Monday, April 7, 2008

The Great Homework Debate

Currently, the Toronto District School Board is putting the finishing touches on the draft of a new homework policy. As reported in the Toronto Star,

Based on thousands of interviews with parents, teachers, students and community members, the draft policy would ban homework in kindergarten, confine it to games and family activities up to Grade 2, allow a gradual move to independent homework by Grade 6, but keep it to no more than one hour right through Grade 8.
For the board's 89,000 high school students, the new policy would prohibit more than two hours of homework a night.

While the parenting public seems to largely agree with this proposal, citing family vacations, outside school activities, etc. as of at least equal importance to homework, as a retired educator I am ambivalent about the policy for a number of reasons.

First, when my kids were in high school, there is little doubt that much of their out-of-school time was spent on school assignments, although some of that time was allotted to term work such as essays, projects, etc. As a parent, I sympathized with the pressures they were under. However, with the support of both me and my wife, there was the virtue of their developing good work habits due to these demands and, I like to think, some character as well.

Next, the keen advocates of reducing homework time seem to be conveniently forgetting that much of the rigor of after-school work arises from the massive changes of the 1990’s that the Conservative Provincial Government, guided by the high school graduate Premier, Mike Harris, and his Grade 10 dropout Minister of Education, John Snobelin, imposed on the Ontario Curriculum. With the elimination of Grade 13, the curriculum expectations for all the other grades became much greater as compensation. In order to meet those expectations, homework inevitably increased.

As well, most high schools in the province operate under a semestered system, forcing the amount of material to be mastered into half-year units. Obviously, when the system doesn’t have a full year to inculcate a particular subject, much more is needed outside of the classroom.

Much of the discussion in Toronto has centred on penalties for late assignments, with the powers that be suggesting it is unfair to thus penalize students. What they fail to consider is that a lack of sanctions is only going to encourage more students to be tardy in their work habits. Couple this with current curriculum discouragement of teachers giving zeroes for assignments not done or plagiarized, and you have a potent recipe for encouraging both indolence and cheating.

Finally, what troubles me about the two-hour maximum for homework in high school is how this will be measured. Will each subject be allotted an equal number of minutes to assign? How does one measure how long it takes the average student to complete a set task? Will the slower student be automatically excused from class requirements, and if so, won’t he or she inevitably fall behind in the course? As an English teacher, if I assign 20 pages to be read, is that unreasonable for the slow reader? How do I teach the literature if it isn’t being read?

I know that all of the points I’ve raised are of a pesky and practical nature, the sort rarely considered by the visionaries who make policy. Unfortunately, it is the teacher who is left to contend with all of the practical difficulties that arise from the ensuing constraints, usually with little or no support and guidance from administration.