The Toronto Homework Policy After Two Years: One Parent’s Perspective (part 2)

Be sure to read yesterday’s post before reading today’s, which is Part 2.

The Toronto Homework Policy After Two Years:
One Parent’s Perspective
Part 2
by northTOmom

Before I attempt to answer the question, “why two years later am I complaining about my children’s homework?” 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.

Grade 4 – French Immersion
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 5 – French Immersion
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.

Contradiction Between Policy and Practice
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.

Conclusion
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 guest 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.

28 Comments on “The Toronto Homework Policy After Two Years: One Parent’s Perspective (part 2)”

  1. PsychMom says:

    As I was reading your post today northTOmom, I was reminded of how many of the ills in education in Ontario got started with Mike Harris many years ago. He was the Premier of the province of Ontario in the late 80’s and early 90’s (equivalent to a govenor, I guess, in the States) and he installed Standardized Testing big time. He also cut huge money out of education and health care. Guess what his profession was before he went into politics? Teaching! Drop out rates from high school soared later and I don’t think they’ve stabilized yet.

    Your post and experience solidifies in my mind the need for parents to really be strong in stating what will happen in their child’s education and what will not. It appears each Board varies in their beliefs, each principal varies, each teacher varies..the only ones who are supposed to be invariable are the students and parents. That group is supposed to do what they’re told and to keep quiet about it.

    June 10th, 2010 at 7:42 am
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  2. HomeworkBlues says:

    From the article: Are Your Kids in a Race to Nowhere?

    “Their family had a life that might seem familiar to you: a complicated, filled to-the-minute schedule of school, sports and extracurricular activities. Hours spent on homework starting in elementary school and spiraling out of control by high school. Unrelenting standardized testing in school and encouragement to enroll in test prep classes outside of school. Pressure to get into and excel in multiple honors and AP classes.

    Constant struggles between parent and children in order to complete all assignments on time. Sleep-deprived kids thanks to late nights, early mornings and weekends swallowed up in schoolwork. Endless sports practices at dinnertime and games at church time. And the disappearance of family time in favor of tutors, private coaches and any other résumé building activities that you and your kids can squeeze into a week.

    And all of this wrapped in the promise of getting into a top college someday.”

    http://www.oprah.com/relationships/Are-Your-Children-Burnt-Out

    June 10th, 2010 at 8:19 am
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  3. FedUpMom says:

    When I was a kid, I was genuinely surprised to find out that passing a law against something didn’t cause people to stop doing it. I was even more surprised to find that getting people to obey the law was a question of enforcement, and that enforcement costs money that the government makes a decision to spend (or not).

    Similarly, the School Board passing a new homework policy is not enough to ensure real change, although it’s a wonderful first step. Teachers and administrators need to understand the policy and commit themselves to carrying it out.

    Finally, everyone involved needs to take a hard look at what is going on, and be willing to challenge long-held beliefs. Teachers who say “But I never assign busywork!” need to confront the possibility that they actually do. Teachers who think the projects they assign are “fun” and “creative” and lead to happy family time in the home need to listen to the parents who tell them otherwise. Parents who think they can afford to stand back and let the school do what it does need to get involved. Kids who think their only choice is passive conformity need help to find another path.

    June 10th, 2010 at 8:21 am
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  4. northTOmom says:

    “Par­ents who think they can afford to stand back and let the school do what it does need to get involved. Kids who think their only choice is pas­sive con­for­mity need help to find another path.”

    FedUpMom: That sums up perfectly what I’ve learned over the past two years. I’m wondering now, why I did not complain last year, when I first realized the homework policy was not being followed. This year I did raise the issue with the teacher, and it really did not get me anywhere. (I just heard that my daughters have been assigned yet another partner project! ) So for next year, I plan to be proactive, meet with the principal early on, join the council, etc. I can’t bear another school year like this one.

    June 10th, 2010 at 8:47 am
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  5. northTOmom says:

    PsychMom: You’re right about the negative effect of the Harris years on the Ontario education. The cuts were especially damaging. I was surprised to learn, though (in a book on education in Ontario called From Hope to Harris), that a lot of the other changes were in the planning stages before Harris took office. He was quite ruthless in the way he implemented them, but I think he was following the whole trend towards standardized curricula, testing, “accountability,” etc. Basically, a business model of public education.

    June 10th, 2010 at 8:52 am
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  6. Sara Bennett says:

    A policy is only good if there’s someone making sure that it’s enforced. Often, that task will fall to the parents.

    Remember my post last week about the guidelines that need to be followed in New York State if summer homework is assigned? I’m wondering how many parents have actually called their schools to see how the school intends to meet those guidelines. If you’re one of those parents who has, please let me know.

    NorthtoMom: I love that you said this: “So for next year, I plan to be proactive, meet with the principal early on, join the council, etc. I can’t bear another school year like this one.”

    June 10th, 2010 at 10:05 am
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  7. Disillusioned says:

    I think the problem with being proactive is most parents usually get stonewalled and made to feel like minority complainers. (No one else complains about these fun, creative projects!) Moreover, having seen a vindictive streak in most of the teachers I have dealt with; I think many parents are down right afraid to complain about the project work load. To add to the pressure, many hyper-competitive parents embrace these projects and want to make sure their child’s project is top notch.

    As we all know, many of these projects are not fun. Any trip to the craft store (which almost all projects require), takes up much time and leads to squabbles regarding supplies. (Not to mention conflict over buying other fun craft stuff that has nothing to do with the project the school requires.) I would love to see a policy that limits projects to a certain number (say two) per year. Why can’t a school board implement such a policy? Why wouldn’t elementary schools be able to comply with a specific number limit on projects?

    June 10th, 2010 at 7:08 pm
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  8. HomeworkBlues says:

    As we all know, many of these projects are not fun. Any trip to the craft store (which almost all projects require), takes up much time and leads to squabbles regarding supplies. (Not to mention conflict over buying other fun craft stuff that has nothing to do with the project the school requires.)

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this. Ah, yes, the countless trips to the arts and crafts store. And the tears and squabbles when I wouldn’t buy supplies not related to the project.

    My daughter is very artistic so I could never get her out of there. I’d be hissing at my nine year old, c’mon, c’mon, project’s due Tuesday, let’s get out of here! Always on the clock, this relentless pressure that every minute not doing the project meant one less minute for the project. The family always comes last.

    Oh, there were many times when we threw caution to the wind and decided we refused to be shut in on a sparkling fall day. Some teachers are completely undone when you just say, quietly and firmly, she isn’t going to be getting this one in on time, thank you.

    I’d feel so sad for her because from about 3rd grade on, the only time we ever visited the crafts store was when we needed project supplies. We had no time otherwise. We’d buy up so many materials each year, I would wryly joke that AC Moore would go out of business, were it not for us.

    June 10th, 2010 at 8:14 pm
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  9. northTOmom says:

    “I would love to see a pol­icy that lim­its projects to a cer­tain num­ber (say two) per year. Why can’t a school board imple­ment such a pol­icy? Why wouldn’t ele­men­tary schools be able to com­ply with a spe­cific num­ber limit on projects?”

    Disillusioned, I think limiting projects to two per year is a great idea, and I too would love to see something like that written into the homework policy. But because of the confusion that we were discussing yesterday between craft-store, parent-supervised (or parent-driven) projects, and “project-based learning,” I doubt any board (around here anyway) would agree to insert such a clause.

    It’s clear to me (from watching the video Sara posted yesterday) that project-based learning is very different from the garden-variety projects that have been driving me crazy all year. For one thing, the projects on the video all seemed to be carried out entirely in class. For another, there was a very close match between the activities involved in the projects featured on the video and the learning goal. Whereas my experience of projects has been of a near complete mismatch between activities required and learning goal. I think principals and teachers need to be (dare I say) educated about this difference. And homework policies should be much more specific about such matters.

    HomeworkBlues: We have a craft store here called De Serres that I swear we’ve been keeping in business this year. I actually stopped taking my daughters with me to buy supplies because I didn’t want them to be tempted or distracted by the truly fun stuff. Last time I was there, I was fuming over having to buy all the stuff I was buying. It was actually quite expensive, and I remember mumbling to the cashier that it was okay because I was planning to bill the school. I should have done it!

    June 10th, 2010 at 8:50 pm
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  10. HomeworkBlues says:

    I know, northTOmom. You wind up buying really expensive materials you may never use again and passing up the fun stuff you sorely wished they had time for.

    June 10th, 2010 at 9:25 pm
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  11. FedUpMom says:

    HWB says:

    ***
    We had no time oth­er­wise. We’d buy up so many mate­ri­als each year, I would wryly joke that AC Moore would go out of busi­ness, were it not for us.
    ***

    I smell a lawsuit here. (Sara?) If I’m not mistaken, it’s actually against the law for a public school to require students’ families to spend money on school supplies. They provide the textbooks, right? Couldn’t we make a case that they should also provide the art supplies for these ridiculous projects? In a recession, I would think that would be the end of projects.

    June 11th, 2010 at 8:33 am
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  12. K says:

    Schools need to provide supplies? Are you kidding?! Bwaa-ha-ha.

    List for next year includes: three notebooks, three folders, looseleaf paper, construction paper, pencil box, 24 pencils, glue sticks, elmer’s glue, waterpaint, three tissue boxes, wet wipes…and so on, and so on…

    Last year’s school supplies for two kids in first and third grades topped $250. When they ask us to provide toilet paper, I’m going to go around the bend.

    At the end of the year, my kids came home with the following unused (but battered) stuff: five folders, two spiral notebooks, three bound notebooks, waterpaint, and (count them) five curricular worksheet books that were completely pristine (and paid for with my tax dollars).

    What a gratuitous waste!

    June 11th, 2010 at 10:19 am
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  13. PsychMom says:

    Ya, here in Canada too…lists come home in September or earlier of what supplies are “required’. This is a direct result of budget cuts. I don’t know what they keep in supply rooms anymore in schools because they don’t supply anything.
    And after you get the supplies, you still have to send cheques to school for pizza days, the milk program, and on and on and on.

    June 11th, 2010 at 10:27 am
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  14. northTOmom says:

    Strangely enough, our school does not send home any lists in the spring or in September. It provides pretty much all supplies except the occasional duo-tang. But the cost of of craft supplies for projects over the course of the year more than makes up for these “freebies.” I think I’m going to suggest to the principal (and next year’s teacher) that if assigned projects include an arts and craft component, the school should supply both the necessary materials and the space to carry it out. I wonder how many projects of this type would be assigned if schools and teachers actually had to do this… (So I guess I’m seconding what FedUpMom said above. How do schools get away with requiring parents to pay so much for craft supplies, anyway?)

    June 11th, 2010 at 1:04 pm
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  15. FedUpMom says:

    Now that you mention it, we also had lists of school supplies sent home from the public school, but if I recall correctly we don’t get those lists from the private school. That doesn’t make any sense at all.

    As I’ve mentioned before, our public school district actually spends more $$$ per student than we pay in tuition to a plenty expensive private school. Where does the money go?

    June 11th, 2010 at 1:47 pm
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  16. HomeworkBlues says:

    Where does the money go?

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Our county cuts vital services but someone researched central staff and found out there are thirty people whose sole job it is to crunch standardized test numbers. Thirty! Can you imagine? We also have a two million dollar PR department.

    My daughter’s private school actually did ask us to bring in toilet paper but the school was struggling. What’s the public school’s excuse?

    June 11th, 2010 at 9:01 pm
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  17. Anonymous says:

    HomeworkBlues says:

    Where does the money go?
    …………………………………………..

    Well, this article provides an answer to at least some of it:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_brill#

    Shocking, to say the least….

    June 18th, 2010 at 4:01 pm
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  18. HomeworkBlues says:

    Ah, yes, the infamous Rubber Room. I read that piece when it was published.

    June 18th, 2010 at 9:49 pm
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  19. owen says:

    hello people i am one of the kids who struggle andget strest doin it i mean like dont we do anoth in school homework should not be given to us why should we spend are time missing out when we could be out side with other friends the goverment should not be givin us this its oky to give it us whan where in collage like but in high shcool and lower schools and years their should be a stop to this how many pairents wont their childern to be stook in all day doin homework they do allot of it in school so to all of you out their who are havin to see your sons or dauoters in the house all day and you dont like it then make a complint then and stand and say we should put a stop to it

    November 1st, 2010 at 2:20 pm
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  20. victoria brown says:

    all i have to say is that its sucks
    =[

    December 2nd, 2010 at 3:56 pm
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  21. Anonymous says:

    Try having more than 2 kids! We have 4, and teachers have no idea how hard it is to keep up.

    December 13th, 2010 at 4:29 pm
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  22. ödev says:

    Ah, yes, the infamous Rubber Room. I read that piece when it was published.

    June 13th, 2011 at 6:13 pm
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  23. adhd symptoms says:

    *Learn to breathe: One on the well established options for sending stress packing is actually implementing relaxation breathing techniques. Fortunately, these symptoms usually improve right after days. In case that you were recently clinically determined to have ADHD, then it’s likely you could possibly be confused and possess a lots of questions. Well, it’s fine to state that, but what that is known is “more”? You’ve got being a much bigger specific than that. Learning to master it as opposed to letting it to control you’ll be able to prove being very beneficial.

    July 24th, 2012 at 3:15 am
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  24. Anonymous says:

    Well, not really trying to side with anyone but the classes have gotten out of control with homework I’m going home having to do 20 math problems, 3 diagrams in a science book, a slideshow for Health and 10 different things in Social Studies to keep my grades at a B+ average. What’s up with that?!

    October 15th, 2012 at 10:19 pm
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  25. Overwhelmed Teen says:

    Let me just start by saying that if you think its hard now, wait until your kids get into high school. Your kids might not need you to do their homework with them but they will spend hours on homework. Because I don’t go to public school I end every say later. Ending school at 4:30 and then arriving home at 5:30 to 6, depending on traffic, doesn’t leave me with a lot of time to do homework. Every teacher expects their students to do their homework as well as study for their quiz the next day. When students ask the teachers to hold off on a certain assignment because they have a test the next day, teachers spit their favorite line “it will only take you a few minutes” when in reality it takes the students longer.
    Another main problem is that the school doesn’t try to soften the work load. It would be much easier if they expanded the work load over all four years but instead they pack it on you in 11th grade. 10th grade was a joke, no work, occasional tests. Nothing too hard. 9th grade was also easy. Schools really try to pack it in during 11th grade because thats the focus of colleges. Why pack it all in one year when they can make it much easier for the students, which will insure that their students do well?

    November 14th, 2012 at 3:48 pm
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  26. Luxomni says:

    Exactly when do children get to be children? When they turn 30? No one recognizes what the pressure cooker environment is doing to thier children. School is a place that takes the joy out of learning.
    I am a combat veteran had a couple of bad marriages, been violently mugged, but do you now what I have nightmares about? I dream that there was something wrong with my credits needed for graduation and I have to go back to school and can’t bear the thought of it. My PTSD is school.

    June 22nd, 2013 at 8:47 pm
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  27. Studentlance says:

    The main purpose of homework is to make students reinforce the material previously covered in the class. Teachers should be careful when it comes to the quantity of the homework. It should be according to the grade level of the student.

    April 9th, 2015 at 7:33 am
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  28. Honeyjane says:

    All the military has the same life icnurasne. It is called SGLI and is up to $400K for AD member while they are AD. There is no restrictions on the payment like there can be on other life icnurasne like cannot be claimed in 1 year, not on suicide, etc . It is valid life icnurasne for the entire enlistment/commission in the military. If something does happen to them driving a car while on vacation it is still paid.

    August 26th, 2015 at 3:56 am
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