Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Toronto Homework Policy

This review of the 2008 TDSB homework policy was written last spring as a guest post for Sara Bennett's StopHomework site. (Sara Bennett, along with Nancy Kalish, is the author of The Case Against Homework.) The post can still be found there, but the site is largely inactive, as Sara has moved on to other pursuits. It remains, however, a great resource for research and lively discussions on the topic of homework. My post originally appeared in two parts—because it's long!—but I'm posting it here as one piece, on the third anniversary of the enactment of the TDSB homework policy. As a result of my review, the homework situation at my daughters' school did improve somewhat (see here). But old habits die hard, and much room for improvement remains.

The Toronto Homework Policy
: A Parent's Perspective

On a recent Saturday morning, my 10-year-old daughter emerged from the basement on the verge of tears: “The temple’s collapsed,” she announced. Though it sounded dire, she was speaking not of an actual building, but of the model of an ancient Greek temple she and a classmate had constructed out of cardboard the previous week. They had piled on the white paint, and the structure had simply buckled under the weight. Later that day I glanced out the window to see my two daughters turning cartwheels on the back lawn while my husband diligently sawed wooden cylinders into pillars for the new temple. It was a brilliant spring day, and soon my husband would finish his task and call my reluctant daughter in out of the sunshine to start rebuilding the temple. What is wrong with this picture?

From the perspective of a homework skeptic, many things: arts and crafts busywork, weekend homework, parental involvement. But the main problem is that I live in Toronto, and my children attend public school in a board which in 2008 enacted one of the most progressive, “family friendly” homework policies in North America. So what happened?

When I read the news in early 2008 that the Toronto District School Board was re-evaluating its homework policy, my heart did a little happy dance. At the time, my twin daughters were in third grade. Although we had not yet experienced homework overload, the prospect of a reformed homework policy thrilled me because the following year my daughters were due to enter mid-elementary French immersion, a program renowned for its heavy workload both inside and outside the classroom. Suddenly there was hope that French immersion would provide a qualitatively (as opposed to quantitatively) different experience for my daughters, with enrichment enabled not by means of extra work, but simply through learning the curriculum in a second language.

The TDSB—the largest school board in Canada, serving approximately 250,000 students—appeared to have done its homework, so to speak, on homework. Spurred on by parent Frank Bruni and sympathetic Trustee, Josh Matlow, the board reviewed and eventually rewrote its homework policy, approving a new family-friendly version on April 16, 2008. The new policy (available online here) re-defines “effective” homework, promotes “differentiated” assignments and removes punitive consequences for incomplete work. It virtually eliminates homework in the early elementary years, and mandates substantial decreases for all other grades. But perhaps the most progressive feature of the Toronto policy is its recognition of the deleterious effect of homework on family life. It stipulates that homework should not be assigned on scheduled holidays or “days of significance,” and that “time spent on homework should be balanced with the importance of personal and family wellness . . . .”

My excitement back in 2008 was not unfounded: this was a good policy. So why two years later am I complaining about my children's homework?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I should note that many parents I’ve spoken to have indeed noticed a decrease in their children’s homework. But my experience—and that of other French immersion parents I've consulted—has been that teachers continue to assign homework inconsistent with the new policy. On curriculum night in September 2008, the Grade 4 teacher warned parents to expect a difficult year. She explained that the nature of “mid-immersion”—its compression compared to immersion programs starting in Kindergarten—made it necessary to work the children particularly hard. (There was scant mention of the new homework policy, no hint that the program might have to be adjusted in order to comply with it.)

She was not kidding. On a nightly basis, students were expected to review copious notes from class, practice spelling words, complete math and grammar sheets, and study for tests (two per week). In addition, there were projects to be completed outside of class. Although my daughters loved learning in French and their grades remained strong, they were unaccustomed to a such a heavy workload. They began to show signs of stress (read, meltdowns) almost immediately. By Christmas, they were proclaiming their hatred for school; I prepared to pull them out of French immersion. After the holidays, homework eased up—marginally, but enough to convince me I would not be irreparably harming my daughters by keeping them in the program.

Grade five was initially better. On curriculum night, the teacher professed her dislike of homework; as a parent herself, she understood how busy today's children are. Yet this teacher is renowned within the school as a kind of project queen. Every year, her students (or their parents) produce extraordinary projects in science and social studies, which are displayed on designated days to the other students and teachers in the school. And sure enough, it was the projects—spaced inconsistently and piled on top of regular homework—that nearly did us in. Three of them were clumped together in the space of five weeks in the spring term when, as my daughter put it, kids have “had it with the torture of school.” To be fair, the teacher allocated class time to the projects, but often project time encroached on core subjects such as math and grammar, so more homework came home in those subjects. Moreover, class time was not allocated to the building of temples or eyeballs or machines; parents were responsible for supplying materials, and were expected to provide space and time at home for their children to complete all of the arts and crafts components. As a result, my daughters had little choice but to spend multiple weekends—including “days of significance” and holidays, such as Passover, Easter, Mother's Day and Victoria Day—working on various elements of assigned projects.

Frustrated and confused by the contradiction between the new policy and the homework we were experiencing, I decided to do a little investigating. I asked several people—the principal of my daughters' school, the superintendent of our particular school district, and my local school Trustee—a simple question: Is the homework policy a set of voluntary guidelines, or is it binding? The answer, it turns out, is not simple. Howard Goodman, school Trustee for my area, summed up the confusion when he answered: “somewhere in between.” Both he and John Chasty, the area Superintendent, insisted that schools are expected to comply with the new policy, and that responsibility for implementation lies with principals and teachers. However, as Goodman reminded me in an email, the TDSB is “a highly decentralized organization which works hard to be responsive to . . . local conditions.” In other words, the board tolerates a certain latitude in the interpretation of its policies in order to empower schools and teachers to respond flexibly to the needs of students.

I began to wonder whether the TDSB counts French immersion—along with other enrichment programs such as gifted classes—as a local condition necessitating a “liberal” interpretation of the homework policy. Not so, according to Lyn Gaetz, principal of my daughters' school. The new recommendations, Gaetz told me, were well received by teachers at the school. She explained that she meets with the teaching staff yearly to discuss the policy and to monitor its implementation. No program is exempt, but Gaetz did acknowledge the challenges the school has faced reducing homework in French immersion.

My sense from talking to teaching staff is that most of them—French-immersion teachers included—believe they are complying with the new policy. And returning to the document itself, I see how this belief is enabled by a discernible vagueness of wording. For example, in reference to the early elementary years, the policy notes the “strong connection between reading to or with elementary children every day . . . and student achievement” and goes on to encourage regular reading at home, among other family activities. One would be hard pressed to object to such a recommendation, but its lack of specificity allows for some bizarre interpretations. The teacher of a third-grader I know seems to have interpreted it as an endorsement of reading logs. As followers of stophomework are well aware, reading logs are a discredited form of homework which often instill in children a loathing rather than a love of reading. Yet so convinced is this teacher of the value of reading logs that she instructs her students to complete them during major holidays, such as Christmas, a demand clearly in conflict with the new policy.

Another troubling area of vagueness is the section on homework in the later elementary years. Time guidelines for these pivotal grades (3-6) are conspicuous by their absence. And the one directive specified—namely,“Homework may begin to take the form of independent work”—is so vague it barely counts as a directive at all. I suspect it is commonly interpreted to mean projects, since projects are considered a more creative, engaging form of homework than, say, drill work. This may be true, although, as most parents know, many projects are comprised of arts and crafts-type busywork. Even the most educationally valid projects are labour-intensive, especially when they are assigned as group endeavours, which adds an element of scheduling chaos to the mix. And when projects are used as the principle means of covering the curriculum, as they seemed to be for much of the spring term in my daughters' class . . . well, before you know it you have temples collapsing and tearful children rebuilding them in dark basements on brilliant spring afternoons.

Which leads back to the initial question: what went wrong? Has the Toronto policy failed to achieve true homework reform? One could argue that my experience with French immersion is atypical, and that it renders invalid any answer I might offer to such a question. But one could also reasonably view French immersion as a kind of microcosm of elementary education in Ontario, a system characterized by an over-stuffed curriculum (the phrase “mile wide and inch deep” comes to mind) and an over-reliance on standardized tests as a measure of quality. In French immersion, as elsewhere in the system, homework overload and curriculum are inextricably intertwined. To paraphrase blogger Fred Baumgarten, who has written about this interconnection on his blog Homework Headaches, when you pull at the thread of one, you inevitably catch the other, and the whole overwrought educational fabric threatens to unravel.

But issues of curriculum are beyond the scope of this post. With respect to the homework policy itself, ambiguous language and inconsistent enforcement notwithstanding, I regard the April 2008 revisions as a huge step in the right direction. I applaud Frank Bruni for instigating them. The TDSB also deserves credit for taking the issue of homework overload seriously enough to review the research and change the policy. However, the last two years have taught me some crucial lessons. Policies—even well-meaning, progressive ones—must be seen as works in progress, in continual need of re-evaluation. More importantly, I have learned that passivity—my own in particular—is part of the problem. A change in practice does not flow seamlessly from a change in policy. It is up to all of us to remain vigilant and advocate for the the ultimate stakeholders in any educational system: children.

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