There is much debate about what kind of role homework should play in schools. Research on the topic is mixed. It has negative impacts on the achievement of younger children, positive impacts at the high school level, and mixed results in the middle. Despite this, homework is routinely given at all levels of school. We’ve even met preschool teachers who say they must give homework to four-year-olds!
What does homework have to do with equity?
Here is yet another practice that serves to exacerbate inequities faced by students from poverty. As we talk with teachers, it seems to be widely recognized that families have a huge role to play in setting students up for success with homework. Many teachers rely on parents to help students when they get stuck or to make them do it. At the very least, it is expected that parents create space and time in the home for kids to be able to be successful with homework. When viewed through the lens of a middle-class background, this might seem reasonable (though it still ignores the nightly power struggles that often ensue). Comfortable and familiar images surface of setting aside a special table or a space at the counter for kids to do homework with supplies such as pencils, pens, rulers, and other school supplies nearby.
What happens for kids living in homes where adults can’t set these things up? How about kids who stay in different homes on different nights and don’t have a consistent schedule? What about kids whose parents struggled in school (or didn’t even finish school—like one of the authors of this blog post)? and don’t know how to be successful with homework? Some parents work multiple jobs and aren’t home to be involved in the homework routine. Many children live in temporary housing such as motels, homeless shelters, or campgrounds. Through no fault of their own, many of our students have little, if any chance, of being successful with work sent home. In addition to not completing assigned work, they get another loud and clear message that they can’t be successful in school.
What should we do instead?
Of course, there’s an obvious solution—stop giving homework entirely. This would benefit many children and families at the preschool, elementary, and middle school levels. If work is worth doing, do it at school. And yes, that means we’d need to be more selective with what we do—we would no longer be able to try and do more than is possible in a school day by passing work beyond the final bell.
If this isn’t possible for some reason, there are other options to consider.
- Make homework optional. “If you’d like to continue playing around with this science work after school, here are a couple of ways you could do that,” we could invite. Then, if students do work outside of class, they can share what they worked on with others—further enriching everyone’s understanding. This, too, allows them to benefit from choice. You might be surprised at the investment students might make.
- Keep homework light and simple—no projects allowed! If you must assign homework, keep it light in nature. Offer a few simple ways to practice key skills or reinforce content. Don’t assign complex work such as long-range projects. These require organizational skills and coaching best left to teachers. Once a big project is sent home, well-meaning and overzealous family members can get involved, and then the disparities between rich and poor are heightened. Again, the parent who is at their second job may be limited in their ability to participate.
- Don’t allow class time to revolve around homework. Avoid the homework doom-loop, where most of class is spent reviewing homework leaving little time for instruction or actual work in school. Instead, spend class time engaged in dynamic learning and don’t waste time reviewing homework.
- Don’t grade homework. If you’re grading work that some kids have a fair shot at doing and others don’t, you’re building inequity into your grading system. Kids from disadvantaged homes will have a harder time getting good grades, regardless of their understanding of content.
- Be wary of flipped learning. The intent of the flipped classroom model is positive, but for kids unable to complete readings or watch videos at home, they come to school unprepared for the deeper learning saved for class time. Their day begins at a disadvantage. These kids are left doing the rote work in the hall or being unsuccessful with higher level learning.
- Encourage reading. If there’s one kind of “homework” we could all encourage, it’s reading for pleasure. Don’t track it, manage it, or “hold kids accountable” for it. Encourage it. Make sure all kids have access to books at school that they can take home. If want to foster a love of reading, we need to not make reading a chore.
- Miscellaneous Homework. Consider rethinking homework altogether. Consider offering options that encourage connection. How about a family dance party? Maybe students can write a letter to a grandparent, or other relative, telling them about school. Or they might call/write a relative to ask about a family story or tradition. Encourage them to help a neighbor or clean up the trash on their block. (Remember, don’t incentivize or reward kids who do these things. Simply allow kids to share their experiences with you and/or the class.)
What are some of your ideas? How might we change homework practices to ensure that all students have a true opportunity to succeed in school?
Read about more inequities common in many schools in our other posts in this series!
Inequities Hidden in Plain Sight (Common School Practices that Disadvantage the Already Disadvantaged)