Barrie school bans 'unfair' homework
So far, this story has elicited 103 comments. Poorer students with scant resources at a disadvantage, no real help at boosting achievement, critics say. And besides that, Increasing research says homework does not improve achievement in elementary school.
by Kristin Rushowy
Do students learn anything by completing 60 extra math problems at home?
Is it fair for kids from affluent families who have a computer at home – not to mention parental help – to work on assignments, while poorer kids might not have either?
Can teachers expect that children who live in shelters have a place to study?
One Ontario elementary school decided no, on all counts. So it banned homework.
"We send these projects home, and we don't know who's done them," said Jan Olson, principal at Prince of Wales Public School in Barrie, which draws students both affluent and indigent.
"And we don't know what the family life is like. We had a student, a girl who at 12 went home from school, took her siblings home and her mom was passed out on the floor.
"Her job was to make sure the younger ones didn't wake mom up. She had to feed them, she had to get them to bed, and the next day she's in detention because she didn't do her homework? That's where we are coming from with an inner-city school.
"We've got kids with a certain home life and we are making it worse by sending work home ... We have to accept the responsibility that we are perpetuating and extending the gap between the have and the have-nots."
What's happening in Olson's school in Barrie is part of a global movement re-examining the usefulness of homework.
Equity for less affluent students is a big part of it. But, as Olson and his staff found, increasing research says homework does not improve achievement in elementary school.
Some believe homework helps students perform better and learn organization and time management. Certainly for older students, there is a connection between homework, studying for tests and achievement, although research has shown more than a couple of hours a night is counterproductive.
But in the elementary years, the link isn't as clear, and it has led some U.S. jurisdictions to abolish homework for primary pupils, save for reading or unfinished in-class work, as the Barrie school has done.
In the U.K., teachers have asked for a ban on homework for primary students and limits for older ones, saying it makes children stressed and unhappy, and is especially frustrating for lower-income students.
Closer to home, a study by Toronto professors Lee Bartel and Linda Cameron found homework caused trouble for Canadian children and their parents, including marital stress.
In general, most boards adhere to the 10 minutes per grade rule, meaning a student in Grade 4 should have 40 minutes of homework per night.
However, this fall the Toronto District School Board is implementing a new homework policy after complaints that students were being overloaded and struggling to find family – and free – time. Its youngest students won't get any, except for reading and talking to their parents; for grades 7 and 8 students there's a one-hour time limit, with no more than two hours for high school students. Homework over holidays? Gone.
The Dufferin-Peel Catholic board is also working on a new policy, as is the Barrie-area board.
But Olson's school has taken a decidedly different approach, one that didn't go over well with all teachers at the start. One admits she was "terrified" when it was implemented last fall.
Now, teachers work much more collaboratively; they incorporate different subjects into one lesson. Singing songs in the primary grades, for example, now incorporates social skills, oral language and drama. A math lesson includes numbers and literacy.
"They'll talk about a math problem and how they arrived at an answer," said Olson. "Say Billy gets a completely wrong answer. The teacher will say, `Well, how did you get that?' and he has to explain it. The conversation is more about critical thinking rather than just doing here's the formula, plug in the numbers and here's the answer."
Study time for tests is now done in class for all students but grades 7 and 8; teachers might review or have students play a game to review and reinforce what they've learned.
"Our job is to teach children – that's not the parents' job," said teacher Mary Jean Dickie.
She assigns students work they can finish in class, but makes it clear anything they don't has to go home. "There has to be accountability."
For parents, too, the change caused anxiety. Some liked and expected homework. Others were concerned they'd no longer know what their kids were doing in class.
A few older students said they were worried they'd have difficulty handling homework in high school without practice in Grade 8.
For the Burke family, the no-homework policy has given their two kids more time, and the chance to enjoy extracurricular activities.
But a problem cropped up after the first round of report cards went out: one child was struggling.
"Homework creates a conversation with your kids and with the teacher," said mom Pam Burke. "When it was eliminated ... we felt that communication was broken. So when the first report card came home, all of a sudden we were saying `Wow, I didn't know there was an issue there.' And we were backtracking because it was too late."
The loss of that link between home and school meant they had to approach the teacher more often to get a handle on what was happening in class. "We had to open a new line of communication," she said.
Some teachers send home newsletters to keep parents in the loop and to suggest at-home activities.
And the school plans to monitor students' progress when they go to high school. So far, grades at Prince of Wales haven't changed, and in some classes they've gone up slightly – although Olson attributes that to a focus on figuring out how each student learns best.
"We're working toward everything getting done within the confines of school time," said Olson, who admits to being a "devout homework-giver" when he was a science teacher.
Jeff Vanbodegom's eldest daughter was in tears over the amount of homework she used to do. But he said today's parents must take some of the blame.
"It's our generation carrying it – every kid has to be top of the class," said the father of three children at Prince of Wales.
"I'm much happier (now) with my kids understanding what they are doing. They are more well-rounded people and we have family time."
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