putting the breaks on school insanity?

From The Guardian comes a story about Canadian parents who hammered out a legal agreement with their children's school district that guarantees that their children will not be sent home with additional work at the end of the day (or at least that that work will not affect their performance evaluations).

Usually it is the children, not the parents, who are loath to spend their evenings practising spelling and learning times tables. But a Canadian couple have just won a legal battle to exempt their offspring from homework after successfully arguing there is no clear evidence it improves academic performance

After waging a long war with their eldest son, Jay, now 18, over his homework, they decided to do things differently with their youngest two, Spencer, 11, and Brittany, 10. And being lawyers, they decided to make it official.

It took two years to negotiate the Milleys' Differentiated Homework Plan, which ensures their youngest two children will never have to do homework again at their current school. The two-page plan, signed by the children, parents and teachers, stipulates that "homework will not be used as a form of evaluation for the children". In return, the pupils promise to get their work done in class, to come to school prepared, and to revise for tests. They must also read daily and practise their musical instruments at home.

The tone of the Guardian article seems to me very much along the lines of, "can you believe the crazy things over-involved parents will do on behalf of their kids?" Framing the parent's struggle with the school system in the context of their training as lawyers and the fact that this case went to court makes it seem like an extreme reaction to something that most people who have gone to school, or send their children there, take for granted: assignments which must be completed after the school day is officially over. Part of me wants to agree that turning this into a legal battle was extreme, and that if you're going to send your children to a school for their education, then on some level you should play by the school's rules. None of the other children at the school, presumably, will have similar protection against being penalized for not completing homework assignments. That doesn't seem fair.

On the other hand, the Milleys are challenging the authority of schools to have the final say in what is good for their children, and that (I would argue) is valuable not just for their own children, but for other families whose children are negatively affected by institutional schooling practices. Not every family has the flexibility, financial ability, or desire to pull their children out of public schools, yet this shouldn't mean that they have to give up their role as parents in the cooperative (ideally) enterprise of raising small persons.

And the Milley's arguments are not off-the-wall concepts. As they themselves noted in their negotiations with the school, the neutral and at times negative effects of burdening children, especially very young children, with homework assignments has been documented. In a 2007 article for Principal educator Alfie Kohn makes the case for "rethinking homework":

1. The negative effects of homework are well known. They include children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities, and possible loss of interest in learning. Many parents lament the impact of homework on their relationship with their children; they may also resent having to play the role of enforcer and worry that they will be criticized either for not being involved enough with the homework or for becoming too involved.

2. The positive effects of homework are largely mythical In preparation for a book on the topic, I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the research. The results are nothing short of stunning. For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school. For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied. Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.

3. More homework is being piled on children despite the absence of its value. Over the last quarter-century the burden has increased most for the youngest children, for whom the evidence of positive effects isn’t just dubious; it’s nonexistent.

It’s not as though most teachers decide now and then that a certain lesson really ought to continue after school is over because meaningful learning is so likely to result from such an assignment that it warrants the intrusion on family time. Homework in most schools isn’t limited to those occasions when it seems appropriate and important. Rather, the point of departure seems to be: “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on we’ll figure out what to make them do.”

The rest of Kohn's article offers alternatives to homework and a bibliography of further reading on the subject.

While it's disappointing that, in this particular case, the Milley family had to put the breaks on after-school schoolwork for their family alone, through a "differentiated homework plan," perhaps their example will begin a school-wide (or broader!) conversation about why we so rarely question the value of "homework," instead holding it up as an inherent good and a fact of life for schooled youth.

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