Teacher to Parent - Bridging the 'homework gap'

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Q: I saw a study recently about the “homework gap.” It said that as grade levels increase, teachers are more likely to assign homework that requires access to the internet. However, teachers at the lowest-performing and most impoverished (Title I) schools do not assign homework requiring the internet because their students don’t have access to it. This “gap” means those students do not have the same learning opportunities and therefore perform worse than more privileged students. What can be done to bridge the gap?

Your characterization of the recent study by Common Sense, a non-profit educational advocacy organization, is dead on. But that study is probably wrong for a myriad of reasons.

First, the achievement gap between impoverished, low-performing Title I schools and more affluent schools existed long before the advent of the internet. However, so I don’t have to end this column in two paragraphs, let’s pretend we don’t know that. We’ll also pretend that kids in Title I schools are getting homework at all. Many teachers in Title I schools say they don’t bother giving any because the kids won’t complete it. (More on that in a moment).

With those inconvenient truths tabled, we should consider that the authors of the “homework gap” study, Common Sense, published a more alarming study in 2015. It showed that teens were spending nine hours a day consuming digital media, most of which is online.

According to the Washington Post, Common Sense’s director, Jim Steyer, was “staggered” by the amount of time teens were spending on screens. In various media reports, Steyer called the glut of usage “mind-boggling” and “astounding.” The study, he said, “shows you that kids spend more time with media and technology than they do with their parents, time in school, or any other thing. They are literally living in a 24/7 media and technology world."

That’s weird, because now Steyer and his organization seem to be claiming that impoverished kids aren’t getting enough time online. They need more interaction with technology (and less, presumably, with their parents) to do their homework. They’re not keeping pace with more affluent students who are getting their full nine hours. He calls on all the governments of the country to rectify this grievous injustice.

If that doesn’t sound right to you, welcome to the world of educational nonprofits.

For what it’s worth, my experience in the classroom leads me to believe “Jekyll” Steyer: kids are spending too much time engaging with technology to the detriment of their physical, mental, and emotional health. I am not as enamored with “Hyde” Steyer’s conclusion that lack of such interaction is hurting low-income students. Internet access does not mean better learning. Einstein, Newton, and millions of other successful people (including, probably, you) did just fine with books and paper.

Indeed, more teen internet access means exactly what “Jekyll” Steyer fears it means: more mind-numbing media consumption, more video game addiction, more porn addiction, and more social media-induced anxiety and depression. The problem with fixing the “homework gap” is that, as best I can tell, you can’t just give a kid homework-only internet. You have to hand over the whole Pandora’s box.

But let’s be real. The connection between internet access and low school performance is phony anyway. The more direct connection is between internet access and poverty. But, though it’s tempting, we should not stop there, because in a country with free public education, free school transportation, free library access, free textbooks, free teachers, and free lunches, poverty alone is not the direct impediment to learning that we pretend it is.

So what, then, is the missing link? Parents, of course. They retain the most influence over school achievement. Uninvolved or poorly involved parents do not make their kids do homework regardless of internet access. That’s a common complaint from teachers at Title I schools: it’s difficult to get the parents to see the value of an education and, in turn, make their children do the things that are necessary for learning like reading, studying, and doing homework.

When you choose to have kids, you have to do what’s best for them at all times, regardless of how small your paycheck is, how limited your internet access, or how depleted your energy. None of those problems will obstruct a child whose parent has instilled him with the value of earning an education no matter how steep the climb.

Unless and until parents fully embrace this responsibility, we’ll always be wasting valuable time frittering with frivolous battles over unequal internet access while the root of the problem continues to grow more prodigious and menacing every year.

According to Common Sense’s Steyer, "As long as the homework gap persists, teachers cannot prepare the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Let me fix that for you, James. I think what you mean is, "As long as the parent gap persists, teachers cannot prepare the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Internet access is optional.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent and on Twitter @stallings_jody.

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