How one family legally banned homework

(The Globe and Mail) – Shelli and Tom Milley were exhausted by the weepy weeknight struggles over math problems and writing assignments with their three school-aged children.

They were fed up with rushing home from soccer practice or speed skating only to stand over their kids tossing out answers so they could finish and get to bed.

And don’t even get them started on the playground that their daughter, Brittany, had to build in Grade 3 from recycled materials, complete with moving parts. Or the time their eldest son, Jay, was told to cut pictures of $1 million worth of consumer goods from a catalogue.

So last week, after two years of trying to change the homework policy at the children’s school, the two Calgary lawyers finally negotiated a unique legal contract: their kids will never have to do homework again.

‘We have struggled constantly as a family with excessive amounts of homework,’ said Ms Milley, who left her practice to stay home with her children. ‘We just blindly accepted the way it was.’

But after many long stressful nights of getting 18-year-old Jay through his high school homework, they weren’t prepared to repeat history with Spencer, 11, and Brittany, 10. Being lawyers, she and her husband decided to make it official.

The ‘differentiated homework plan’ spells out the responsibilities of the students: to get their work done in class, to come to school prepared, and prep for quizzes. But their teachers will have to mark them based on what they do in class, and cannot send work home that factors into their grades.

For the Milleys, this means a school year that would make many homework-stricken parents envious: they are free to hang out as a family without long division and English comprehension questions hanging over their heads.

‘It was a constant homework battle every night,’ Ms Milley recalled. ‘It’s hard to get a weeping child to take in math problems. They are tired. They shouldn’t be working a second shift.’

It’s not as if, the couple pointed out, they don’t value education. They know firsthand the work involved in earning university degrees. But they wanted the academic work done at home to be on their terms, based on where they knew their children needed help. Brittany, for instance, was struggling with spelling, but ‘we never had any time to focus on that because she had so much homework,’ Ms Milley said.

And there were plenty of frustrating nights, she said, when her kids were so tired, ‘we’d stand over them, saying, ‘write this, write that’. ‘ If that’s what families are doing, she asked, ‘how do the teachers even know whose work they are marking?’

Two years ago, Ms Milley began collecting studies on homework, most of which suggest, particularly for younger grades, that there is no clear link between work at home and school performance. Working with the staff at St. Brigid Elementary Junior High School, she formed a homework committee, although no firm changes resulted. This fall, the couple began negotiating the legal document that decided the matter.

‘We think it’s a parent’s right to choose what’s in our children’s best interests,’ said Ms Milley. ‘But we’re thankful the school did the right thing.’

Prompted by issues raised by parents, the Calgary Catholic School District is officially reviewing its homework policy to create more concrete guidelines for schools. Other parents and teachers have worked out homework deals, although more informally. ‘We know it’s not one size fits all,’ said Tania Younker, a district spokesperson.

The contract the Milleys and their children signed doesn’t go just one way. While preventing teachers from giving penalties when homework isn’t done, it also puts clear expectations on the students and their parents – to practice a musical instrument, for instance, and read daily, two activities more clearly linked to academic success, Ms. Milley suggested, than racing through leftover schoolwork. And the parents agreed to make sure their children have ‘opportunities’ to review class work and study for tests. (Although that may as well be homework, Ms Milley observed wryly, noting that, by her count, Spencer, has had roughly 28 quizzes and tests in about 38 class days of Grade 7.) The bottom line: the Milley kids won’t be doing any school-assigned work at home any time soon, although Jay, now in first year university, must resign himself to being a trailblazer for his younger siblings.

‘Why were we putting our family through that stress,’ wondered Ms Milley. ‘If we don’t want it all, we shouldn’t have to have it.’