Poverty and the Grading of Homework

The conversation around how schools can react to poverty typically centers around reduced breakfast and lunch programs.  On a few occasions I have heard people express concern as to the access that poverty-affected students have to sports programs, band and other extra-curricular activities.  I have never heard people discuss specifically how the grading of standardized homework is but one more hurdle for students living with poverty.  I think the time has come.

I just finished reading Eric Jensen’s book, ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids and what schools can do about it”.  In the first three chapters alone, Jensen dumps upon the reader a stifling pile of challenges faced by students living with poverty.  Here is a small sample:

Students living with poverty…

–       are more likely to live in a crowded home

–       inherit low self-esteem

–       own fewer books

–       watch more tv

–       inherit negative views of school

–       have a 50% chance of dealing with evictions, utility disconnection, overcrowding or lack a fridge

–       have mentally adapted to suboptimal conditions

–       have higher tardiness and absentee rates

It should be clear to just about anyone that this litany of hurdles would make completing homework difficult, if not impossible.  To subject students to the grading of standardized, impersonal homework is questionable on so many levels, and I would argue that poverty-related challenges should be at the top of the list.  When any student arrives with incomplete homework, we as educators can never be certain of the reasons.   We should never assume that it is due to a lack of effort, but perhaps a safe assumption is that our most financially-challenged students have faced negative factors well beyond their control.

4 thoughts on “Poverty and the Grading of Homework

  1. My concerns exactly as I enter the middle school level. The students that I will teach in my small rural school come from many different backgrounds, but we do have a large population living in poverty. I am hesitant to join in the culture of “homework must be assigned and completed every night!” It makes no sense to me. How to I put something in place that will please my principal, and let me follow my heart in being a caring, compassionate, professional, and understanding (I really want my students to know I care) teacher?

  2. Hi Myron,
    I’ve spent the last 11 years of my career in schools with a fairly high to very high level of poverty. In some, this issue has been addressed by providing a “homework club” to support students who may not have the resources at home to be successful with homework. The need for basic supplies, a quiet place to work, adult support, and technology may not be available to these students. Opening a classroom or the library either before school starts, after classes end or during lunch gives students the resources to be successful, and also reinforces the message that the homework is important enough to be completed. We staffed the homework club with various staff who volunteered for a day or two per week, and provided pencils, pens, erasers, paper, rulers, calculators, reference materials and computers, along with an adult who was there if students needed anything. We made sure that students knew this wasn’t a “study hall” or detention/punishment for not doing homework – it was just there for anyone who needed it. It was well used.

    Another option to consider, and the one more aligned with my personal philosophy, is taking a serious look at the reasons for and purpose of homework, especially homework that is going to be graded. In many cases, providing in-class work that is meaningful and engaging can improve student engagement and learning without homework at all. If homework is given it can be for extra practice or interest only, and not graded but given feedback by peers or the teacher. The example I usually give is of learning a sport or musical instrument – practices aren’t graded but the teacher or coach observes and gives tips, then comes “game time” where results matter. Homework is the practice, and meaningful assessments are the game. This approach also honours and respects the situation of many of our vulnerable students, who are often responsible from a young age for caring for siblings or even working to help support the family financially.

    1. Hi Carol,

      I couldn’t be more in agreement with your post. We have done the same thing at our high school and we have seen great success with students who need support, rather than forcing people into something that drips with the punishment mantra.

      We have also instigated an In-School Suspension System (ISS) for our high school students who are involved with drugs or fights. In many cases we now have a student come in to the school to serve a suspension rather than sending them home. See a previous post for more info on this. The point of bringing it up now is that students get a lot of homework support in ISS. Shocking is the fact that many students ask if they can remain in ISS after their “time is up”. They report that it is safe, secure, friendly and they say things like ‘this is the first time have been caught up on my homework since grade 6!”

      I have made a few presentations on what we can do differently on homework. A great model by a teacher in our school is to assign homework, suggest that people do it, but only monitor understanding through in-class quizzes and tests. He never grades homework.

      Lastly – I agree with your mention of practice. We don’t turn the scoreboard on in practice, do we?

      Take care,


  3. Instead of not assigning homework to students in poverty, I believe these are the students who need it the most. Statistics show students living in poverty are the least likely to go home and read…so if they are not reading at home on their own, and we do not assign it as homework then when will they ever read. The amount of time spent in the classroom during the day is not enough time to develop good reading skills. I grew up in poverty. Yes it was sometimes difficult to get my homework done. Often I had to do my homework in my parent’s car due to the noise level in our home. But, guess what, miraculously I seemed to get it done. Why? Because no one felt sorry for me because I was poor. They made me do the work and held me to the same accountability and requirements as everyone else. Thank God they did. I now have a masters in education. I wonder where I would be if good intentioned teachers didn’t require anything of me after 3:00.

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