The tougher standards movement that has brought us standardized testing has also been responsible for more homework. It shouldn't be surprising, then, to find that the effects of the latter are as profoundly inequitable as those of the former. In the mid-1980s, an educator named Bill Barber commented that "to include 'more homework' on an agenda for educational reform is embarrassing; it implies that we are nothing but amateurs if the best we can muster up for students who are dropping out at alarming rates, students who can't read or write, is a recommendation that they ought to get more of the same thing." Now, however, there has been a subtle change in this equation: It isn't merely that more homework has been proposed as a (foolish) way of dealing with a rising dropout rate and other problems; rather, homework is rooted in the very movement that has helped to cause those problems. And homework itself makes a substantial contribution.
The evidence is mixed on which students get, or do, more homework. But what matters is the impact of those assignments. Here, proponents face a serious dilemma. If, on the one hand, homework in general hasn't been shown to be beneficial, then there wouldn't be much reason to assign it to anyone. Indeed, no research has shown that homework is necessary to help students learn. In elementary school, there isn't even a correlation between homework and achievement; in high school, a weak correlation exists, but no data show that higher achievement is due to getting homework. Nor is there a shred of evidence to back up the folk wisdom that homework builds character, promotes self-discipline, or teaches good work habits. (Substantiation for all of these contentions can be found in my book The Homework Myth.)
But if we accept, even provisionally, that homework does help — or that certain kinds of homework might help — then those benefits are likely to accrue disproportionately to the students who are already positioned for success in school. The "rich get richer" as they plow through their assignments, while their classmates fall farther behind. That expression may be true literally as well as figuratively: If homework helps anyone, it's the affluent. In fact, Deborah Meier dryly observes, "If we sat around and deliberately tried to come up with a way to further enlarge the achievement gap, we might just invent homework."
The reason isn't hard to figure out. As Linda Darling-Hammond and Olivia Ifill-Lynch explained not long ago, "Students whose parents understand the homework and can help them with it at home have a major advantage over students whose parents are unable or unavailable to help." Richard Rothstein, a leading expert on education and equity, takes this a step further:
Homework would increase the achievement gap even if all parents were able to assist. Parents from different social classes supervise homework differently. Consistent with overall patterns of language use, middle-class parents — especially those whose own occupational habits require problem solving — are more likely to assist by posing questions that break large problems down into smaller ones and that help children figure out correct answers. Lower-class parents are more likely to guide children with direct instructions. Children from both classes may go to school with completed homework, but middle-class children are more likely to gain in intellectual power from the exercise than lower-class children.