Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hazardous High School?

Not long ago, while walking down Yonge Street, I overheard two girls talking. One stopped for a moment and grabbed her friend’s arm: “So grade 11, fuck! I’m actually going to have to work. Every. Single. Thing. Counts.”

My twin daughters have started Grade 11 this fall, so I’m familiar with the anxiety underlying this snippet of conversation. My daughters worked hard in Grade 9 and 10, but they, too, are feeling the extra anxiety of this year’s marks “counting” for their university applications.

As I look back to my own Grade 11 year—a year in which I worked, but not too hard, and managed to find time to read for pleasure and explore my own interests—I can’t help but feel sad for kids entering Grades 11 and 12 in 2015. The workload, the homework, the near-mandatory, resume-fluffing extracurriculars, the anxiety-inducing university application process—all of it is symptomatic of the kind of “rat race” we used to deplore for adults, and now accept as a normal part of modern (middle class) adolescence. The question I find myself asking is this: Do the benefits of the education my kids are receiving outweigh the costs to their mental health and well-being?

A pair of American studies that caught my eye a couple of years ago, and which I recently stumbled on again, suggest that the answer to this question may be “no.” The first is entitled “Hazardous Homework? The Relationship Between Homework, Goal Orientation, and Well-Being in Adolescence,” by Mollie K. Galloway and Denise Pope, from Lewis and Clark College and Stanford University, respectively. The second study, by the same research group, is called “Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools.” Both are empirical studies consisting of large-scale surveys of kids’ attitudes towards and experience of homework. The authors claim that their research aims to redress a perceived lack of student voice on an issue that affects students directly. Though the studies have slightly different emphases and scopes, their findings are similar and can be summed up by the following points:
  • Students in middle and upper-middle class high schools have too much homework—an average of 3 hours a night, with many doing 7 hours per night or more.
  • Homework adversely affects teenagers’ physical and mental well-being; effects include insomnia, headaches, weight gain or loss, exhaustion, performance anxiety and excessive worrying.
  • Students in Grade 11 have the most homework and report the most distress from their homework load, possibly because (in the US) it is the year of SATs and ACTs.
  • Time spent on homework is positively correlated with higher grades, since homework is often graded, but not with “learning” or “enjoyment.”
  • A significant majority of students surveyed said that they had dropped an extracurricular activity that they enjoyed, due to too much homework.
The researchers draw a variety of conclusions from their work—including the insight that the collected data belie the commonplace notion that “homework is inherently good”— and call for more research into the relationship between homework load and student well-being.

For me, the first question the studies raise is, do the American data reflect the Canadian experience? It’s difficult to answer this question with any accuracy because comparable Canadian studies do not exist. The closest is an Ontario-focussed 2008 study out of OISE that surveyed parents’ views on the issue of homework, but did not consult students directly. The results of this survey suggest that parents in the demographic most heavily represented in the study—middle class parents with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 per year—believe their kids have too much homework; according to the data collected from parents in the OISE study, students in Grade 12 have the most homework, followed by students in Grade 11. At all grades, parents report, conflicts arising from homework negatively affect home life. A census conducted by the Toronto District School Board in 2011 also uncovered high levels of student anxiety over school work, but questions were worded in such a way that homework worries could not easily be isolated from general worries about school and life.

“Harder” statistics on homework in this country are few and far between and can be confusing to parents. For instance, an OECD report, drawing on data from the 2012 PISA results, states that Canadian 10th graders spend an average of 5.5 hours on homework per week, a statistic that does not jibe with what I have experienced as a parent of high-schoolers who average two or more hours of homework per night. My experience, and that of other parents I know, is more in line with the results of the OISE study, which documented the ways in which heavy homework loads place undue stress on kids and families.

An explanation of the discrepancy between the OISE study and the OECD statistics can be found in the OECD report itself, whose purpose is to answer the question posed in its title, “Does homework perpetuate inequities in education?” The report shows that in every participating country, advantaged students spend more time on homework than disadvantaged students—in countries, like Canada and the US, significantly more time. So the Canadian average of 5.5 hours per week does not capture the reality of students attending schools in advantaged communities (whether the students themselves come from socio-economically privileged homes or not). The authors of the OECD report argue that time spent on homework is positively correlated with results on international tests like PISA; they conclude therefore that measures should be taken to reduce the disparities in homework loads. However, many homework researchers—Alfie Kohn, for instance—have pointed out that the correlations between homework and achievement are weak, that they hold only for older students, mostly for math homework, and only when the homework is not too burdensome. Even the OECD report notes that “evidence from PISA 2009 suggests that after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.”

Which leads me to a second question that the studies on homework stress raise: given the consensus among both detractors and advocates of homework that more is not better, and given the mounting evidence—explicit in the US studies and implicit in Canadian research—of the deleterious effects of heavy homework loads, why does excessive homework still seem to be the default at middle-class and upper-middle-class North American high schools? Why is it that homework policies (such as the Toronto District School Boards) designed to rein in homework are routinely violated or simply ignored? A charitable answer might be that, while research on homework and achievement is abundant, research on the link between homework and student well-being is relatively new and, in Canada, difficult to find. The less charitable but more plausible answer is that school boards and administrators are aware of the studies on the harmful effects of homework but have chosen to ignore them. For, despite the lip service paid in recent years to issues of student mental health, there has been a conspicuous unwillingness on the part of ministries and school boards to confront the source of much student distress: school itself. Rather than considering the ways in which overstuffed curricula and ingrained pedagogies can overburden students with the sheer quantity of work, while often leaving them under-challenged intellectually (qualitatively), many policy makers and administrators have jumped on band-aid bandwagons such as mindfulness, thereby restricting the discussion to individual, versus systemic or institutional, problems and solutions.

But the American studies also lead me to believe that there is more to the endurance of the homework status quo than simple laziness or head-in-the-sand avoidance on the part of educators. Galloway, Conner and Pope explain their focus on “privileged, high-performing” high schools by observing that it is in these educational communities that the “accepted value of homework appears to be entrenched.” This observation reflects and to some extent explains the OECD statistics on class-based disparities in homework loads. But while the OECD report implies that such disparities are an unfortunate side effect of our socio-economic and education systems, the American researchers offer a deeper, more troubling explanation. In their analysis, unequal homework is not merely an epiphenomenon of socio-economic inequity, but one of its key drivers. They note that homework is itself a socio-economic sorting mechanism: since it is primarily in privileged homes that there are supports available to allow students to survive excessive homework, heavy workloads act as a leg up to the advantaged, while further disadvantaging the disadvantaged. In other words, students who can handle the homework are going to do better in school than those who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot. 

Beyond the immediate context of high school, the authors argue that training in the ability to spend long hours on work of dubious inherent value constitutes another advantage for students seeking to “advance in a competitive, achievement-focused society.” So if, as the authors imply, and as the OECD statistics confirm, homework loads are significantly lighter in less privileged communities, then students in those communities are being denied the competitive advantages that experience with heavy loads confers. The authors suggest that it is privileged parents’ tacit understanding of the ways in which homework advantages their children that renders many of them complicit in maintaining the homework status-quo, despite its cost to student well-being.

But what about the parent who thinks the costs of excessive homework are too high, the parent who would rather that homework not be used as a means of reproducing privilege, even if that privilege is his or her own? What is such a parent to do? For my part, I plan to talk to my kids about the research on the links between homework and well-being, including the fact that Grades 11 and 12 are particularly “hazardous” years in this regard. I will suggest that they do as much homework as seems reasonable to them, and I will advise them not to worry excessively about getting into the “right” university or about losing out on vaguely envisioned longer-term advantages. Such advantages may or may not devolve to them as members of a relatively privileged community. The advantages of less stress and more enjoyment in the here and now are much more tangible.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Too Much Homework, Part 3

It's "summative" season at my kids' school—the period between March break and final exams when teachers assign labour-intensive final projects that count for a substantial chunk of the final grade. These projects are all due around the same time—because we wouldn't want kids to enjoy the warmer weather too much! A perfect time, then, for me to resume the sorry saga of my family's fight against excessive homework. 

Sadly, there's not much to report in the way of progress since I posted Part 2. The vice-principal with whom we had the "heated" telephone meeting about homework (see Part 1) has left the school—not because of us, we've been reassured! We were disappointed to lose our one contact person within the administration—unlike the principal and guidance counsellors, he actually answered our emails—but the truth is, his departure had little effect on our ongoing battle against homework. Well before we learned of his transfer, we had concluded that pursuing the matter further with him would be futile. Over the course of several meetings, starting with an initial in-person meeting during our kids' first term at the school, we'd come to the realization that although the VP would often make the right noises about the need to educate teachers about the homework policy and rein in those who continued to ignore it, the reassuring noises did not—and likely would never—translate into action. Change was not going to come from him nor, it seemed, from anyone in the administration.

So we decided to take a different tack. We wrote to our newly elected school trustee and explained our situation, outlining the steps we had taken thus far to address the problem of the school's non-compliance with the homework policy. Specifically, we asked her if she could help us get answers to the following questions:
1. Does the TDSB have a homework working group that is tasked with evaluating and revisiting both the issue of homework and its own policy? 
2. Does the TDSB have a mechanism in place to verify that its homework policy is in fact being adhered to at individual schools?
3. What recourse do students and parents have when they believe (or indeed have evidence) that the homework policy is not being adhered to at a specific school.  
The trustee responded quickly. She seemed interested in the issue and promised to try to get answers to our questions. Since she was a rookie trustee, she forwarded our questions to the area superintendent who, she hoped, would be better informed than she, and able to answer our questions. Not long afterwards, our trustee forwarded the superintendent's response.

To the first question, regarding whether the TDSB has a working group or committee looking at homework and its own policy, the answer was a depressingly simple no. We were disappointed by this answer but not surprised: since 2008, when the new policy came into effect, homework seems to have fallen off the board's radar. It's as if the thinking is that the problem of homework was solved in 2008, and there's no need to revisit the issue. Of course a policy is only as good as its implementation and enforcement, but individual schools' non-adherence does not seem to worry the board, as the superintendent's response to our second question makes clear:
We do not have one mechanism to verify that the policy is being adhered to.  But we rather we have a multi-pronged approach.  Important policies are noted on Principal checklist that is available to principals for the year (Homework is one of them) of which we recommend they review themselves and with staff. . . . One of the things that very clearly came out of community consultation in 2008 was the feeling from parents that although the Homework Policy is important that it is also important for local school needs to be considered and that communication and collaboration between principal, teachers and parents was an important component of successful implementation.  I do receive calls (approximately 5-6 a year) with concerns about the policy not being followed in a particular school.  My recommendation is always to speak with teacher, if concerns continue speak with principal...  [emphasis added]
What's interesting about this response is the implication (in the sentence I've italicized) that the policy is flexible, and that "local school needs" may affect its implementation or mitigate its effects. The reason I find this interesting is that five years ago, when I wrote a long post about the TDSB homework policy for Sara Bennett's homework site, I interviewed our superintendent and trustee at the time, as well as the principal at our kids' elementary school. It was made clear to me then that the policy, while not exactly binding in any legal sense, was not optional either. The point of the policy was to reduce homework loads to manageable, developmentally appropriate levels across all grades.

Also somewhat disappointing is the superintendent's answer to my (third) question regarding the recourse available to students and parents who believe that the homework policy is not being adhered to. He wrote:
Follow up with school.  Would recommend teacher first.  Depending on age of student they could begin by advocating for themselves, then parent to teacher and principal as needed in order to support student wellness and student learning needs.
But my letter to the trustee (which she had forwarded to the superintendent) made it clear that we had already followed up with the school, to no avail. I wrote back to the trustee clarifying our question number 3: "What we meant to ask was what recourse is available to parents and students after it has been determined that the school is both not adhering to the homework policy and not responding satisfactorily to parents' and students' concerns about excessive homework." We received no response to this email.

To be fair, mere hours after we sent that final letter, all hell broke loose at the TDSB—the damning report by Margaret Wilson was released, and the board entered into crisis mode. I suppose the next step would have been to contact the superintendent directly, but we chose not to attempt further communication until the crisis at the TDSB blew over. Instead, we decided to try yet another tack.

Our daughters' school had recently convened a "Mental Health Team" in accordance with the TDSB's Years of Action, 2013–2017 Plan. According to the information sheet available on the school's website, the team, composed of "students, parents, teachers, community partners and the principal," is responsible for "facilitating student mental health and well-being" at the school. A lofty aim, my husband and I thought, and when we learned that the team was meeting monthly, we asked the vice-principal (just before he left the school) to put us in touch with the parents on the team. Our intention was to bring the issue of homework to the attention of the mental health team; our hope was that we could convince the team's members that one relatively straightforward way to reduce student stress would be to reduce homework to levels consistent with the TDSB homework policy. The VP informed us that the parent representative on the mental health team was one of the co-chairs of the school council. He gave us the appropriate email, and we wrote a letter asking whether the issue of homework fell within the mental health committee's mandate, or if it did not, whether we could attend a meeting to discuss ways to incorporate it into the discussion. The response to this email to date: crickets.

I'm surprised that the school council co-chairs thought it acceptable to ignore a letter from a fellow parent. But I'm not surprised that the mental health team might not be receptive to our proposed input. Homework is clearly the elephant in the room of recent initiatives concerning student mental health. It's far easier, from the school's perspective, to individualize stress and other mental health difficulties than to regard them as systemic problems tied to a school culture of overwork.

I've written a follow-up note to the school council member, reiterating my questions and asking to be put in touch with someone willing to answer them. But, frankly, my expectations for a response are low, and I confess that my energy for the homework battle is flagging. At this point in the year, during "summative season," my goal is simply to help my kids get through the year with their mental health intact. "Getting through school" has become my daughters' goal as well, which says something about what stress and overwork can do to kids' motivation and attitudes towards learning. What it says is not good.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


I've heard talk of the "pearl-clutchers" who object to the sex-ed portion of the new Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum, but I've never met any. My suspicion is that, apart from a handful of people belonging to fringe religious groups (such as the small group that gathered to protest at Queen's Park on last Tuesday), no one really objects to this update. Why? Maybe because contrary to what many of the media stories on the new curriculum would have us believe, this is an extremely tame sex-ed program. In fact it's not about sex at all.

As I tweeted on the day the curriculum was released:

It's not just orgasms that are MIA; pleasure in general gets short shrift, though at least the concept is mentioned—eight times in the 2015 release, up from five in the 2010 version. And, yes, there are those "shocking" references to wet dreams, vaginal lubrication and masturbation in Grade 6, but since these topics are mentioned (once each) in the optional teacher prompts, the likelihood of them making their way into actual classroom teaching or discussion is slim. By contrast, teaching about abstinence or delaying sexual activity (eleven mentions) is not optional: it is clearly a part of the curriculum that is expected to be taught—in fact, it is listed as one of the "key topics" for Grades 7 and 8. STIs are another key topic for these grades. There is a lot of information about STIs in this curriculum, as of course there should be, but as I said in my tweet, the balance between "scary" and "fun" topics may strike some as skewed.

Or rather it would be askew if this were a sex-ed curriculum: that is, a curriculum about sex and sexuality. It is not. The Human Development and Sexual Health portion of the Health and Physical Education curriculum is in fact a harm-prevention program whose aim is to educate kids about the possible dangers they may encounter as they grow into sexual beings. That is precisely how the government has framed the new curriculum in their parent guides and news conferences, and most of its "controversial" parts can be explained in light of this aim. Education minister Liz Sandals has pointed out, for instance, that young kids need to know the proper names of body parts so they can communicate with family members and police if they are being abused. Older kids need to be aware of anal and oral sex in the context of STIs, since rates of teen pregnancy in Ontario have dropped while STI rates have risen—the reason being, according to Sandals, that teens are engaging in pregnancy-avoidant sexual behaviour, unaware that alternative acts carry other risks. The new lessons about online behaviour and sexting are safety-focussed in obvious ways, as are the anti-bullying sections, the LGBTQ sections, and the new additions about consent.

All of these new emphases are welcome, and they all make sense given the government's explicit goal of keeping kids safe and healthy. One would be hard pressed to object to a program that furthers such a goal. Which is why, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, so few people oppose the new curriculum. Progressive parents and educators, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood support it, but so too do well-known conservative pundits and columnists, such as Margaret Wente and Michael Coren. (See also this thoughtful post by a Baptist pastor from Eganville, Ontario. )

I'm happy that there is wide support for this curriculum and that it will finally be implemented in September of 2015. Kids need sexual harm-prevention education. But they also need sex education. As I said in my post on the 2010 version of the curriculum,
The pornographic rival has not gone away. And progressive sex education for Ontario kids is still lacking.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Too Much F***ing Homework, Part 2

Four days after our unsatisfactory telephone meeting with the vice-principal, we received an email from him. He had spoken to the history teachers as well as the head of the history department, and he wanted to enlighten us as to the "facts" of the multi-step project to which we had objected. Clearly he felt that our daughters had given us misinformation rather than facts. The facts, he informed us, were straightforward: the project was assigned on December 12—well before the Christmas break (although the last day of school was December 19); the kids were given three sessions in the library to work on it (two before the break and one after); and the librarian had told the students during the first library session that the notes were due the week after Christmas break (something both daughters, who are in different history classes, refute). The underlying message of the email seemed to be that our daughters were liars or slackers or both, and that any reasonable child would have been able to complete the project (over the holidays?) without undue stress.

Had he chosen to speak to any of the students in, for instance, my daughter E's class, he would have learned that the first library session was taken up with a lesson on "how to take notes," that during the second one, the computers were down (so the research session was cancelled), and during the third one, the computers were so slow that it was impossible to conduct research efficiently. Leaving aside for a moment the question of the many ways in which technology (for which the infrastructure is still mostly inadequate or unreliable) often renders school assignments more unwieldy and time-consuming than low-tech equivalents, such as, say, a persuasive essay about a topic discussed in class—leaving aside that important question for the moment, it is clear that this particular multi-step history project was not a project for which enough class or library time was allotted, nor was it designed as an in-school project, as E's teacher's admonishment that kids had better work on it over the holidays (contra the homework policy) makes clear. On paper, it may appear reasonable and doable (though even that is disputable), but the reality for the students actually carrying out the assignment is quite different; "evidence" collected solely from the teachers who designed and assigned the project cannot be expected to reflect that (student) reality.

The vice-principal's email made it clear that he was interested primarily in defending the school's practices, rather than resolving the persistent problem of teachers' collectively assigning homework that far exceeds the limits set forth in the Toronto District School Board's homework policy.

My husband and I  decided, in light of the VP's follow-up email, that tackling the problem by means of reasonable—or unreasonable, expletive-laden—discussion with the school's administration was going to prove futile. After considering possible next steps, we decided to to approach our local trustee first and the school's own Mental Health and Well-Being committee second. Stay tuned.

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.