Teacher: Hey there. You got half the questions wrong on your homework.
Student: I’m sorry about that. What do you think I could do to improve my performance?
Teacher: Well, you could boost your socioeconomic status. Otherwise, the deck’s extremely stacked against you getting any of these questions right.
To help combat the myth of meritocracy, the authors suggest that teachers not assign overly challenging homework and stop rewarding or punishing students based on the quality of the homework they produce. They also suggest that some teachers, if so inclined, could go “a step further in attempting to reduce homework’s harm” and just get rid of it altogether. They write:
More research is needed to understand the consequences of these more “progressive” homework policies. Yet, we suspect that while optional and ungraded homework may reduce inequalities in homework-related rewards and punishments, it may not prevent teachers from judging those students (and their parents) who do not complete the optional or ungraded work. No-homework policies have greater potential for alleviating the kinds of unequal practices we observed in the schools in our study.
In short, teachers can’t even be trusted to give out optional homework because they’re too meritocracy-brained and will still judge the students based on the results. The easiest solution is to just stop giving homework altogether, so the wrong-thinking teachers don’t have as much of a platform upon which to prop up their meritocratic myths.
I want to be fair to the authors and acknowledge that even if I’m a bit skeptical about how their prescriptions could operate in a classroom, there might be other good reasons for doing away with homework.
Evidence about the effectiveness of homework is pretty scattered. There are studies and articles saying homework helps students learn and that kids aren’t overly burdened with it. There are also studies and articles that say excessive homework shows diminishing returns and can be harmful to students’ mental health. Having read some of these studies, I think the fairest assessment right now would be to say that the evidence about the benefits of homework are pretty inconclusive because of the inherent difficulties in isolating one part of a student’s academic life and drawing huge conclusions about how it affects everything else.
From a theoretical standpoint, I mostly agree with Calarco, Horn and Chen’s diagnosis of the American educational system. It does largely function as a way to sort and stratify children into different socioeconomic bands, which, again, in theory, means that it would be helpful for teachers to approach their work with that in mind. Many richer kids go to private schools that feed into elite colleges that will more or less ensure their alumni will be on the glide path to staying rich. Many poorer kids go to poorer schools that provide them, in many cases, with fewer opportunities that might help them advance socioeconomically. Some portion of middle-class and working-class people, including a lot of immigrants and children of immigrants, pragmatically use the school system to achieve class mobility.