One day in a fourth grade math class, the students complained about the previous night’s homework.
“My mom had to sit with me for a while, but I got it eventually,” said one student. Another student piped up, quietly, “My mom doesn’t do that.”
The first student came from a high socioeconomic background, while the second came from a low socioeconomic background. This anecdote is just one facet of the data presented in a new working paper from education scholars, which found that math homework reinforces the unequal treatment of students who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Status-reinforcing processes, or ones that fortify pre-existing divides, are a dime a dozen in education. Standardized testing, creating honors and AP tracks, and grouping students based on perceived ability all serve to disadvantage students who lack the support structures and parental engagement associated with affluence.
Looking specifically at math homework, the authors of the new working paper wanted to see if homework was yet another status-reinforcing process. As it turns out, it was, and researchers say that the traditional solutions offered up to fix the homework gap won’t work.
“Here, teachers knew that students were getting unequal support with homework,” said Jessica Calarco, the first author of the paper and an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University. “And yet, because of these standard, taken-for-granted policies that treated homework as students' individual responsibilities, it erased those unequal contexts of support and led teachers to interpret and respond to homework in these status-reinforcing ways.”
In a cohort of 52 white students, those from a higher socioeconomic background fared better on average on their math homework in third, fourth, and fifth grades. They also maintained higher GPAs and test scores than their peers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Between 2008 and 2012, Calarco sat in on classes and conducted interviews with students, caregivers, and teachers in a single suburban school district. She amassed thousands of pages of field notes and hundreds of hours of interviews from the project, which became her doctoral dissertation. As she went through that data, she said that she was surprised to find repeated examples of math homework perpetuating and even exacerbating inequality.
In addition to observing classrooms and tracking students’ performance over time, Calarco conducted qualitative interviews with both the families of students about factors affecting homework completion and the math teachers about how homework completion affected their perceptions of students.
Calarco and her co-authors found multiple instances of students’ socioeconomic statuses impacting their ability to complete homework: one wealthier parent said she hired a tutor to help her fourth-grader with the homework, while another parent from a lower socioeconomic background explained that she barely passed math while attending community college and felt “stupid” that she wasn’t able to help her fifth-grader.
The teachers interviewed for the paper acknowledged the unequal contexts affecting whether students could complete their math homework fully and correctly, Calarco said. However, that did not stop the same teachers from using homework as a way to measure students’ abilities.
“The most shocking and troubling part to me was hearing teachers write off students because they didn't get their homework done,” Calarco said.
In the paper, a seventh-grade teacher said that a student from a lower socioeconomic background who was not turning in his homework was “not giving [her] anything to work with.” On the other hand, a student from a higher socioeconomic background whose parent often emailed teachers to ask clarifying questions about the homework was praised for being a “hard worker and really diligent.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the unequal conditions under which students complete their homework. The paper describes one student who asked to do an online assignment at his local library, explaining that he and his family “don’t have internet anymore.” Calarco said that she is most concerned about students like this one during a time of prolonged remote learning.
“If schools are online, all work is homework,” she said.
Part of the reason why homework can serve as a status-reinforcing process is that formal school policies and grading schemes treat it as a measure of a student’s individual effort and responsibility, when many other factors affect completion, Calarco said.
According to the paper, experts have traditionally argued that homework completion can be improved by encouraging parents to be more involved in their children’s education. Such an intervention isn’t enough, and in many cases isn’t possible for parents “with limited formal education, financial resources, or English proficiency,” according to the paper.
There are alternatives to assigning homework, especially in elementary school. Calarco said that she’d heard of teachers sending out weekly newsletters with optional discussion questions to give parents the same window into the curriculum as they would be getting through their children’s homework.
At the very least, educators should think critically about the purpose and value of homework, she said.
“I'm not sure I want to completely come out and say that we need to ban homework entirely, but I think we need to really seriously reconsider when and how we assign it.”