Commentary | Education

Lessons—How to Ease the Burden of Homework for Families

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


How to ease the burden of homework for families

By  Richard Rothstein

It is a “second shift.” In better-off homes, parents often return from work to preside over long and contentious homework sessions. As talk at suburban soccer and baseball fields makes clear, expansion of homework has provoked great middle-class angst.

But those with a bigger complaint should be parents, often low-income, with less education or (as with some immigrants) barely any education at all. With homework time for elementary students up by 50 percent in the last two decades, these parents are really stymied. They cannot effectively help their children.

This means that homework may increase the gap between students from middle-class and low-income homes. With growing inequality now a greater danger than middle-class pupils’ inadequate achievement, policies that widen learning differences should be avoided.

Researchers differ about whether elementary pupils actually learn much from after-school assignments. Older students’ achievement is enhanced by limited homework when parents can help, research suggests. Yet this nonetheless widens the achievement gap.

One solution is to ban all homework. Most people will reject this, saying that some children should not be held back only because others cannot catch up.

A middle ground is to do more to duplicate for disadvantaged pupils the home aid that middle-class children get. This means either making time for guided study in the school day or, even better, creating after- school centers with both cultural activities and homework support. While these cannot fully replace sophisticated parental aid, they can make a difference.

In New York City, a network of 80 facilities called Beacons offer afternoon, weekend and summer enrichment to more than 100,000 low-income children. With grants from the city, foundations and neighborhood organizations, Beacons teenagers not only get homework help, but also publish newspapers, stage theatrical performances and volunteer in community improvement efforts. Older children are trained to tutor younger ones, including homework support. Participants go to museums and public libraries, as many middle- class children do routinely.

The Clinton administration, inspired partly by the Beacons, financed some 3,000 similar efforts, called Twenty-First Century Community Learning Centers. Many more are needed, but President Bush has proposed to continue them without added dollars.

For generations, experts have debated if home assignments poisoned enthusiasm for learning. California enacted a law in 1901 banning homework entirely, and more limited restrictions were enacted by states and school boards elsewhere. One hundred years ago, publications like The Ladies Home Journal and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle campaigned against homework, claiming it deprived young people of healthy play and prevented middle-class families from taking children to museums and giving them music lessons.

But there were also concerns about differences in parents’ capacity to assist. When New York City was filled with an earlier generation of immigrants, an article about homework in The New York Times Magazine in 1929 observed that “homes in which school tasks can be favorably done are relatively few.”

In 1916, Eugene C. Brooks, a North Carolina professor, visited families in Durham to record the help students got with homework. He then compared this to their grades.

Most parents that Professor Brooks observed were middle class but some were factory workers and others were wealthy. He wrote that where “parents are capable of guiding the child and are inclined to supervise the home study, their children succeed in school.”

“But where the parents are illiterate or for other reasons are unable or unwilling to supervise the home study,” he continued, “their children as a rule either make slow progress or are failures entirely.”

Professor Brooks concluded that because of homework, schools either “consciously or unconsciously” reproduce social inequality. It can be avoided, he said, only if teachers take over homework supervision from parents.

Beginning in the 1920’s, many educators advocated replacing homework with supervised study in school. In 1940, Clarence Dunsmoor, a New Rochelle, N.Y., school official, led a national campaign for this, arguing that poor children from overcrowded homes had unsatisfactory environments for homework. But by the 1950’s, supervised study had degenerated into barely supervised study halls, its original purpose forgotten.

Today, Beacons and Twenty-First Century schools again try to reduce the impact of social class on learning. They will not eliminate the gap entirely, but it is unconscionable for educators to exacerbate inequality by assigning homework without first ensuring such programs are in place.

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