Op-Ed: Assigning the Parents Homework: Homework as a socio-economic indicator

A recent tweet went out where a parent mentioned that her daughter was only able to complete her homework after she had been able to use a home printer, a laptop, home internet service, a large pair of scissors, glue sticks, white and colored paper as well as some other materials.

The parent wanted to know if a student that did not have access to the same materials would have been able to complete the assignment. Did the homework assess her child’s learning, or did it assess parental resources?

Homework in general over the years, has come under pressure as not a particularly effective way of assisting student learning. If you think about the way we have always assigned homework, the traditional method has been that a lesson is presented in class, and then the students are asked to solve some set of problems based on the lesson presented.

Among the many issues in this model is the one that the student must complete the homework sans the teacher, then hope that the completed work is “good enough” to get a passing grade.

I struggled mightily in high school Calculus as Mrs. Martin, goodness bless her, spent 45 minutes a day working on a problem across an 18 foot blackboard, showing us how to do one problem, and then assigned us 3 or more similar problems as homework.

Was it an assignment based on how we could problem solve, or on note taking skills, or how well we stayed awake during her demonstration? Or on puzzle solving, as the answer she often came up with did not match the one in her hefty teacher’s edition?

Whatever the case, it didn’t seem to matter, as I received an 84 no matter how hard I worked. To this day, no one has asked me ever to do an integration or a proof or to differentiate anything.

My parents and siblings knew nothing of Calculus, and my friends, who were not in the class, were of no help. I did not have Khan Academy to guide me, so my entire year of homework in that class was essentially a nightly wild guess.

Was I being assessed on my limited Calculus knowledge, my note taking skills, or my ability to guess an answer?

Which brings us back to homework completion as a socio economic indicator. Students that have ready access to resources outside of class, no matter the type of resource, are much more likely to correctly complete a homework assignment than those that do not have access to those same resources.

Say for instance that a student has been assigned homework that requires then to do a critical analysis of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In my day (a phrase I use more and more the older I get) my friends and I would run to the local book store and buy up the Cliff Notes for $3.99 each, which not only had a summary of the work but also some analysis of it which we promptly copied and “paraphrased” to make it at least look like we had an original thought.

It never dawned on me, nor probably to my teachers at the time, that there were probably kids in the class that could not afford to go to the bookstore and purchase the Cliff Notes version of Moby Dick.

Today, a student would use the internet to do a search of a critical analysis of Moby Dick and probably do the same thing, albeit they now can watch corresponding videos, lectures about Moby Dick, perhaps even a TED talk about Herman Melville.

Today, it is not uncommon for teachers to assign homework that might require some kind of connectivity. Even something as seemingly benign as asking students to watch a presidential debate or a State of the Union Address assumes that students have access to televisions or news media in the evening.

While most do, some do not.

Sometimes, that is quite the assumption and in many cases leads to a gap between those students whose families have access to information outside of home and those that do not.

This disparity, when applied to completion of homework is called “The Homework Gap.”

Over 5 million US students, according to one study, do not have access to the internet at their homes. (And don’t get me going about Smartphones…have you ever tried to complete an assignment using a smartphone?) But the idea of the “gap” should go beyond simply having access to the internet after school hours.

Do students have access to other tools that might be required to finish an assignment? As a child, I remember one homework assignment was to create some kind of diorama using a shoebox as a stage, something children that grew up in my generation probably are quite familiar with.

The expectation by the teacher of course, was that everyone simply had an empty shoebox just hanging around the house somewhere that could be used for this assignment.

My family had no such thing: we tossed our shoeboxes when we got home. So we spent hours going to various shoe and department stores looking for empty shoeboxes. So much time in fact, that there was little time left to complete the actual diorama. Who did a better diorama?

The kid that had the shoebox readily viable at home of course. (Curses to you Marci! You always had better dioramas!) The point was of course that kids with access to the tools to complete the homework were more successful than those that did not.

There are ways to correct the homework gap problem of course. The most obvious is avoid assigning homework at all. Multiple studies have shown that homework has little or no (even negative) academic affect for students in elementary schools, and limited effect in secondary grades.

Many schools have even decided to have a “no homework” policy, instead adopting a flipped classroom model, where the traditional “homework” is done during class time. Another model is to provide the tools that studens need to complete the assignments, whether they are shoeboxes or internet hotspots.

The “1 Million Project,” part of the legacy Project Connect from the Obama administration, is one such example and provides free Internet hotspots for students in need so that they have connectivity to the internet after school hours.

Educators need to think long and hard about what type of homework they assign to students. Is the homework truly academically useful outside of school or is it something that could better be completed in class?

Does it require tools that a child may not readily have available at home? Will the cost of completing the homework put an undue burden on parents with limited means?

Children that live in homes where homework can easily be completed by willing-accomplance parents with means who can supply them the tools, the tutors, and the time have a distinct advantage ECONOMICALLY over similar students that may not have these home tools, and grades given for homework can, in many cases, reflect more of a home economic status than any kind of student ability.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink Read his previous columns here.

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