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Do poor students need homework?

favicon There was a provocative piece in The Atlantic this week, “Poor Students Need Homework,” in which Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth grade teacher, argues that it’s not appropriate for affluent parents to dominate the debate about the value of homework.

Just because rich kids do well regardless of their homework load, that doesn’t mean the same thing is true for poor kids, Mr. Pondiscio contends.

[E]ducation “best practices,” fads, and trends tend to roll downhill from what ostensibly works in well-funded, affluent schools to those serving low-income kids of color.  After all, if it’s what the best and wisest parent wants, it must be good for all children, right? Not necessarily.

homeworkMr. Pondiscio’s piece reminds me of last year’s big French homework debate (there are always big debates in France), which pitted President Francois Hollande, who wanted to get rid of homework, against working class parents, who wanted more homework.

Over the past few years, I’ve written a bit about homework, and it’s pretty clear that I go back and forth on the topic. On the one hand, I’ve argued that students benefit from additional learning opportunities, and one hour a day of reading and writing in class just isn’t enough to close the achievement gap.

On the other hand, I’ve sometimes had my doubts. Is homework just an antiquated remnant from the factory model geared to force compliance and quash creativity? Alfie Kohn may not convince me on the perils of homework, but teachers who have abandoned homework and maintained good results sometimes do.

So where do I stand now? Well, one thing is true: I do agree with Mr. Pondiscio that rich parents, particularly those far away from the realities of urban public schools, shouldn’t be able to dictate what they want. Decisions about poor kids of color should come from the students’ parents, teachers, and local community.

In my experience, very few parents have told me that homework is a bad idea. To them, homework has meant hard work, and hard work has meant college, a dream come true. To those parents, even if students don’t complete their homework — which is very common, particularly among ninth graders of color in urban public schools — homework means rigor and a path to success.

Besides, a low homework completion rate is not an argument to get rid of homework. If you’re a teacher assigning homework and your students aren’t doing it, that’s your problem to solve, not theirs. The easy answers — to blame the students, to blame the parents, or to abolish homework altogether — don’t seem right, either.

Then again, just because homework has been a consistent component of the college-prep school experience does not mean that it should continue. And there’s nothing good about three hours of homework if it’s not worthwhile. As Mr. Pondiscio suggests, less homework and more independent reading might be the answer.

Wow, I’m confusing myself! Oh, how to get through this mess? There’s a lot going on here. I encourage you to read Mr. Pondisicio’s article and let me know your thoughts.

Coming up soon: A veteran teacher who no longer assigns homework and thinks it’s the best decision she’s ever made. favicon

6 comments

  1. Tony

    The question is not hw or no hw. What sort of hw should we assign is what we need to be debating.
    I liked the flipped classroom model, I like when kids read books at home, I like when students bring progress for a larger project to class, I like when students show pride bringing work to class. I don’t like test prep worksheets (what my son usually does as a 5th grader), I don’t like busy work for the sake of busy work, I don’t like the way HW leads to drama and arguments between teachers, kids, and parents – in school and at home.
    Schools and parents and students need to work as a community to determine the amount of HW expected per night. Their is no one solution for all communities. In addition, colleges will expect students to do ALOT of out of classtime work, where will students develop habits of doing work on their own if they’ve never done hw?

    Honestly, I cannot WAIT until we get past the HW or no HW debate and instead have a richer debate about what HW should consist of, as well as what students should learn in school.

    • Mark Isero

      Thank you, Tony. I needed that.

      Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with you and me. One reader wrote (via Twitter), “Poor children need art, music, recess, hugs, a warm bed, good food, stability, and love. They don’t need you.”

  2. Robert Pondiscio

    Thanks for the shout-out and the thoughtful post, Mark. I saw the same comment on Twitter you referred to. Tried crafting a thoughtful 140-character reply, then thought better of it. I’m simply out of ideas — patience too, I suppose — in how to engage anyone who sees education and stability as somehow in competition with other. Or who believe we must choose between homework and hugs.

    We soldier on.

    Robert Pondiscio

    • Mark Isero

      Thanks for leaving your comment, Robert. I couldn’t say it better myself: Homework and hugs aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m sad that the current conversation about schools has led so strongly to an us vs. them mentality.

  3. Dave Keller

    Do poor kids need nightly homework? Yes. Learning is fun and should be done as much as possible regardless of your age, race or income bracket. However, there are really two issues implied in this question: 1) how do we decide what is worth studying for homework and 2) what is the best way to help students with this studying? Because money tends to impact the second question more than the first, how to support learning outside of classrooms is really where this debate lies. There are examples of after school programs designed to support poor children’s homework. The better ones have study hall with tutors, recreation time and activities like dancing, sports, art and music. Some are even open until 7:00pm to accommodate working parent schedules. These after school programs are run by a student’s regular school or neighborhood center like YMCA or Boys and Girls clubs. The SEIU union has even provided some help making these types of programs a reality, although I can’t verify their frequency. What makes these programs work is money and a large number of organized tutors. When a student builds a relationship with a tutor and is able to get individualized support the after school time is well spent. In the Bay Area, UC Berkeley and other institutions have ongoing relationships with local underfunded schools and supply a veritable army of volunteers. This isn’t to say that there are enough of these programs or that all programs succeed. There is a huge need and even with one-on-one tutors sometimes space is an issue creating environments that are not conducive to learning. Also, volunteers are not always reliable and exhausted teachers are sometimes in charge of too many students. However, there are ways to provide poor children with positive homework support and it is needed because learning is fun and learning is good for kids. What may need more discussion is the kind of homework that should be assigned.

    • Mark Isero

      Dave, thank you for your thoughtful reply. Your comment reminds me of First Graduate and College Track and other excellent after-school mentoring programs. Students get individualized support, and there are enrichment opportunities, but a large percentage of time and resources go toward homework completion and skill development.

      And I also appreciated your emphasis that “learning is fun and learning is good for kids.” As long as homework leads to learning, then it’s a good thing.

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