How to push back against homework
Simply opting out may reinforce inequalities, but parents can challenge the status quo in ways that will help everyone.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
In my newsletter a couple of weeks ago, I explored what the science says about elementary school homework. My conclusion: There’s no convincing evidence that homework in these early years helps kids learn. Paradoxically, too, it may worsen inequalities, because teachers tend to more harshly punish less privileged students who fail to do their homework compared with more privileged students who fail to do their homework. That fascinating and important work was conducted by Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco, whose research focuses on how institutions (like schools) create and reinforce inequalities.
In response to my newsletter, some readers said that they were now planning to opt their kids opt out of homework. If it doesn’t help your kid learn, why force your kid to do it? I hear you — I’ve had this thought too. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, in light of Calarco’s work, how these individual decisions might affect school dynamics and systemic outcomes. Is telling your kid’s teacher “nope, my child won’t be doing homework” the best way to change the system? If not, what is? To find out, I asked Calarco if she would be willing to share her thoughts and insights.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
First I want to zoom out and ask: What are your overarching thoughts on homework in elementary school?
I actually have a new paper coming out that focuses on the case of math homework. Essentially, we asked: How do teachers account for homework inequalities, and how does the way teachers think about inequalities in homework shape the way they respond to students in the classroom? We find that teachers account for inequalities in homework using the myth of meritocracy. They treat homework as a proxy for kids’ individual competence, efforts and responsibility, even when they know that it is produced in a very unequal context. As a result of that, they end up justifying homework practices that reinforce inequalities in the classroom. Things like assigning homework that exceeds what students are able to complete independently, and punishing students who fail to meet expectations for homework completion, especially if they do so regularly. And then also rewarding students who do meet those expectations regularly — leading to inequalities in things like who's kept in at recess, and who is docked points on assignments, things along those lines.
We also look at why teachers do this. And we find that this “myth of meritocracy” view of homework makes the work of education seem less hopeless, because it gives teachers the sort of savior role to play in teaching students competence and responsibility — which they see homework as a critical piece of, in many cases. At the same time, it allows them to absolve themselves of responsibility when they do see students continuing to struggle, in the sense that they can say, “Well, I gave them homework, and I taught them to be responsible, and they're just not putting in the effort. And so if they're not doing well in school, that's not on me.”
So when students who are less privileged are struggling to do their homework, teachers have this idea that they need to push them harder and punish them in order to get them on track — that that’s the best way to help them?
Exactly. It's seen as a tool for developing students’ responsibility. Even when teachers know that students are up against challenges at home, they often see those students as the ones who need homework the most, that need the help with responsibility the most. The teachers often perceive the parents as less invested or less involved, even when that's not the case at all — when parents would be very happy to be more involved, but simply don't have the time or the resources or, in some cases, the language skills to be able to do that.
So the teachers are basing their responses on their assumptions of what's going on at home. But those assumptions are often flawed.
Exactly. So based on that, I am not a fan of homework. I mean, I think that there is value in what homework is trying to achieve. But I don't necessarily think that the way homework is typically practiced is the way that we ought to be going about achieving those goals. Certainly, many parents value homework as a tool for understanding and learning more about what their children are learning about in school. It's sort of a window into the curriculum, and also a way to get involved in structured ways. But there are other ways that teachers can communicate to families what's being taught in schools. And there are plenty of other ways for parents to be involved aside from homework. I think there's a place for out-of-school practice, and there's a place for communication about curriculum, but it doesn't have to be done in ways that are punitive and potentially damaging for students and families.
After sending out my newsletter, I got comments from readers along the lines of “Oh, this makes me feel empowered to push back against homework. I'll send in a note saying my kid is not going to do homework.” What are your thoughts on opting out like this?
I think the parents who are most in a position to be able to opt out are disproportionately going to be highly privileged parents, because schools don't have an incentive to enforce homework rules against them. If anything, schools have the incentive to let them get away with breaking those rules. And those children almost certainly will not be punished for not having their assignments, particularly if their families are highly involved in sending notes explaining why they're choosing to opt out. But what that leaves in place are the larger patterns of inequalities — it addresses the individual issue, but it doesn't address the larger systemic problem that homework, as it is currently practiced in many schools, tends to create. It leaves in place homework for those students whose parents may be less comfortable opting out because of how they worry that they'll be judged by the school system, or who may not be given the same leeway to opt out if teachers perceive their kids as needing the kind of responsibilities that they perceive homework as providing.
How might concerned parents push back against homework in ways that won’t create these inequalities?
I think they can be broader in the way that they're involving themselves. They can advocate for changes that speak beyond their individual child, and coordinate with other families in their district and in their schools and say, “Okay, let's have a conversation about homework and who is benefiting and who is not, and how we might do this differently.” And that could look like lobbying for a move away from required homework, particularly at the elementary and maybe the middle school level as well — in terms of either making homework fully optional, or making homework something that just simply isn't assigned, beyond maybe things like reading practice at nighttime for kids who are able to do that.
Another possibility for those school districts that do want to have some form of homework in place is to encourage more mindfulness in the kinds of assignments that teachers provide. One of the things that we recommend in our new paper is, if homework is assigned, making sure that it is not too challenging for students to complete fully independently. Essentially, one of the problems with homework is that parents get involved. And so teachers are using it as a proxy for responsibility when in fact, really, it's just a proxy for the amount of involvement that parents are able to provide. And so what that means is that especially when assignments get too challenging — and we find that that's particularly common in math — that's when parents tend to be most involved and that's when it sort of amplifies the problems. And so if teachers are very cautious about calibrating their assignments, to what even the students who will need the most support are able to do independently, then they're less likely to create these inequalities related to the amount of peer support that families can provide at home.
It is advocating for not just “I'm going to take my kid out of homework,” but “Can we please change these assignments? Can we make these assignments ones that my kid can complete independently without me having to be involved as a parent?”
Parents could also ask that teachers or administrators change the way that homework is treated and rewarded in the classroom — lobbying against policies that lead to homework being used, for example, to keep kids in for recess, or to dock kids points, or including it on report cards.
You mentioned optional homework. But if there are students who always turn in the optional homework, and other students who just never doing it — won’t that shape teachers’ perceptions of students in potentially worrying ways, too?
Yes — that gets at the sticky point that this can affect teachers’ perceptions of students, even if it's not actually influencing official policies. We know that teachers often do consider homework when they're assigning grades, even when they're not supposed to.
I would say, if teachers are going the optional homework route, the ideal would be just not to collect it — to provide it as a practice that students can do at home if they want to, but that isn't ever expected to be brought back to school. Teachers can essentially provide the correct answers for parents to be able to access on a website, or by sending home the correct answers so that parents can help kids check it if they want to. I think you're right that if the optional homework is expected to be sent back to school, then that creates the possibility for bias in teachers’ perceptions of which students are doing it and in which students aren't.
And when optional homework is collected, parents feel the pressure, too. My daughter gets optional “challenge” homework in math, and we haven't been doing it every day, but I always feel this guilt, like — is my kid going to be perceived as not as strong of a student because we don't do it?
Exactly. We actually talked about that in our new paper. There were some examples from middle school of teachers assigning optional challenge homework, and then using that to decide which kids got bumped up to higher level math in middle school. So yes, it absolutely happens.
What about when teachers say to parents, “If you find that the homework is too difficult or frustrating, or your child can’t finish it, just send a note in and let me know”? If a teacher requires that a parent be involved in the explanation and refusal of homework, couldn’t this also create a divide between the families who are highly involved and able to send notes in, and those who cannot?
Yes. This kind of policy assumes that if kids aren't getting their homework done, it's because they're being lazy, essentially, as opposed to that they're having trouble. I think it would be better if teachers just had the default assumption that if a student comes in without their homework, it's probably because they were struggling with it or needed more support than they were able to get at home. And not that they were just not being responsible enough. If you have to provide a note, that means that otherwise, it's not justified in not being done.
What else should parents consider if they want to push back against homework policies?
Remember that school administrators are important in these decisions too, and they may be facing pressures on both ends. Some families see homework as necessary for helping their kids achieve higher levels of academic success, or they see it as a way for their kids to distinguish themselves, or they see it is a key tool for communicating what's happening in the curriculum. I think parents should be mindful of the fact that there's a whole host of cross-pressures that administrators and teachers and families are facing, and that they may not always line up the same way. It's easy to assume that all parents are critical of homework, but that's not the case. And similarly, it's easy to assume that all teachers have a similar stance, but they may be facing different constraints as well.
I know you have a daughter. How do you handle homework with her?
Our school has optional homework where they send home homework, but it doesn't have to be sent back. And we try to do it with our daughter sometimes, just to give her a sense of what homework will be like, because homework isn’t optional in older grades. But she understands and knows about the research that I do. So she will give me plenty of sass when I try to get her to do the optional homework, with plenty of critiques of the inequalities embedded in that process. She is highly aware and highly critical of homework, particularly when I try to get her to do it.
I love it. She’s a mini-you.
Yep. For better or for worse.
OTHER NEWS: Last week for Scientific American magazine, I wrote about the devastating problem of suicide among Black youth. Black children between the ages of five and 12 are about twice as likely to die of suicide as white children of the same age. The urgency to deal with the issue has only grown more acute: A new study found that suicide rates among Black children and adolescents have recently been worsening. Between 2003 and 2017, suicides rose in this group, especially among Black girls, whose rate of increase was more than twice as high as that of Black boys. Read more here.
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