In this week’s The New Yorker, Louis Menard writes about the French president’s efforts to eradicate homework. The move comes, Menard writes, from the argument “that homework gives children whose parents are able to help them with it—more educated and affluent parents, presumably—an advantage over children whose parents are not. The President wants to give everyone an equal chance.” The logic, as Menard explains, is based on the premise that wealthier and more educated parents give their children an advantage on homework assignments; research consistently supports that premise, that the greatest indicator of academic achievement is socioeconomic class, where greater assets yield higher test scores.
Though the effort to equalize the academic playing field is not unique to France, and in itself, is an admirable goal, there
are many problems with this recommendation. The first, as Menard indicates, is that research is inconsistent in its findings about the utility of homework in the first place. A second issue is that the wealth connection illustrates the influence of home life, which is unlikely to be altered significantly by homework or the lack thereof. In households with poor literacy rates, homework is likely to be a struggle because parents lack the resources (time, finances, educational background, etc.) to help their children. Assigning homework or not doesn’t address the root issue there—the cyclical correlation between poverty and low literacy. In highly-literate households, parents can help with homework or, if they are affluent, hire tutors to help; abolishing homework simply frees up the children of wealthy parents to do other things, most of which will likely support academic achievement. And children in highly literate households will remain there, surrounded by educationally-enriching materials.
Educational inequity is often a problem foisted upon schools, yet it begins before schools and transcends beyond schools, and rarely are schools given the resources necessary to seriously address issues of class discrepancy. Especially in this country, where school funding is typically tied to local property taxes, the cycle is self-perpetuating, with well-funded schools offered to affluent, highly-literate children and poorly-funded schooling offered to children in poverty. I can’t speak to the class situation in France, but in the U.S., education is one of the few factors that can change a person’s socioeconomic status, but the odds seem stacked against students from the start. Menard concludes his essay with the claim “If we provided after-school music lessons, museum trips, and cool sports programs to poor children, we could abolish homework in a French minute. No one would miss it.” That sounds like a great idea, and I think it requires Christians to think clearly about what it means to care for those less fortunate, to give up your coat along with homework and the illusion of social mobility.