as homework is, in fact, material teachers could not get to in class.
Here’s a scenario that may sound familiar: After a long day at work, you find yourself at the kitchen table, trying to make sense of a new math unit with an eight-year-old who is maxed out on learning. If you’re like one busy mom who took part in the OISE study, it’s not that you think the work is irrelevant. “It’s just not how I would choose to spend the precious (little!) time I have with my children,” she said. The study mentioned one boy in grade four who cried every night when it came time to tackle his pile of homework.
“It seems to us that the homework issue is becoming the tipping point for the next educational reform movement,” says Bartel. “The last was all about accountability and testing, and that loaded expectations on the system without paying attention to this homework issue.”
The next assignment
The general rule in Canada (and one that has been reported on more than once in Today’s Parent) is that children are assigned 10 minutes’ homework per day, per grade level, starting as early as kindergarten. But, says Bartel, “when the teacher gives 20 minutes of homework, Johnny is going to take 40 minutes [to], Sally is going to take 10, and Peter is going to have his dad do it while he is at the hockey game. It’s not an equitable thing because kids are all different.”
This is part of the reason the Toronto District School Board has, as of this school year, made some dramatic changes in its approach to homework. It has been eliminated altogether in kindergarten, reduced to mostly reading in grades one and two, and banned on holidays. When possible, students are supposed to be given several days to complete assignments. Author Alfie Kohn says this is merely a “teeny” step in the right direction. He says research shows that in elementary grades, homework is not even correlated with higher standardized test scores. His bottom line? No homework before high school, unless absolutely necessary, and then, make it count — assignments that provoke thoughtful analysis instead of just “drill and practice” worksheets. The one thing traditional forms of daily homework manage to achieve, says Kohn, is bringing out students’ negative attitudes.
Harris Cooper, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, agrees that too much homework hurts students. He led a 2006 study that found that older students who did homework scored better on standardized tests, but not when they did more than one hour a night in middle school, or more than two in the higher grades. Cooper stands by the 10-minute rule, but warns against assigning too much homework. “Even for high school students, overloading them with homework is not associated with higher grades,” he has said.
And yet, surveys show that people still believe in homework. A US study in 2007 found that 83 percent of teachers, 81 percent of parents and 77 percent of students considered homework an important part of learning. At the Barrie school, some parents are having a hard time relating to the new ban. “We were all educated that homework is a good thing,” said principal Olson.
But a year after Prince of Wales eliminated most forms of homework, students’ marks have improved by an average of three percent, Olson says. Is this due to less homework? Hard to say. But he points out that the new policy has forced teachers to cover more of the curriculum more effectively during class time. Students are more focused on classwork now, and reports of students not sleeping because of homework have disappeared, said Olson. “One family told me it’s the first time their daughter is involved in competitive sports because, previously, she never had time.”