This article is an editorial based upon the author’s experience.
I’ve been reading with great interest the current debate about the usefulness of homework. As with most debates, the issues have become polarized and both sides resort to hyperbole in order to make a point. On the one side are those who argue that homework puts too much stress on families, takes too much time away from other more useful activities, destroys creativity, and isn’t very helpful anyway. On the other are those who argue that homework reinforces lessons presented in school, helps students prepare for class, and provides useful repetition so that concepts won’t be forgotten.
As with most debates, there’s some truth to all of it. Homework can indeed provide preparation, practice, and reinforcement for lessons. Homework can help kids learn important life skills like organization, time management, and how to use resources. It’s also true that homework can be busy work, a reinforcer of mistakes, and stressful. Continual failure with homework, like continual failure during school hours, lowers self-esteem and makes it less and less likely that a kid will be successful. When homework becomes a nightly battle, it can damage parent-child relationships.
The questions concerning how much homework should be required at what age, concerns about quality, and issues around effective parent involvement can be adequately responded to by taking credible research seriously, training teachers to design homework wisely and well, and developing home-school partnerships that give parents the skills they need to be good homework helpers Once we institute sensible homework guidelines, though, we get to a much more difficult and painful issue. Managing homework comes down to whether the kid’s home can provide the atmosphere and support for the work.
Middle- and upper-class families are likely to spend time helping with homework; structuring homework time, providing space, materials, computers, and encyclopedias; insisting on correcting it, and contacting teachers when there are problems. These families are the same families who are able to provide supplementary educational experiences like summer camps, family vacations and travel, and Saturday outings to the museums. These families generally live in areas where schools are good to excellent anyway.
Parents who are struggling to make it financially, parents who are struggling with mental illness or addictions, parents who live in fear of domestic or neighborhood violence, don’t have the emotional space to make homework a priority. Their kids are pretty much on their own. Financial limitations are just that, limitations. Families living in poverty aren’t able to afford a computer or getting connected. Unless they happen on camp scholarships and special programs, their kids aren’t going to be spending vacations and Saturdays anywhere but at home and in front of a TV or on the streets. Often they live in school districts that are under-funded and in which teachers are stretched to their limits.
There are exceptions, of course. Some parents in well-to-do families neglect their kids or try to buy the help and support they themselves should provide. Some parents from impossibly impoverished situations none the less find the personal energy and psychological strength to champion their kids’ schooling. However, exceptions are, after all, exceptions. Generally kids are sent down the path of school achievement or school difficulty from an early age. That path is largely determined by the ability of their parents to provide them with support. Economic status doesn’t have everything to do with it but certainly is a major contributing factor.
Until we as a culture decide to look boldly and honestly at how inequalities in class are connected with academic achievement, until we are willing to match our ideals about equal education for all with our money, there will be lots of kids who will never have the opportunity to reach their potential. We may not be able to solve all the inequities of class but we can provide more support for school success to the kids who need it. By keeping schools open and staffed many more hours each week, we can make sure that every child has the opportunity to get extra help and enrichment from caring adults. The school library and plenty of computers need to be available after school, during the evening, and on Saturdays. Equally important, there needs to be sufficient qualified staff available to provide practical help and to take personal interest in the kids doing well.
It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect overwhelmed parents to continue the work of school at home. My vote is to pay attention to the research, drop homework entirely from elementary schools, and instead focus on providing young children who need it with after school help as well as enrichment experiences. For middle and high school aged kids, institute school-based help time outside of normal school hours as an option for getting homework done and done well. Then all of our students will have a much more equal opportunity for success in school and in life.