How homework is weighted in favour of middle classes

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Assignments call for access to computers and books not available in poorer homes, study shows

One in five homework tasks unfairly benefits middle-class pupils by requiring adult support, technology or access to reference material, research reveals. And three-quarters of primary school homework does not have any relevant educational value.

Academics from Carroll University in the US state of Wisconsin studied 750 homework tasks set by 68 primary and secondary teachers in local schools.

"The practice of assigning homework across all grade levels continues to be widely accepted and generally expected," they said. "In fact, the practice of assigning homework has come to be regarded as an indicator of high standards and a rigorous curriculum."

But they said different teachers use homework to different ends. More than 90 per cent of the tasks were designed to allow pupils to review and practise work they had learnt in class; 40 per cent involved preparation for future lessons.

But at primary level, only 16 per cent of the tasks set allowed pupils to consolidate recently acquired knowledge by applying it in new contexts. This proportion rose to 29 per cent at secondary level.

"Elementary (primary) school teachers would be more concerned with concrete kinds of homework tasks involving drill, practice and reinforcement of ideas, given the cognitive development of their students," the researchers said.

They then examined how educationally valuable the homework was. Tasks were assessed according to whether they were reasonable, were relevant to topics covered during lessons, and whether they helped to reinforce those topics.

The researchers found that only 25 per cent of tasks set by primary teachers had "appropriate educational value for subject and grade level". By contrast, 96 per cent of secondary tasks met this criterion.

But both primary and secondary tasks were unfairly weighted towards middle-class pupils. In fact, the academics suggested that homework itself was intrinsically discriminatory.

"It was assumed that all of the tasks required common resources of time, workplace and basic materials, such as textbooks, pens, pencils and paper," they said. "A caution is included here, though: it is a mistake to assume that basic resources are universally available."

And these were not the only resources required. More than one in five primary homework tasks examined by the academics explicitly required a level of adult involvement and support.

By contrast, secondary homework did not require adult involvement. But one in five secondary tasks involved access to additional resources that were more readily available to middle-class parents.

For example, 14 per cent of tasks required access to reference material, either online or in print. And more than one in 20 involved the use of technology, such as computers, calculators or digital cameras.

"Homework can be explicitly discriminatory because children from different social strata can have very different access to basic resources," the researchers said.

"A serious question arises as to whether any requirement of home resources (including adult support) can be equitable."

Real Homework Tasks' by Mary Lee Danielson, Bruce Strom and Kathrine Kramer. Email

Home truths

- One primary homework task in five requires adult involvement.

- One secondary homework task in five requires access to technology or detailed reference material.

- Only 25 per cent of primary homework is at an appropriate level for pupils. This goes up to 96 per cent in secondaries.

- Homework fulfils three functions: practice, preparation and integration. Most of what is set at both primary and secondary levels, involves practice.

- Secondary homework tasks are twice as likely as primary tasks to involve the integration of information.

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