Much has been written lately about homework: There’s too much of it; it’s stressing out parents, kids, and teachers; the time it takes is overwhelming. Many of the critiques of homework focus on how valuable it actually is: Do rote teaching-to-the-test worksheets truly improve students’ understanding? But far less discussed is how some children do their homework without the luxury of parental attention and assistance, or even just quiet time at home to complete assignments. There is not nearly as much being said about how increasing amounts of homework unduly affect poor families and exacerbate inequality.
According to a recent OECD study, higher-income 15-year-olds tended to do more homework than lower-income 15-year-olds in almost all of the 38 countries surveyed, and kids who were doing more homework also tended to get higher test scores. Parents inevitably play a role in managing their kids’ schoolwork, but many find themselves stretched. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, close to half of parents with school-age children say they wish they could be more involved in their kids’ education, but aren’t able to be. Many complain that they don’t have the time to keep tabs on their children’s assignments, and that wealthier families with stay-at-home parents or nannies are more likely to. On top of that, parents, especially wealthier ones, frequently hire tutors to help their children along.
But for many working-class parents, especially those with on-call or non-traditional schedules, today’s homework load can be impossible to manage. Journalists and academics already refer to a “homework gap”—a divide between families who have computers and access to the internet at home, and those who do not. But there is also a chasm separating students with parents who control their own work schedules and those whose parents don’t. A 2014 report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth noted that nonstandard work schedules affected children’s cognitive development and success.
Unpredictable work schedules like Marentes’s and others govern the lives of 17 percent of American workers, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. As Joshua Freeman, a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, puts it, “only a tiny number of Americans now have a normal five-day, 40-hour workweek.” Many companies ask their employees to make themselves available at the last minute, with little regard for how such scheduling affects their workers’ family lives. As a result, their kids’ science projects are less likely get done properly, and their math worksheets may never be surveyed by parents’ eyes.
Parents who push back against schedules that don’t give them enough time with their kids often find that their employers are resistant. When Nique Williams started working at a Target in Emeryville, California, she says she told her employer that she need a “very strict” daily schedule, from 10 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, so that she could drop off and pick up her 5-year-old, Nyla, from school every day. Williams, who is 27, and her partner, who works for Greyhound cleaning buses, couldn’t afford a car until recently, so at the time Williams could only work those hours because they would allow her to catch two buses to travel between Nyla’s school and her job. In return for those weekday hours, she says she told her manager, she could work whenever she was needed on weekends.