Homework can deepen inequities for low-income students at school if teachers judge students’ effort by their families’ involvement.
That’s according to a new study in the journal Educational Researcher, which found teachers were more likely to attribute missed homework to irresponsibility or parent disinterest with low-income students and students of color than with wealthier or white students.
The study was part of a broader longitudinal study of more than 4,000 middle school students and their teachers. Researchers observed 80 students and their teachers and conducted in-depth interviews with both, as well as with the students’ families.
Across both elementary and middle schools, “teachers were interpreting homework through this meritocratic lens, seeing it as the product of motivation and competence and effort, and not as the product of the kinds of circumstances that students or their families might be facing at home,” said Jessica McCrory Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University and the lead author of the study.
“When teachers use that cultural framework to interpret what’s going on in their classrooms, it can lead them to judge and punish students and treat students in potentially harmful ways,” Calarco said.
As one teacher in the study noted, “I’ve had a few students this year who have been reluctant to do homework. It’s been mainly the [lower-level students].
Probably math isn’t their favorite subject, so they wouldn’t want to do their math homework, even when it’s easy. And when it’s not easy, they especially don’t want to do it.”
The findings are “unfortunate but not surprising,” said Joyce Epstein, a homework researcher and the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in Calarco’s study.
“Parents are in fact interested in their children’s work and success. What they’re not interested in is being told they’re supposed to know how to teach every subject at every grade level, just because somebody said it was a good idea,” Epstein said.
Teachers who took a meritocratic approach to homework were more likely to adopt punitive homework policies: giving extra credit on tests for students who turned in homework, or keeping students back from recess for not completing it, for example. Meritocratic teachers also were more likely to assign homework that students could not complete independently, either because it was too difficult or required input from parents.
One mother of a 5th grader in the study said she barely passed her GED high school equivalency exam, and often struggled to help her son with math. “I still can’t really figure out division. . . . [Jesse will] ask me a question, and I’ll go look at it, and it’s like algebra, in 5th grade,” the mother told researchers. “Sometimes you just feel stupid because he’s in 5th grade, and I’m like—I should be able to help my son with his homework in 5th grade.”
In an earlier related study using the same students, Calarco and her colleagues also found teachers felt significant pressure from affluent and white parents to excuse their children when they failed to complete homework. Existing homework policies tended to be applied in favor of students of parents who were highly involved in the school.
“It wasn’t a consistent application of rules,” Calarco said. “It was much more rooted in the status and the power of families ... not only in terms of who actually was able to provide more hands-on help at home, but also in the extent to which teachers felt that they had to grant exemptions to students from more privileged backgrounds.”
Designing better homework
Prior research suggests the majority of parent homework help ends up being counterproductive, including doing work for a student or providing confusing or inaccurate explanations for a concept.
“Homework is important, proven to be useful for children’s learning, but we can all do better in designing good homework as opposed to just more of it,” Epstein said.
She argued that teachers should be given more time to work with each other and parents to design homework policies and assignments.
“We should never ask parents to teach a school subject. They don’t want to do it, they can’t do it, they shouldn’t be asked to do it,” Epstein said. “What we’ve learned is that to increase the family connection with their child on homework, ... you design homework to help the student become the leader in this work.”
Among the recommendations:
- Do not design homework that requires parents to teach or check content knowledge.
- Ensure students can complete assignments at home without help.
- Design separate, ungraded assignments to engage families (e.g. a family oral history project). “If we design homework so the youngster is showing, sharing, demonstrating what they’ve learned in class, the parent becomes an appreciator of how the youngster is growing their skills and abilities,” Epstein said.
- Incorporate supplemental exercises or model lessons in separate communications with parents, such as school newsletters or literacy nights.