Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Homework Paradox

Robert Pondiscio's recent article in The Atlantic argues that while upper middle-class "gifted" kids may not need homework, for children in poor or less-well-educated households, homework can be an invaluable source of intellectual stimulation.  He's responding to people who--like me--wonder why our children's reading ability grows far more in two months of summer vacation than in nine months of education (the answer: she read something like a book a day when she didn't have homework to do).  These observations lead well-meaning liberals--like myself--to question the value of giving any homework at all.  As Pondiscio rightly points out, it's not fair or reasonable to impose on other people's children conditions (or, in this case, lack of conditions) simply because those conditions make sense for our own children.  He's right about that, and also when he carefully argues
The proper debate about homework – now and always – should not be “how much” but “what kind” and “what for?”  Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.  Independent reading is also important.  There are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates.  Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.
But I still worry about homework as an educational prescription for the poor, for a few reasons.

  1. First, I think the same factors that disadvantage the children Pondiscio says need high-quality homework also make it less likely that they will get it.  These children are less likely to have access to the high-quality teachers who assign the thoughtful and thought-provoking tasks that Pondiscio praises.  (For a prime example, go back to the Summer Homework Remix Challenge, or simply look at the books full of repetitive worksheets textbook publishers use to sell their series.) And they're less likely to have the academic and intellectual support at home to complete those tasks: parents who understand what a genuine science experiment is, or how to think about a complex text.  This isn't racism, or classism, but simple logic:  if the problem that homework is supposed to fix is inadequate intellectual stimulation at home, why would we expect those homes to provide adequate intellectual support for challenging tasks?
  2. Second, especially in high school, kids from poor backgrounds are likely to have circumstances that make it hard to get homework done.  Many of my economically disadvantaged students babysit for younger siblings so that their parent(s) can work, or for nieces and nephews whose own parents' income is essential for the functioning of the wider family.  Others work after school--not for money to blow on an iPad, but for essentials like winter coats or even the family rent.  Even those who don't have these responsibilities often lack the most basic requirement: a calm, reasonably quiet place to work.  So asking these students to do large quantities of homework isn't always reasonable.
  3. Items #1 and #2 point to a perverse Matthew Effect of the exact sort that Pondiscio wants homework to overcome:  poor students are often in circumstances that make it harder to get homework done, less likely that they'll get what they're supposed to out of homework, and more likely that they'll find homework just another unreasonable demand of an already-harsh educational system.  At my school, inability to get homework done well is often one of the leading causes--and symptoms--of a student's failure to make a real go of it at all.  So relying on homework widens the gap between the educationally/economically advantaged and the disadvantaged.
  4. Finally, I'll admit it: I'm a skeptic.  Not about homework, but about middle-class arguments that essentially boil down to saying "The poor need this, but not my children."  We've done a pretty crappy job educating other people's children differently from our own, and I guess my tendency is to err--pretty far--on the other side: if I wouldn't want a school, teacher, rule, or homework policy for my child, I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone else.
Pondiscio raises good points, and I'm not--really, I'm not--saying that we should get rid of homework for everyone.  But I am wary of saying that homework is likely to solve the problem of socio-educational inequality, especially before we have a coherent way of ensuring that the students homework is supposed to help have equal access to the kinds of high-quality assignments, and homework support structures, that we'd want our own kids to have.