‘All work is now homework’

Research by sociologist Jessica Calarco has shown how socioeconomic differences in schools play out in homework. Privileged parents are more likely to assist their kids. Lower-income parents struggle to help, and their children are penalized.

With schools closed by the COVID-19 pandemic and K-12 classes moved online, that dynamic is revealing itself in a much bigger way.

Jessica Calarco head shot

Jessica Calarco (Indiana University)

“My sense is that all work is now homework,” the Indiana University associate professor said. “I would argue that, if students are being graded, if their work is expected to be graded, there are going to be huge inequities.”

Even if students are not held accountable, there are inequities in what and how they learn online. As others have noted, low-income parents are less likely to have computers and reliable internet service. They are less likely to have jobs that let them work from home, where they can help and supervise their children. They may not have the academic skills or confidence needed to help.

Gaps in resources and opportunity have long been one of the biggest challenges for our schools. Calarco’s research, conducted several years ago at a suburban public school and based on extensive observations and interviews, shines a light on those differences in the classroom.

Regarding homework, she found that fourth- and fifth-grade students needed considerable help to complete their assignments. Technically, they were expected to do the work themselves; but there was a quiet assumption that parents would help. Low-income parents, with less education and less time, struggled to do that.

“They wanted to help their kids with homework. They felt bad, but they didn’t have the skills or resources,” Calarco said, recalling a mother who lamented that she didn’t know how to help her child with long division.

Calarco has published her research in journal articles and in the 2018 book “Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School,” which describes how privileged parents often expect favored treatment for their children and help them make excuses for misbehavior or missed assignments.

“I can see that playing out in the context of the current pandemic,” she said. “On Facebook, privileged parents are saying, ‘We’re just not going to do this. We’re opting out (from online classwork).’ My sense is that privileged parents who opt out will be treated differently from parents whose kids just can’t get the work done.”

We’re also starting to see stories about parents who will opt out of sending their kids back to school if they can’t be assured the risk of COVID-19 is past. That’s understandable, but it’s an option not available to many working parents.

It would be better, Calarco said, if advantaged parents devoted their energy to helping make schools better and fairer for all students, “using their privileged status to lobby for decisions at the district or state level that would protect other kids from being penalized for not having the same level of support at home.”

In the long run, she said, that will include doing what we can to ensure that all students make up the learning they lost this spring and summer. That could involve extra time in school and adjustments to curriculum and standards.

She said the pandemic highlights “how much families have always mattered in determining students’ academic opportunities.” And it is a reminder of how essential schools are to families and the economy: If students can’t return safely to school, many parents won’t be able to return comfortably to work.

“My hope,” Calarco said, “is that this will lead to policies and practices, even beyond the schools, that actually acknowledge that families need more support.”

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