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.


  1. Arg! Google ate my comment! I'll try again!

    Our district recently had a tragic suicide of a 13-year-old boy. He had just gotten an email from one of his teachers saying the boy would fail his class if he didn't turn in his overdue homework. The result is various experts giving presentations about our kids' mental health, but no actual change in what the schools do.

    And I see you've gotten one of my least favorite standard bureaucratic responses: telling the student to advocate for herself. When it suits the bureaucrats, they like to forget the huge power imbalance between teacher and student. It's like telling the chickens they should approach the fox and advocate for themselves.

    I have the same goal these days: trying to get my teenaged daughter through high school with mental health intact. It's not easy, and she won't be competitive with her high-performing peers. Sigh.

    1. Hi FedUpMom!

      Sorry about Google eating your comment, but thanks for trying again.

      What a terrible, sad story, and what makes it worse is that it's not as surprising or shocking as it should be. So frustrating that even when faced with evidence of the horrific consequences of school policies and practices, administrators continue to focus their attention on kids' mental health—the problem is always with the kids, never the system.

      I agree, too, that the "kids need to advocate for themselves" line is disingenuous. My kids rarely bother even trying to self-advocate. The few times they've tried (including over homework scheduling conflicts), they've gotten nowhere. Kids have no real power in school, and they know it.

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