‘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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What if e-learning isn’t enough?

Was it just a week ago that we were worrying about whether students would have to take standardized tests when they returned to schools that had been closed by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Testing now seems to be the least of our problems. Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered Thursday that Indiana schools must close until May 1 as part of the state’s approach to fighting the spread of the new coronavirus. The order wasn’t a surprise, but it’s unsettling for students, families and educators.

It seems increasingly likely that this school year is shot. Holcomb suggested it would take a miracle for schools to reopen in May. Even if they do, that leaves just a few weeks of the semester.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, schools are moving to e-learning, with students doing their work online. That may work for some schools and some students, but not for all. Many families, and some rural parts of the state, don’t have access to the internet. And as Indiana’s experience with virtual charter schools has made clear, online learning is often a bust.

Responses to COVID-19 school closings on social media fall into two camps. Some parents are planning to effectively home-school their children and sharing resources for online learning. Others, convincingly, counsel parents to relax, enjoy their children and know they’ll eventually learn what they need to know.

Missing are the voices of parents who may not have the time or means to debate on Twitter or Facebook but are legitimately concerned about what their kids will miss from being out of school for six weeks or longer. Some questions.

  • Can schools, teachers and community organizations to take e-learning help directly to low-income neighborhoods, in the same way schools are delivering free meals?
  • Should school districts and the state plan to extend the school year?
  • Can summer school be expanded to make up what students lost in March, April and May?
  • Should we be talking about lengthening the 2020-21 school year?

Any of those options would cost money, and logistics would be challenging; but if school matters, the loss of school matters, too. Yes, these are extraordinary times – as the decision to cancel Indiana’s standardized tests makes clear. But relying exclusively on e-learning could leave our most vulnerable students behind. We shouldn’t let that happen.