Thursday, June 16, 2016

Kids who were doing more homework also tended to get higher test scores

It is tempting to sigh in the vein of George Orwell, "only an intellectual".

An Atlantic magazine article supports my contention that for too long, our American public policy debate has been dominated by the sterile fretting about institutional racism, gender discrimination, income inequality, etc. Not that those are non-existent issues. They do exist and should be tackled with the laws which already exist for that purpose. The problem is that racism and gender discrimination and income inequality cover only a very small portion of inequalities that exist.

Most of these inequalities arise from personal choices, either freely made or from necessity. The root of children's life outcomes is substantially determined, not by racism or discrimination or economic inequality. They are determined by personal choices and circumstances of family structure.

From Homework Inequality: The Value of Having a Parent Around After School by Alissa Quart.
Much has been written lately about homework: There’s too much of it; it’s stressing out parents, kids, and teachers; the time it takes is overwhelming. Many of the critiques of homework focus on how valuable it actually is: Do rote teaching-to-the-test worksheets truly improve students’ understanding? But far less discussed is how some children do their homework without the luxury of parental attention and assistance, or even just quiet time at home to complete assignments. There is not nearly as much being said about how increasing amounts of homework unduly affect poor families and exacerbate inequality.

According to a recent OECD study, higher-income 15-year-olds tended to do more homework than lower-income 15-year-olds in almost all of the 38 countries surveyed, and kids who were doing more homework also tended to get higher test scores. Parents inevitably play a role in managing their kids’ schoolwork, but many find themselves stretched. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, close to half of parents with school-age children say they wish they could be more involved in their kids’ education, but aren’t able to be. Many complain that they don’t have the time to keep tabs on their children’s assignments, and that wealthier families with stay-at-home parents or nannies are more likely to. On top of that, parents, especially wealthier ones, frequently hire tutors to help their children along.

But for many working-class parents, especially those with on-call or non-traditional schedules, today’s homework load can be impossible to manage. Journalists and academics already refer to a “homework gap”—a divide between families who have computers and access to the internet at home, and those who do not. But there is also a chasm separating students with parents who control their own work schedules and those whose parents don’t. A 2014 report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth noted that nonstandard work schedules affected children’s cognitive development and success.
Every individual and family knit together incredibly nuanced trade-off decisions between time, money, children, parental relationship, personal capabilities, etc. There is no predetermined "right answer", only answers which are more or less optimal for the individual/family circumstances.

There is a social justice ideological tinge to the article, with the dog whistle of excusing good test results as due to tutors who help the wealthy along when in fact it is known that wealthy parents engage tutors at a lower rate than middle class and poorer parents. The author wants to make this about income inequality and also about evil, or at least insensitive, employers. In aggregate though, there is little that individual employers can do other than properly communicate the nature and demands of a job. It is wrong to describe a job as 40 hours a week from nine to five when in fact it is known that it is 45 hours a week with fluctuating start and stop times.

But except where the employer is lying about the nature of the job, there is no wrong being committed. If the work is too unpredictable and you need to move to a more predictable job, then that is what you have to do if that is indeed a priority. It likely has other consequences in terms of convenience or income, etc. but no one can know those details and make those trade-offs save the individual.

It mostly comes down to family structure and family goals which in turn are shaped by culture and personal values. We would be better off ceasing to chase chimera and focus on real root causes.

UPDATE: And speaking of real root causes, there is this; Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement by Kaili Rimfeld, Ziada Ayorech, Philip S. Dale, Yulia Kovas & Robert Plomin. In the one corner we have income inequality and social injustice and in the other we have assortative mating, heritable IQ and disposition towards learning. An age old battle which the Gods of the Copybook Headings always win.

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