‘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.

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Lower-income parents worry about learning loss

Lower-income parents are more than twice as likely as upper-income parents to be “very concerned” that their children are falling behind from missing school during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The survey confirms that lower-income parents value their children’s education as much as anyone. And they are right to be concerned. Even if schools can reopen in the fall, most students will be away from the classroom for nearly half a year. As a New York Times editorial argues, this could have catastrophic effects.

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Report highlights school segregation by district

A new report from EdBuild, a nonprofit organization that focuses on school funding issues, shows that America’s schools remain starkly segregated by race and economic status 65 years after the Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional.

The report identifies nearly 1,000 school district boundaries – including 30 in Indiana — that separate “advantaged” from “disadvantaged” school districts. In each case, the disadvantaged district has significantly more poor students and students of color but spends substantially less money.

Across the country, almost 9 million students attend schools on the losing side of those district lines.

“Their schools, when compared to those of their more affluent neighbors, are a glaring reminder that our education system remains divided by race and resources over half a century after the iconic Brown v. Board of Education ruling,” the EdBuild report concludes.

The report was issued on the 45th anniversary of another Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley, which ruled that school districts could not be required to desegregate across district borders. The decision facilitated white flight and locked in school segregation behind district boundaries.

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Schools may be the wrong place to fight inequality

Conventional wisdom holds that reforming education is the best way to reduce social inequality. It’s widely believed that disadvantaged children attend bad schools; so if we could just make those schools better, their life prospects would improve. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Ohio State sociologist Doug Downey has spent over a decade exploring that question, and he’s convinced that the usual narrative about schooling and inequality has led policymakers astray.

Doug Downey (Ohio State photo)

Doug Downey (Ohio State photo)

“We may have overemphasized the role of schools,” he said last week at an Indiana University symposium on race and education. “And it may be undermining our efforts to reduce inequality.”

Downey makes a persuasive case that schools, even many of the ones labeled as “failing,” are doing a pretty good job of compensating for poverty and other out-of-school circumstances. By focusing on schools, he argues, we may be missing opportunities to work on issues that matter more.

He traces the debate back 50 years to the Coleman Report, which concluded that, when it came to student achievement, differences in schools paled next to differences in family and social background. Eventually the report fell out of favor. By the 1980s, liberals and conservatives alike focused on education as the lever for reducing inequality. They just disagreed about what to do.

Conservatives favored accountability and competition. Liberals called for more and fairer funding; they pointed out that, in many states, schools serving poor children got fewer resources and less experienced teachers, arguably widening the achievement gap between rich and poor.

Downey largely subscribed to the second view until he read an article noting that, by age 18, the typical child would spend only 13 percent of his or her waking hours in school. Continue reading