More homework rebels speak out


Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail

A Calgary couple who fought their children's school to stop homework is just the tip of the iceberg. Parents across the country are weighing growing evidence that homework may hinder more than help

Erin Anderssen

Ottawa — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009 8:15PM EST

Pile it on at university, she says. Assign a chunk of it each night to high-school students. But when Amanda Cockshutt's middle child, Malcolm, was asked by his Grade 7 English teacher to write five pages a week on his feelings about a book, the biochemistry professor told the school bluntly: “He is not doing that.”

After raising three children through mounds of homework, and working to change the homework policy at their school, Dr. Cockshutt, who teaches at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., and runs her own biotech company, isn't shy about saying no to it.

She has refused to help her children log the books they read, saying the practice “just drives me bananas. We can fudge the log as easily as we can read or not read the book.” When she was told she would have to teach her son cursive writing because there was no time at school, she never opened the book. And for one full year, while she continued to help her children when they needed it, she stopped signing their agendas – which, in some classes, earned them a “pin of shame” on the blackboard.

“I was doing 10 and 11 signatures a night to get my kids through homework,” she says. “I used to joke that I could get a divorce with fewer signatures than I could get the kids homework done.”

But after watching Malcolm in tears over his English homework, his parents took a stand: “We just went in and said, ‘No, we're not doing it.' It was just too much work.” The teacher tried to justify the assignment, but the clincher for her, she says, was that other than a cheering word of praise, the teacher wasn't even correcting the mistakes.

Weary of the nightly homework battle, Dr. Cockshutt falls among a group of parents refusing to push the work on their children, picking the subjects that earn their weeknight attentions or, in some cases, passing on homework entirely.

This month, a Calgary couple took the controversial step of negotiating a legal contract with their children's school that prevents teachers from giving them homework – adding fuel to the homework debate constantly playing out in schools and families across the country.

There's growing evidence that homework may hinder rather than help academic performance especially in early grades, and school boards have been revisiting their approach to it. But parents remain conflicted about how much their kids should do and how hard to push them – trying to balance a desire to see their child succeed against homework hostilities at the kitchen table.

While a survey by the Canadian Council on Learning found that the majority of parents felt that homework enhanced learning, more than 60 per cent said it was a source of stress in their homes. Many parents also quietly admit to offering more than just moral support – in a U.S. survey released last year, 43 per cent of parents (dads more often than moms) admitted that they had done their children's homework.

It never even gets that far for Shirley Munk. “I refuse to monitor, remind about, and schedule time for any homework for my elementary school child,” the Halifax health care worker says. Her daughter, who attends Grade 3 at a private school, makes good grades and talks about what she learns in school. Ms. Munk meets regularly with her teachers. But homework, spelling words included, “is not a part of our family life,” she says. “I don't see why 61/2 hours of formal schooling isn't enough for an eight-year-old.”

It's same view that led Tom and Shelli Milley to formalize a contract with the Calgary Catholic school that their 11-year-old son Spencer and 10-year-old daughter Brittany attend. Mr. Milley, a corporate lawyer, says he certainly expects their three kids (18-year-old Jay is in first-year university) to take school seriously – the younger kids have been told that fooling around in class would be a breach of the contract and result in homework. But the Milleys would rather see their children reading books for pleasure than skimming texts to cover answers in yet another reading comprehension assignment. “We're not slaves to a system that sends home five sheets of spelling and says it has to be done for tomorrow,” Mr. Milley says. “It's a hideously pathetic way to learn.”

There were several times during his son's early years when Frank Bruni, an executive recruiter in Toronto, simply closed the books and declared homework over. “I always sent a note so the teacher's argument was with me and not my son. And it always went unanswered.” Mr. Bruni was one of the leaders behind the Toronto District School Board's homework policy change, which came into effect in fall, 2008. It includes a holiday ban on homework, restricting the kind of homework assigned in early grades and the hours spent on it for older students.

A school-wide solution – or a compromise with teachers – is the better option for all parties, students included, says Lee Bartel, a researcher at the University of Toronto who recently completed a major study on homework. But he also says parents need to take a hard stand once problems arise. “They really need to be more vocal.”