Move over Versailles and Ghent; Calgary is now the site of an historic peace treaty as well. As reported in The Globe and Mail yesterday, two Calgary parents, Shelli and Tom Milley, have successfully negotiated a truce in the Homework War.
Upset over increasing amounts of homework with little apparent educational value, the Milleys sat down with their local school and hammered out a "differentiated homework plan" that mandates a unique homework-free schooling arrangement for Spencer, aged 11, and Brittany, 10.
The plan sets out clear expectations for everyone involved. Spencer and Brittany are required to use their classroom time effectively, and prepare for tests and practise music at home. Their teachers must provide sufficient notice for tests as well as adequate in-class time for work that is to be evaluated. Homework is not to be marked. The parents promise to support their children's study habits at home. It seems a very reasonable agreement.
Homework is a frequent source of domestic conflict and concern. A poll by the Canadian Council on Learning found that nearly three-quarters of all parents consider it to be a major cause of stress in their family.
Yet homework battles often say more about adult expectations than the needs of children. Many parents see homework as a visible sign that the school system is sufficiently rigorous and they demand more of it. Others, like the Milleys, are skeptical about its usefulness and wish to see less. The evidence tends to support the Milleys, particularly in the younger grades.
Consider the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. This comparison of 50 countries looked at science performance across students in Grades 4 and 8. It concluded that homework was completely irrelevant: "Average achievement was lowest among students at the high level of the science homework index." Assigning more homework had no impact on marks.
Overall, research suggests homework at the elementary level has little or no observable effect on performance. All it does is condition students to expect homework in high school - where it does appear to be positively correlated with academic achievement. This suggests that school boards could easily curtail homework until Grade 9 without fear of educational harm. Younger students could thus be encouraged to read at home, play sports or music and spend more stress-free time with their family. In other words, exactly what the Milley children will be doing now that they have been freed from the homework millstone.