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Archive for the ‘Homework’ Category

School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework.  Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.

HomeworkHeadacheBCAfter the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.”  That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway  in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.

Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region,  and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.

Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013,  spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003.  While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework.  South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.

The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework.  Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).

The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school.  Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas.  All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.

The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback.  A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.

The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers.  This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.

Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent.  The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities.  What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement.  Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.

What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework?  Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework?  Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?

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School days lost to winter storms and other calamities is back on the public agenda, particularly in Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States. It broke into the open only when the numbers of lost days were approaching two full weeks of school. After shrugging off the issue for years, a couple of Canadian Ministers of Education suddenly went into a panicky, reactive mode. All of a sudden, recovering “lost learning time” became a priority.

SchoolClosureLogoCCRSBA succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred that intervention.  After New Brunswick’s Education Minister  Serge Rousselle  announced he was looking at adding “make-up” days, his Nova Scotia counterpart, Karen Casey, shocked everyone by sounding a public alarm bell.  In a media scrum, Casey drew what sounded like “a line in the ice” and openly mused about sending students and teachers to school on Saturdays and during March break to make up for lost days. It caused such a furor that Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays.

Since a Nova Scotia Snow Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, five years ago, many concerned parents and citizens were asking –what’s really changed? Aside from minor policy adjustments and clearer communications, very little had happened to address the fundamental issue – the erosion of learning time and its impact on both student engagement and achievement.

Compared to Nova Scotia and the neighbouring Maritime provinces, American state governments and school districts have done much better. Transforming School Snow Days into E-Learning Days opened the door to what are known as “Blizzard Bags.” With a storm approaching, teachers are prepared with class-based homework assignments, inserted in special bags, to ensure continuity in teaching and learning.

Last winter, one of the most severe ever, Nova Scotia school boards cancelled between 5 and 15 full days, the highest numbers since 2008-09. So far this season, the number of “lost days” totals from 5 in Halifax to 11 in Cape Breton, with a month of winter still ahead of us.

Connecting the dots leads to one inescapable conclusion: Students in Nova Scotia, as well as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, would be doing better if they actually spent more time in school and were expected to complete work now being “written-off” in our public schools. Cancelling whole school days for real or threatened severe weather, then allowing between 12 and 16 days to be consumed by “Teacher Days” for professional activities was only compounding the student performance challenges.

No school system anywhere can be competitive when students are only in school for 165 to 175 of the scheduled 180 to 182 instructional days. Over the past five years, students outside of Halifax have actually missed 40 to 55 full days of school as a direct result of storm closures, double that of those in the HRSB, putting them at a real disadvantage compared to city kids.  The pattern was similar in both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Raising such critical matters is no longer about finding fault, but rather about appealing for constructive policy changes to alleviate or minimize student learning loss in relation to other provinces and states. If “E-Learning Days” cannot be implemented because of the uneven state of Internet and home computer access, simply shrugging it off is no longer tenable.

The American ‘Snow-Belt’ states are way ahead of Maritimers in tackling the problem of repeated school day cancellations. Confronted with the problem, good old “Yankee ingenuity” sprouted up in Ohio, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Creative solutions are now appearing in the Greater Boston area, where school superintendents have stepped up to meet the challenge.

The state of Ohio was first out of the gate. Five school days a year were designated “Calamity Days” to accommodate storms, power outages, tornadoes, and local events, including fires, roof leaks, and boiler problems. Lost days, above 3 days, then later 5, were re-claimed by alternative means, including E-Days, replacing PD days or adding ‘make-up’ days at the end of term.

E-Learning Days emerged over the past five years as a popular alternative, employed in some 200 Ohio schools, mostly in rural and remote school districts. Given the choice between providing E-Learning activities during Snow Days and giving up PD or holiday time, teachers warmed to the concept and it was incorporated into the school’s curricular program.

The wintry blast of 2014 wreaked havoc in the state school system and ultimately claimed the Calamity Days model. When school day cancellations exceeded nine days, Ohio schools were unable to guarantee the mandated minimum of 180 days without pushing the school year into the final exam period. In September 2014, Ohio shifted from mandating school days to setting minimum annual hours of instruction, specifying 910 hours of instruction for K-6 and 1,001 hours for 7-12, and permitting more flexibility in implementing replacement days.

BlizzardBagsOhio’s Calamity Days were ahead of the curve and states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine have taken different approaches. In the Greater Boston area, Burlington City Schools, are now leading the way – providing students with Blizzard Bags and the option of completing work online or in traditional fashion.

Building and developing an effective Snow Days Alternative program is not easy, but Burlington Public Schools are proving that it can be done. Assistant Superintendent Patrick M. Larkin was “underwhelmed” with Blizzard Bags from a cross-section of Ohio schools that were stuffed with worksheets and rather mundane homework assignments. Working with teachers, Larkin has ensured that Blizzard Bags are now being filled with more challenging assignments requiring independent thinking, collaboration, digital learning, peer feedback and teacher guidance.

Whether schools are open or not, student learning should not be suspended for days on end. Let’s at least bring back those homework pouches. Giving them a fancy name like “Blizzard Bag” might even help schools to get started on the task of weaning today’s kids off Netflix and video games

What’s standing in the way of re-claiming lost School Snow Days?  Should provincial and state education authorities establish a minimum number of days when students will actually be in the classroom?  If so, what type of  a school calendar and schedule would be best for conserving and protecting instructional time? Where have school districts actually succeeded in limiting the erosion of student learning time?

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The McTutor World is on the rise. Private tutoring is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s now the fastest growing segment of Canadian K-12 education. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, the tutoring business has rebounded, particularly in major Canadian cities and the burgeoning suburbs. From 2010 to 2013, Kumon Math centre enrollment in Canada rose by 23% and is now averaging 5 % growth a year. It’s estimated that one in three city parents in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary now hire private tutors for their kids.

PrivateTutorsSylvanMy recent radio interviews on CBC Radio Drive Home shows (September 4-5, 2014) focused on the trend and tackled the bigger question of why today’s parents are turning increasingly to after-school tutors to supplement the regular school program. That’s a question that begs for a more thorough, in-depth explanation.

The expansion of private tutoring is driven by a combination of factors. The world is changing and, for good or ill, we now inhabit an increasingly competitive global world. International student testing is one symptom and so are provincial testing programs — and parents are better informed than ever before on where students and schools rank in terms of student achievement.  While high school graduation rates are rising, student performance indicators are either flat-lined or declining, especially in Atlantic Canada. In most Canadian provinces, university educated parents also have higher expectations for their children and the entire public education system is geared more to university preparation than to employability skills.

System issues play a critical role in convincing parents to turn to tutors. Promoting “Success for All” has come to signify a decline in standards and the entrenchment of “social promotion” reflected in student reports overflowing with edu-babble about “learning outcomes” but saying little about the pupils themselves.  When parents see their kids struggling to read and unable to perform simple calculations, reassurances that “everything is fine” raises more red flags.

New elementary school curricula in Literacy and Mathematics only compound the problem —and both “Discovery Math” and “Whole Language” reading approaches now face a groundswell of parental dissent, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  It’s no accident that the private tutors provide early reading instruction utilizing systematic phonics and most teach Math using traditional numbers based methods.

The tutoring business is definitely market-driven and more sensitive to public demand and expectations. Canadian academic researchers Scott Davies and Janice Aurini have shown the dramatic shift, starting in the mid-1990s, toward the franchising of private tutoring. Up until then, tutoring was mostly a “cottage industry” run in homes and local libraries, mainly serving high schoolers, and focusing on homework completion and test/exam preparation. With the entry of franchises like Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning, and Kumon, tutoring evolved into private “learning centres” in cities and the affluent suburbs.  The new tutoring centres, typically compact 1,200 sq. ft spaces in shopping plazas, offered initial learning level assessments, study skills programs, Math skills instruction, career planning, and even high school and university admissions testing preparation.

Hiring private tutors can be costly, but parents today are determined to come to the rescue of their struggling kids or to give the motivated child an extra edge.  Today it’s gone far beyond introducing your child to reading with “Fun with Phonics” and some Walmart stores even stock John Mighton’s tutoring books for the JUMP Math program. An initial assessment costs $99 to $125 and can be irresistable after reading those jargon-filled, mark-less reports. For a full tutoring program, two nights a week, the costs can easily reach $2,o00 to $3,000 a school year.  Once enrolled, parents are far more likely to look to private independent schools, a more expensive option, but one that can make after-school family life a lot simpler and less hectic.

The tutoring explosion is putting real pressure on today’s public schools. Operating from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, with “bankers’ hours,” regular schools are doing their best to cope with the new demands and competition, in the form of virtual learning and after-hours tutoring programs.  Parents are expecting more and, like Netflicks, on demand!  That  is likely to be at the centre of a much larger public conversation about the future of traditional, bricks and mortar, limited hours schooling.

What explains the phenomenal growth of private tutoring?  With public schools closing at 3:00 pm, will today’s parents turn increasingly to online, virtual education to plug the holes and address the skills deficit?  How will we insure that access to private tutors does not further deepen the educational inequities already present in Canada and the United States? Will the “Shadow Education” system expand to the point that public schools are forced to respond to the competition?  

 

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A Calgary Catholic District school, St. Basil Elementary and Junior High, made headlines in late October when principal Craig Kittelson sent a letter to Grade 7 to 9 parents announcing the elimination of the academic honour roll and end-of-year awards ceremonies.  The controversial Letter to Parents cited the work of American popular writer Alfie Kohn, including the contention that “dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive.”  A Postmedia news story by Trevor Howell in the Calgary Herald and the National Post gave extensive coverage to the eruption of “parent outrage” over both the decision and the way it was summarily announced to the community.

Alfie-KohnAxing the Academic Honour Roll reignited a public debate over the common practice of giving awards as an incentive to encourage academic achievement. The Calgary Catholic District School Board was caught flat-footed by the outrage. Scrambling for a plausible explanation, the National Post turned to Alfie Kohn’s leading Canadian disciple, Red Deer elementary teacher Joe Bower who operates the blog for the love of learning.  While news reports referenced Joe Bower’s 2007 move to end awards ceremonies at Red Deer’s Westpark Middle School, they made no mention of his related initiatives abandoning homework and refusing to give grades. Nor did the media report that he did so after experiencing an epiphany while reading Kohn’s article “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement.”

After “discovering” Kohn, Bower has been on a mission.  He’s become a serial @AlfieKohn retweeter,  while bouncing from school to school and ending up teaching special needs kids in ungraded classes at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.  In September 2013, Bower published a co-edited collection of so-called “progressive education” articles entitled de-testing and de-grading schools, complete with a glowing foreword by none other than his mentor,  Alfie Kohn.  Almost simultaneously, the Canadian Education Association published a feature article by Bower in Education Canada (Fall 2013) on “Telling Time with a Broken Clock,” the trouble with standardized testing. Kohn’s fingerprints are all over Bower’s articles and posts, hammering away at the evils of academic rewards, homework, and student testing of any kind. It makes you wonder whether this once repudiated, retooled agenda is actually the hidden curriculum of the CEA and its acolytes.

Whatever got into the Calgary Catholic District Board to actually sanction the axing of academic awards?  When pressed for a rationale, the CCDSB posted a rather bizarre summary of the “education research” intended to support the decision and come to the rescue of Kittelson,  the beleaguered school principal.  Surveying that short brief, makes for fascinating reading because it leads off by quoting American radical critic John Taylor Gatto, a leading “unschooler” opposed to compulsory schooling, then cherry picks evidence from Alfie Kohn’s favourite sources.  As a validation for the policy, it’s a classic example of a selective, politically-driven education research “mash-up” — the very kind that has landed education research in such bad odour in academe.

Just when it appeared that America’s leading progressive gadfly was fading in influence, Bower and a new generation of disciples are taking up the cause. Having heard Alfie Kohn speak at a Quebec  English Teachers Conference in Montreal in the early 2000s, I have seen–first hand– his tremendous gifts as an orator and felt the allure of his iconoclastic ideas, until I began to consider the consequences of putting those ideas into actual practice.  Born in Miami Beach, Florida, the preppy-looking, reed thin author and lecturer, now in his late 50s, has authored a dozen books with catchy titles such as No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986), Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars (1993), The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), The Homework Myth (2006), and Feel Bad Education (2011).  He has staying power, judging from the steady stream of simple Kohn axioms spewing out of Bower and his other camp followers.

Like most educational evangelicals, Kohn has undeniable appeal, especially to North American teachers, tapping into their very real feelings of alienation, powerlessness, and resistance to imposed change.  He finds a ready audience because he has identified a vein of dissent and resistance running though the rank and file teacher forces, often manifested in opposition to top-down educational decision-making.  Academic critics like Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School, point out that Kohn is effective as an agent provocateur and likely “not bad for you or dangerous to your children.”  He raises important questions, but, according to Willingham, “should not be read as a guide to the answers” because his writings “cannot be trusted as an accurate summary of the research literature.” In his reply to Willingham, Kohn held his ground, while conceding that some of his distillations run the risk of oversimplying complex issues.

One of the most incisive assessments of Alfie Kohn comes from Michael J. Petrilli of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an American education gadfly of a different stripe. Writing in the March 2012 issue of Wisconsin Interest, Petrilli hit the mark: “Kohn’s arguments are half-crazy and half-true, which is what makes him so effective — and so maddening.” He also provides a useful corrective to Kohn’s particular educational worldview. “What fuels the modern school reform movement,” he claims, “is not acquiescence to Corporate America but outrage over the nation’s lack of social mobility.” You can be sure this will not appear on Joe Bower’s blog or in one of his next tweets.

What fuels American education gadfly Alfie Kohn’s zealous contrarianism and various progressive education crusades?  How much of Kohn’s core progressivist ideology is rooted in the teachings of John Dewey and Jean Piaget — and what proportion is pure creative imagination?  What has Kohn actually contributed to the education world in terms of sound policy ideas?  What does explain his continuing influence and undeniable capacity to attract new adherents?

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