Sunday, January 18, 2015

There’s Too Much F***ing Homework, Part 1

It’s been a tough couple of weeks in our household. As usual, the source of the stress is school. At this time of year, when teachers are under pressure to submit grades for the second report card, stress flows abundantly and continuously from the high school into the home. The result is tears (on the kids’ part), yelling (on everybody’s part), and swearing (on a certain adult’s part). The swearing occurred during a telephone meeting involving my husband, the vice-principal of my daughters’ school, and me.

The meeting began courteously enough, with me enumerating the ways in which we thought the girls’ workload in the two weeks following Christmas break was not only unreasonable and developmentally-inappropriate, but also contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the Toronto District School Board’s homework policy. This policy, about which I've written and tweeted at length (see this post), stipulates that “homework assignments for students in Grades 9 to 12 shall be clearly articulated and carefully planned with an estimated completion time of two hours or less.” It also states that “no homework shall be assigned on scheduled holidays as outlined in the school year calendar or on days of significance.” Elsewhere, the policy emphasizes the importance of teachers’ spacing assignments in consultation with one another. (Read the entire document here.) 

As we explained to the vice-principal during our meeting, the girls both had multiple projects, tests and assignments due in the first two weeks after the Christmas break. (One daughter had to deliver a speech on the same day that two major projects were due.) Both girls were staying up until midnight every night, scrambling to complete the work, and both were anxious and miserable as a result. We asked the vice-principal how the bunching together of so many due dates was in compliance with the homework policy. We also questioned why teachers were allowed to assign projects in the few days before the holidays began that were due in the first or second week following the break. Was this not a violation of the homework policy’s position on holiday homework?

The vice-principal’s response to our questions was dispiriting. He argued that the clustering of due dates was okay if the kids had been given enough lead time for each assignment. And the homework wasn’t holiday homework if it had been assigned two weeks before the holidays. We pointed out that the most significant and time-consuming of the projects—a multi-step history project, with a separate due date for several pages of references and notes,* as well as a multi-media component—was assigned just six school days before the break, at a time when students were scrambling to complete all the pre-Christmas break projects. The vice-principal countered that all of the requirements of the history project were outlined in the assignment handout and in the rubric, as if the very fact that it was written down negated the possibility of its being too much work for the time allotted to it. We pointed out that kids are not expected to work on school work over the holidays, yet our daughter’s history teacher explicitly warned the students that if they wanted to do well, they would have to work on their projects over the holidays. We noted that if our daughters restricted their homework time to two hours per night and did not work over the holidays—in other words, if they followed the board’s homework policy—they would not be able to complete their projects. In general, we said, if they were to follow the homework policy, they would most likely receive grades in the 50-60% range in all of their subjects. 

None of what we were saying seemed to register with the vice-principal. He kept repeating that the students were given ample time for the projects and that all the requirements were laid out in the rubrics, and when my husband said that the rubrics were irrelevant and that our daughters had not in fact been given ample time to complete the projects unless the holidays were counted as work time, the VP asked, “have they been ill?” At that point my husband snapped. “No! There’s too much fucking homework!” He slammed the phone down.

I immediately apologized for my husband’s outburst. I did say, however, that I thought what he (the vice-principal) had just heard was a parent’s frustration over the school’s unwillingness to entertain the possibility that there could ever be too much homework, or that homework stress might not be simply an individual student's problem—that it might be, rather, a systemic problem stemming from a persistently unreasonable workload. I wanted to get off the phone myself at this point (I actually wouldn’t have minded slamming it down, as well), so I ended by asking what our recourse was, if we felt that teachers were not adhering to the homework policy. We could talk to the teacher, he said (a course of action that he knew had already proved fruitless), or to him.

*We enquired as to the pedagogical value of having kids hand in notes, since (as Chris Liebig noted in a tweet) the only valid criterion by which notes can be judged is the quality of the product they help produce. The vice-principal first said students were to hand in the notes so as to receive “feedback” on their research. Why were the notes being marked, then, we asked, if the purpose was merely feedback. The vice-principal told us that he thought the notes weren’t being marked, but later confirmed in an email what we already knew, that the notes were indeed being marked, and that they would not be handed back before the bulk of the project was due. So much for feedback. The lengthy and detailed notes being due several days before the rest of the assignment meant that this particular project was, in fact, two projects disguised as one. 



9 comments:

  1. Fortunately my outbursts and swearing only occurred in emails that I deleted and rewrote before sending :) but I've also had a child who found homework to be torture and uttering "I hate school." Our problem was mainly his core teacher and with help from the Principal we were able to help him through the year and he's enjoying school more now, but I'm still woried because the problems go well beyond his old teacher.

    The schools do not seem to be set up to even attempt to meet the requirements of the homework policy. They can't reasonable tell us they are trying to their best to meet the policy when they have:
    - teachers and Principals who do not even know the policy exists (many still use the 10 minutes per grade rule).
    - teachers who are supposed to coordinate homework, but they don't check to see what other teachers are assigning and there's no system in place to share information amongst teachers.
    - assigments (like the many projects you mention) still requiring resources provided by parents, which is against the policy and makes them difficult or impossible for lower income or busy families to complete.
    - homework on material that has yet been covered in class (they didn't have time to teach it, so they sent it home), which is also against the policy.
    - teachers not providing feedback on homework (my son's teacher was too busy to check/mark it)
    - teachers who don't take the time to do the simple math: if I can only give 1 hour of homework a night and assign 1/2 hour of reading and 1/2 hour of questions on the text, I can not assign anything else for that night, including
    work on any on-going projects.

    I get that sometimes assignments may take longer than teachers expect, or that scheduling projects amongst teachers may be difficult, but too many teachers and P/VPs blatently disregard the policy. If they actually valued the policy and want to meet its requirements, they wouldn't set up a system in their school that essentailly guaranteed failure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You make so many good points, I wish I could use your comment as a guest post!

      All of the problems you list are ones we have encountered and at various points raised with teachers and administrators. Well, except the one about Principals not knowing about the policy--that is really quite unacceptable, as they are given specific instructions (from the board, I believe) to go over the homework policy with the teachers at the beginning of each year. Our own VP claims he does this periodically throughout the year, but that not all teachers are receptive. (Hmm, then maybe there should be "consequences"? A project perhaps on how harmful excessive homework is for kids?)

      But
      -- homework on material not covered in class? Check.
      -- teachers not providing feedback? Check. (Last year my daughters were assigned a geography project *over the Christmas break* that ended up never being marked or returned!)
      -- teachers not taking time to do the simple math. Double, triple check. This is a point we brought up in the two meetings we've had with the VP at my kids' current school: the homework limits specified in the homework policy are for *total* homework, not homework per subject. And since daily homework doesn't come to a halt (it never comes to a halt) when projects are assigned, it doesn't take superior math skills to figure out that the limits are going to be reached and exceeded pretty quickly when there are projects being worked on at home (as opposed to in class, where I believe most of them should be worked on).
      -- assignments requiring resources or help from parents? Still check, even in high school. This is where the homework issue becomes an equity issue, since not all parents are equally equipped to supply the resources or the help.

      I hope you keep raising these issues with the principal and teachers at your son's school. I have found that many parents are fearful of complaining or are simply resigned (and I totally understand why), but I do wish more would speak up, because I think it does or can help in the long run, my ranty post notwithstanding. :)

      Thanks so much for your comment.


      Delete
    2. Maybe if you spent your time helping your children (this is sort of a parenting aspect) instead of looking into the rules and spending all your energy ranting. Your children hear you mention that they are getting too much homework so they push back-thinking they are overworked. Just because guidelines are setup doesn't mean we shouldn't push our children. The world is changing very fast, and to keep up- isn't it better to have more in your suitcase. I have seen how many children spend their spare time (video game, texting friends-even if they are in the same room). If this time was put towards getting homework done then maybe you wouldn't see it as "too much Fucking homework", its not the teacher but the free babysitter that is the problem in many cases (video games, computers and phones).

      Delete
    3. You are making a LOT of assumptions here about parents who don't push homework. Here's where you are wrong, at least in my case:
      1) saying parents are not spending time helping our children. We are, but my time and effort goes into doing other things that will also them 'to have more in their suitcase' than school (especially busywork homework) alone can provide.
      2) that we don't push them to do the homework that is necessary for them to learn. My children are doing well in school, the homework is usually just busy work, but any homework that is of value is pushed on them. They don't get out of all homework just because I think some of it is a stupid waste of time.
      3) I hate seeing parents using technology as a babysitter as well and that part of your argument has nothing to do with whether or not homework is valuable.
      4) parents are not supposed to be helping students with homework! ask teachers, look at research, and you'll see that students who do best are the ones where their parents are more hands off when it comes to homework. So all this time you think we should be spending with our kids on homework is actually NOT helping them learn.
      4) According to our school board's policy the work that she is doing (fighting back against homework) IS the work she is supposed to do. The section under parental responsibilites includes limiting homework if it is too much, balancing school/home/extracurriculars, and interacting with staff to deal with the problem. If the staff didn't blatently ignore their reponsiblities in the policy, we wouldn't have to use up any of our time trying to enforce it.
      -Trixie Doyle

      Delete
    4. So if your kid spends any time playing a game or texting friends, then you can't complain that there's too much homework? That's really warped.

      Anonymous #1 sounds like someone who thinks the school is always right, no matter how much homework is assigned, no matter whether the homework is beneficial, and no matter whether the school is blatantly violating a democratically-enacted policy.

      Don't "look into rules" -- just follow them, whatever they are. Great lesson for the kids.

      Delete
    5. Anonymous: As, Trixie points out, the assumptions you make about parents like me who protest against excessive homework are just that: assumptions unsupported by any knowledge about homework routines and screen time rules in my or anyone else’s household. And such assumptions—along with the points you make and conclusions you draw on the basis of them—are irrelevant to the argument I was trying to make (anecdotally via a recounting of our meeting with the VP) in my post. As Trixie has noted, our board has a detailed homework policy limiting the amount of homework teachers can assign to kids of all grades; as Chris points out, the policy was brought into being and implemented by democratic means. Schools are mandated to adhere to the homework policy, yet our school is not adhering to it, and that was the point I was trying to make in the meeting with the VP. If the board has a homework policy and it’s not being followed, I don’t understand why parents whose kids are struggling with excessive homework shouldn’t “look into the rules” and make their voices heard. (As Trixie notes, the policy encourages parents to do so.) In the context of my phone meeting with the VP, the issue of kids’ or parents’ (bad) attitudes towards homework is a red herring.

      I’ll grant that it’s a red herring administrators and teachers seem to be fond of: a common response of teachers and principals to a parent’s complaint about homework is to blame the kid or the parent, the former for lacking time-management skills or “grit,” and the latter for not pushing their kid(s) enough (despite all we know about the ineffectiveness of extrinsic motivation). I understand that response: it’s easier to blame the kid or the parent than to acknowledge that the problem might stem from teachers’ practices or from a lack of proper oversight on the part of administrators. It’s simpler to blame the victims than to point the finger at the institution or the system. But I do believe, as I said in the meeting with the VP, that homework stress due to objectively unreasonable homework loads is a systemic problem that no amount of chiding of individual parents or kids is going to solve.

      If you do a bit of homework on homework, you will find a lot of research debunking the many myths about homework: that it’s correlated to “achievement,” for instance, or that it teaches effective work habits; you’ll also find that notwithstanding such research, homework loads have increased steadily over the past several decades to the point where many high school kids in North America are now putting in 55-hour workweeks. You won’t have to look too hard to find studies documenting the harm that such work loads are inflicting on kids. (See Hazardous Homework?)

      A final note on your comment about the changing world and kids needing more in their “suitcases”: I agree, but I would argue that what should go in a kid’s suitcase is different from what should go in a middle manager’s or corporate lawyer’s suitcase (briefcase?). Free time and free play and free choice: I think kids need more of these things in their “suitcases.”

      Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  2. It is unfortunate when, as parents, we look into the rules and get familiar with policies created by the decision-makers... try to observe and take guidance from the rules and then find that adherence to policies created isn't consistent or expected ... so unfortunately, rants and frustration can be the outcome. Did I just rant? :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, you didn't use a swear word, so I don't think it qualifies as a rant. :) But you're right. Why have the policies if they are not to be studied and followed by teachers/admin and parents alike? Unfortunately, I think my experience with the homework issue has taught me that "parent engagement" is not welcome unless it's on the school's terms.

      Delete
  3. Your blog have very great content and its have very good content with nice efforts and beautiful format.
    Click Here : Used excavator cat 320cl-eag00700 for sale in cheap price

    ReplyDelete