Do Your Homework

DO YOUR HOMEWORK!….Conor Clarke writes today about a rash of back-to-school articles suggesting that homework is a sham that does nothing to help student achievement. In fact, he says, it’s worse than that:

It would be a mistake to view this as a surprise, or even an isolated failure. After all, it’s not easy to find a connection between academic success and most educational policies….What if academic success is so overwhelmingly predetermined by outside factors that schools can do little to change the situation?

The recent spate of homework hatred raises this same question, and it should produce the same answer: Educational debates should focus less on education policy as such, and more on socioeconomic inequality.

The connections between inequality and academic success are well-documented. As a recent report in The American Journal of Sociology found, early social context is so important that children are “launched into achievement trajectories when they start formal schooling or even before” that are “highly stable over childhood and adolescence.” These trajectories, in turn, create achievement gaps that are evident in early grades and grow with age, so that “even a slight edge in test scores during the early years can predict long-term advantage.” And this isn’t just because wealthier students go to ritzier schools: the trajectories are almost as predictable even when well-heeled students end up in economically disadvantaged institutions.

I’ll confess that I have a lot of sympathy for this view. The education world seems to be perpetually riven by fantastically shrill battles between traditionalists and progressives, and in the end it’s hard to see that either side ever manages to win decisively in any area. These battles have swung back and forth for decades (the traditionalists seem to have won the latest round in the math wars, for example), but there’s precious little evidence that kids today learn any more or less than kids in the 40s and 50s. Or the 60s or 70s. Does any of this stuff really make a difference?

Maybe. But I think Conor is probably right: simple socioeconomic inequality is such an overwhelming factor that everything else combined is barely a blip on the radar. Unfortunately, addressing that requires lots of money and an enormously intensive effort. A year of two of Head Start just doesn’t do the trick. There’s not much hope of anyone making a serious push on this front anytime soon.