Poor Students Need Homework

If affluent kids stopped doing homework, they'd be fine. But for students who are struggling to catch up, it remains indispensable.


Of all the well-intentioned but unhelpful things people have ever said about education, perhaps the least helpful was from the father of progressive education himself. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community,” wrote John Dewey.  “Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

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Karl Taro Greenfeld, a good and wise parent, wants less homework for his daughter.  He laments that she is becoming “a sleep-deprived teen zombie.” My daughter, too.  It’s a fashionable complaint, nearly a cliché among those whose children attend top schools: Do our kids really need to work this hard?

Truth to tell, young Esmee Greenfeld’s educational opportunities and life chances would probably be undiminished if her teachers limited homework to a humane 30 to 60 minutes a night.  Her gifted and talented middle school could even ban homework altogether with little to no ill effect. I’m more concerned, however, about homework falling broadly out of favor as more and more affluent families push back against it.  Per Dewey’s maxim, education “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.

Complaints about homework usually miss the mark twice. First, the pushback tends to focus on quantity, not quality.  Also, those who complain the most tend to be the education equivalent of the worried well.  With all respect to Dewey, I wish we would regard a little less what the best and wisest parents want, and consider instead the pernicious “Matthew Effect.”  Coined by the cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich, it takes its name from a passage in the New Testament: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath."  In plain English it means “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  In education, those who are rich in language and knowledge get richer; those who are poor fall further behind.  It’s a more useful frame than the achievement gap, which implies that low-income kids of color merely have some catching up to do.  The Matthew Effect makes it clear just how hard that is to do.

I don’t know Greenfeld, but it’s a safe bet that he and his wife, an internationally trained architect, have filled their daughters’ lives with books, travel, engaging dinner table conversation, and the kind of enrichment that University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau dubbed “concerted cultivation.” His kids are squarely on the rich-get-richer side of the Matthew Effect.  The nature of language acquisition ensures that children like Greenfeld’s have a much easier time learning new words and gaining new knowledge in school.  By contrast, children born into poverty tend to grow up with few enrichment opportunities.  They come to school having heard millions fewer words,  and enrichment opportunities are rare.  The dreaded Matthew Effect ensures that they fall even further behind.  Think of these children as school-dependent learners: If they don’t get it from school, they don’t get it at all.

That brings us to homework.  Affluent parents whose kids attend great schools see only the “work” part of homework.  Those of us concerned with disadvantaged children worry more about the “home.”  The cognitive benefits of “growing up Greenfeld” arguably make all that extra work redundant.  The absence of that enrichment makes it indispensable.

Time is the most precious asset in addressing the Matthew Effect.  A loss of homework would be a minor inconvenience at worst for Greenfeld’s children, whose path through the American education system has largely been made straight by happy accident of birth (it’s heresy in education to say “demographics is destiny” but it remains the way to bet).  For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool.

Parents who are concerned about too much homework would also be on firmer ground if they questioned the validity, not just the volume of homework.  The proper debate about homework – now and always – should not be “how much” but “what kind” and “what for?”  Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.  Independent reading is also important.  There are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates.  Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.  And all of this is far more important for disadvantaged kids than for Greenfeld’s children, already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes.

The best and wisest parents may have a good grasp of what their children want.  But they may not be the best judges of what other people’s children need.