Well folks, we have made it to June, it seems, and for those of you who are not school teachers, you may not understand the particular brand of crazy that this time of year inflicts upon those of us in the classroom. For it is at this time of year that so many of us, particularly at the high school level, are facing that oh-so-common student question:
“Hey, Sir/Miss/Mrs. Is there some work I can do to pass your course?”
You see, there is a certain percentage of students in every school for whom the start of June seems to sound some sort of bell. An alarm if you will. An alarm that has remained silent through many missed deadlines and skipped classes, through parental and teacher lectures, through mid-term report cards and countless study hall hours spent whiling away the time engaged in just about every activity imaginable except study. An alarm that seems to tell them, rather suddenly in some cases “Holy crow, I am going to fail!”
And then the bargaining begins.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I was a procrastinator in school, so I can empathize with my students. But as teachers weave our way through this annual pre-summer ritual, it seems inevitable that my thoughts, and indeed, the thoughts of many, turn to the subject of homework. Because, for many of these “negotiators”, homework lies at the heart of the issue. Or should I say, lack of homework. Many of the students who are asking for a lifeline at this point in the year find themselves in this particular boat because they did not, could not or would not complete the assignments they were asked to do when they were asked to do them.
So, as the June homework negotiations rage, I have to find at least some painfully comedic irony that our Minister of Education has chosen June, of all months, to collect information via another public survey on this very subject.
I am sure by now many of you have heard about or perhaps even have filled out this latest, and somewhat redundant, attempt by our government to appear to be giving “us average folks” a say in things. I say redundant, of course, because this government’s last survey was supposed to address such issues. And I do confess to some predisposed bias against the whole affair. I have not been shy about expressing my concerns around the notion of public opinion driving educational change.
However, adding to my natural tendency to meet such efforts with an eye roll is the matter of the wording of some of the questions the homework survey contains. Much like the original education survey from last winter, this survey seems to be ripe with questions that are raising eyebrows (and some ire) around many staff room tables. Consider the following statement that the survey asks participants to rate on a four point scale:
Homework assignments should be different depending on the needs and interests of each student.
Well, that would be lovely, but even after twenty some odd years of teaching I have no idea how I would accomplish that goal completely. Teachers can certainly offer choice, but at the high school level, customizing work to meet the individual interests of conservatively 80 students per semester would be a task of herculean proportion. Although perhaps a laudable goal, it is unlikely to ever be fully realized under the current system.
Set next to questions within the survey that seemingly ask the impossible are questions that, seemingly, ask the obvious.
Parents should help their children with homework.
It would be interesting to see how many parents actually answer “strongly disagree” to this question. For most of us, helping with homework is part of the whole parenting deal. I would suggest that there are a dozen reasons why parents can’t help with homework, but there is a pretty big distinction between “should” and “can’t“. And although I recognize that some parents may feel that they should not have to help, that is also very different question.
Then there are the questions within the survey that seem almost to be at odds with each other. Consider these next two pieces:
Students should receive detailed feedback on their homework that lets them strengthen their knowledge and skills.
I would prefer that my child is asked to do more homework each week
Now, again, certain parents may want their kids to have more homework, but if homework is to be truly meaningful, designed to strengthen knowledge and skills, then volume should not be a factor. More does not necessarily equate to better. Add to that the time needed for teachers to provide the “detailed feedback” that truly effective school work requires to enhance learning, and increasing the volume again works contrary to the goal of improving results.
This brings us, of course, to an even larger issue. If the true purpose of all these surveys is to improve the education system in Nova Scotia, asking the general population what they “think” about homework will accomplish little. A better question, perhaps, and one with more potential to affect actual change, should have been “Does homework serve a purpose at all”?
Certainly there has been a great deal of debate around this little nugget, with most arguments based in sound, albeit sometimes contradictory, research. Well known educational expert Alfie Cohn has been anti-homework for a good ten years now, and has stated quite clearly on a number of occasions that there is no evidence assigning homework does any good for kids, particularly in the K-6 years. He has claimed that there isn’t even a correlation between homework and academic achievement. This line of thinking has recently caused a school in New York to abolish homework altogether.
On the other hand, researcher Harris Cooper found that there was a generally a positive connection between academic achievement and homework, although his views on the subject are expressed somewhat less strongly than Cohn’s.
Finally, to split the debate right down the middle, a relatively recent study out of Stanford University found that there is indeed a “magic number” for homework (about 2 1/2 hours a night for high school students), but that assigning anything beyond that was actually bad for students in many ways, including increasing stress and reducing overall health.
With so much research readily available debating the very value of homework, one wonders why our government is spending its time, (and money) asking the general population to weigh in on questions like
Homework should only be assigned when meaningful.
Well, who, exactly, would argue otherwise?
The survey wraps up this Friday, and I suppose we will see what it brings. There are some to whom I have spoken that believe the new homework policy is already written, and that the whole survey is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Indeed, reading the teacher section of the survey seems to give a pretty good picture of what the policy will say. However, regardless of the outcome, there is a slightly sobering thought in all of this that the public may want to consider.
Of all the folks who respond to this survey, of all the parents and community members and students and others, only one group of people can actually be told by the Minister what to do. Only one group that could receive directives rather than suggestions.
I hope to goodness that those directives, whatever they may be, will remain solidly based in the reality of the classroom teacher’s everyday existence.
And are written with an eye to remembering the month of June.