Bridging the Homework Gap: Addressing Educational Equity for All Students

This article is part of a larger series focused on achieving educational equity. For more information, refer to the introductory piece and the ones covering school finance, student discipline, advanced education, and school closures.

To the uninitiated, the debate surrounding homework may come as a surprise. At first glance, the expectation seems clear: Teachers assign homework, and students complete it. The premise is that practice leads to proficiency, and without diligent effort, students cannot learn effectively.

However, there exists a contentious discourse on homework, extending beyond disgruntled students. Some arguments stem from affluent suburban schools where parents express concerns about the overwhelming homework burden on their children. Scholars have also questioned the efficacy of homework in enhancing learning. Moreover, significant debate arises from the “homework gap,” which highlights the disparity in homework completion time between low-income students and their more privileged counterparts. Consequently, calls to limit or eliminate homework altogether have emerged.

Figure 1. Disparities in high school homework completion: Average hours devoted to homework, based on student poverty levels in 2019

Figure 1. Disparities in high school homework completion: Average hours devoted to homework, based on student poverty levels in 2019

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the National Household Education Surveys. (Refer to this table for updated data as of April 2021.) Note: Poor children come from families with incomes below the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold in the preceding year. Near-poor children fall within the range of the poverty threshold up to 199 percent. Nonpoor children belong to families with incomes meeting or exceeding 200 percent of the poverty threshold.

Naturally, I hold a dissenting viewpoint on this matter. Lowering standards is not a viable solution for achieving educational equity. Instead of an equalizing downward approach akin to “Harrison Bergeron,” we should strive for elevation. The objective regarding homework should focus on increasing student adherence to meaningful and productive practices, supported by myriad research demonstrating its positive impact on academic performance.

To achieve this, we must address the obstacles hindering low-income students from completing homework, both at home and in educational settings.

One pertinent challenge lies in technology accessibility. Despite progress in closing the “digital divide,” disadvantaged households still lack high-speed internet access. While schools have expanded laptop initiatives, disparities persist in access to functional devices. Recent surveys highlight that a considerable percentage of students resort to completing homework on phones or encounter obstacles due to unreliable internet or computer connectivity. Assignments necessitating online engagement pose particular difficulties in such scenarios.

Moreover, low-income students encounter difficulties in finding conducive study environments, compounded by limited space at home and caregiving responsibilities. Parental involvement in homework may be hindered by lower educational attainment within these families.

Addressing these challenges should not entail evading homework assignments for low-income students under the pretext of equity concerns. Instead, solutions must target overcoming barriers.

One approach involves bridging technology gaps by providing laptops, Chromebooks, and Wi-Fi hotspots to all students, with the option of utilizing school facilities for such purposes, exemplified by extended library hours and assistance. Inclusion of “extended learning time” within the regular school day or collaboration with community organizations could aid in creating conducive environments for homework completion.

Implementing such strategies is not overly complex, illustrated by successful initiatives in high-poverty schools. These institutions, driven by a commitment to leveling the academic playing field, have recognized the necessity of extended effort to narrow—and ultimately reverse—the homework gap.

Objections emphasizing cost or logistical challenges are valid but should not overshadow the imperative of upholding educational equity through sustained efforts rather than conceding to lowered expectations. Advocates for equity must engage in thorough examination and proactive measures to support student achievement.

Michael J. Petrilli serves as president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and serves as an executive editor for Education Next.

This post was originally published on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

The article Doing Educational Equity Right: The Homework Gap was first seen on Education Next.

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