Homework is of little benefit to students from junior kindergarten to Grade 6, say the authors of a just-released Canadian study, who also found it is often the source of stress and burnout in children, as well the cause of conflict – even marital stress – for many families.
In the first-ever look at the homework load in this country, the study by two Toronto professors found homework rates vary wildly from student to student, and from grade to grade, with some Grade 2 students spending less than 10 minutes a night, while others log more than 45 minutes.
On average, Ontario students spend almost 40 minutes on homework a night, compared to 32.6 minutes in other provinces, which, statistically, is significantly more, say the authors.
While research shows some benefits to homework in grades 7 and 8 and high school, there's scant evidence that it improves student achievement in the younger years, say professors Linda Cameron and Lee Bartel of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
"For elementary school, especially for the primary grades, I am down on homework entirely," said Cameron, a former kindergarten teacher.
Parent Mary-Margaret McMahon, a mother of two children at Gledhill Junior Public School in Toronto, believes children need more unstructured time.
"I think the work should be completed in the classroom and then kids should be allowed to play," she said. "I think there's not enough of that any more.
"I personally don't recall having homework prior to high school," apart from projects in grades 6 and 8, she added.
"We were out every night playing with our friends in the street."
Both of her children have had homework since junior kindergarten – when they brought home books to read several times a week. Her daughter, in Grade 3, does about half an hour of homework a night and her older son, in Grade 4, about an hour.
"I'm a big advocate of reading," she said, adding part of her son's daily homework routine is to read French books for 20 minutes, which he does sitting by the stove with a timer set.
In fact, studies have shown that reading with, or to, children every day is the only conclusive way to boost their academic success, and Cameron believes that should be the only "homework" for younger children.
She and Bartel released their report to a group of about 55 teachers, parents and principals who gathered Tuesday night at a Scarborough elementary school to discuss reforming the Toronto District School Board's homework policy. The board voted to look into the issue after complaints students are saddled with too much work outside of school.
There is a growing body of research in the U.S. that has found homework isn't all it's cracked up to be, and a growing number of parents who say because of homework and other demands, children have no downtime; one writer has even gone so far as to say today's children have a "nature deficit disorder." Some American elementary schools have cut back or entirely banned homework.
Cameron and Bartel embarked on this study because of the lack of comparative Canadian data.
In their study, more than 1,000 parents were surveyed and said while they like the good work habits homework promotes, as well as how it helps parents be involved in their children's academic lives, the amount students are getting is interfering with family time, play time, causing stress and even marital troubles.
"Kids are at school for six and a half hours ... and some are on buses at 7:30 in the morning and get home from school at 4:30 or 5 o'clock. That's a very long day, and then they are supposed to do homework?" said Bartel in an interview.
"What do we expect of unionized workers, with hours and breaks, and what do we expect of our children? Schooling is their work."
Generally, students should spend 10 minutes per night per grade on homework. Toronto public school board guidelines recommend 10 to 30 minutes for junior kindergarten to Grade 3; 30 to 60 minutes from grades 4 to 6; 45 to 90 from grades 7 to 9; and up to 120 minutes for older high school students.
Karen Grose, the Toronto board's superintendent of programs, told those at Tuesday's meeting that in some cases, the guidelines are being used as "a floor, not a ceiling." But she also noted that time requirements can be tricky, as one assignment may take a child 10 minutes to complete, while a struggling student could take much longer.
Board staff are to present trustees with a report in April or May about possible homework reforms.
Parent Frank Bruni, one of the driving forces behind the review, has said he believes children are so busy with homework, they have little family time or time to exercise and keep fit. He'd like to see no homework on weekends or during holiday breaks.
Trustee Josh Matlow believes the process will lead to profound changes in the way homework is dealt with in Toronto schools.
A recent survey of Toronto public board students found that those in grades 7 and 8 reported 10 hours of homework per week, and those in grades 9 to 12 were doing 12 hours per week. Many of those students also took part in music or sports, as well as holding down a part-time job.
Aurelija Jusyte, in Grade 12 at Humberside Collegiate, said high school students always complain about homework.
"They understand that assignments are building their skills, but it's the busy work that doesn't get anything done" that's frustrating, said Jusyte, who is one of two student trustees on the Toronto District School Board. Personally, she enjoys homework.
Gerald Mak, the board's second student trustee, said he'd like to see some consistency.
"Students usually tell me some teachers assign more homework than others – that's the issue," he said.
The Canadian homework study, which focused on Ontario, found that almost 20 per cent of students in the same grade as Jusyte spend more than two hours on homework a night. Cameron said that any longer than that and students' brains are "maxed out."
The study also found:
Not only does homework cut into family time, it becomes a primary source of arguments, power struggles and is disruptive to building a strong family, including putting strain on marriages. Bruni said it even negatively affects family holidays.
A large number of children in kindergarten are assigned homework, most of it "drill and practice."
28 per cent of Grade 1 students and more than 50 per cent of Grade 2 students spend more than 20 minutes on homework daily.
While there's no real difference in the attitude of children toward homework, Ontario parents definitely feel more negative about it than others across the country.
More than three-quarters of parents with children in Grade 4 and under help their children with homework. But, by Grade 4, only half of parents feel they are competent enough to do so.
Parents are unsure about the benefits of homework; by Grade 5, just 20 per cent of parents feel it has a "positive effect on achievement."
Half of children in junior kindergarten are enthusiastic about homework; by Grade 6, it drops to just 6 per cent and by Grade 12, just 4 per cent.
The researchers also came across several themes from parent comments – that homework is too difficult or the assignment unclear, that it cuts into family time and causes stress at home and that children are left with little time to play.
Bartel and Cameron also say homework is a social justice issue.
"Those of us who are educated, who've come through the system, have resources and aren't working three jobs" have the time, and ability, to help kids with homework, said Cameron. And if middle-class parents are too busy to help, they simply hire tutors.
Homework has been a hot topic since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began peppering his speeches with talk of back-to-basics, more rigorous schooling as the way to economic prosperity, said Bartel. In Ontario, the Conservative government under Mike Harris in the 1990s followed suit, implementing a tougher curriculum, eliminating the OAC (Grade 13) year, and bringing in standardized testing.
"Ontario has still not quite recovered from when we lost the OAC year," said Bartel. "The curriculum can't be shrunk. (The thinking is) you have to do it in a year less, so you have to push the kids harder, rather than rethinking the overall structure and design that comes with it."
He said if there's simply too much work to cover that teachers are sending home in order to get it done, maybe the school day or the school year should be longer.
It's not that teachers are to blame, said Cameron. They often feel pressure from parents to give homework. "Teachers feel it is a huge problem, too," she added. "Everybody is concerned about this issue."
Alfred Abouchar, founder and headmaster of La Citadelle bilingual private school in Toronto, has declared Wednesday "homework free" day– however, students are assigned review work to complete during the summer months.
"Homework has to be dosed properly," he said, adding the real benefit of homework is establishing routine, independence and discipline in students.
Abouchar doesn't believe homework should cover material that hasn't been discussed in class, nor should it be onerous.
"For me, learning has to happen 90 to 95 per cent in school," he said. "They should not be doing homework they didn't see in school."
Binna He's 4-year-old daughter attends a private religious school in Toronto and she gets weekly homework assignments. Whether it's learning letter or numbers or counting, she usually finishes it during the week, or on a Saturday morning. Her parents also read to her every night before bed.
But He said her daughter doesn't enjoy the schoolwork. "To be honest," she said, "she prefers to play."