IU researcher: Study found teachers grade students based on socioeconomic backgrounds

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — An Indiana University researcher who co-authored a research study said that the teachers in the study graded students based on their socioeconomic backgrounds. Jessica Calarco is an associate sociology professor at Indiana University.

“That’s because students have very different home lives outside of school. Not every one for example has a quiet place to work at home, or time after school or a parent who can help them with homework that has lots of experience in advanced subjects like math,” Calarco said.

Her findings came out of a larger project with other education experts that looked at social class inequalities in the classroom. She looked at a suburban public school district outside of a large east coast city as a part of her dissertation research. The district had students from a range of different class backgrounds. It followed students, teachers and their families from 3rd grade to 5th with another follow up on those same students in middle school.

It took about three years of field work with them looking through hundreds of hours of interviews, field notes, school district records and report cards.

The data was gathered from students who were in third grade in 2008-2009 and wrapped up in terms of data collection in 2012.

Calarco wanted to know how teachers account for inequalities as they assign and grade homework.

They interviewed elementary and middle school teachers, specifically about math homework, after which they would observe those same teachers with their students in the classroom.

She found that teachers would account for inequalities in homework grading by using what sociologists call the myth of meritocracy.

The myth suggests that all students no matter in what circumstances have the same opportunities to succeed in school and any differences in a student’s outcome is based on the amount of effort (or lack thereof) they put into succeeding. Teachers in the study aligned with this belief.

“So, essentially they were blaming the children and their parents for not doing their homework rather than recognizing that if homework didn’t get done it was probably because students and their families are facing circumstances and restraints that may be difficult for them to meet the teacher’s homework expectations at school,” said Calarco, “They also tended to use homework in less equitable ways. That included assigning homework that was too difficult for students to complete independently. Using homework to assign rewards or punishments to students. Things like keeping them in for recess or giving them lower report card grades because they didn’t get homework done.”

Calarco said if teachers are going to continue giving homework, they should look at more equitable ways to implement their approach.

“That means only assigning homework that students can complete independently and with the resources that they have at home. If you know that some of your students don’t have access to computers or internet, avoid some of the assignments that require it. Not using homework as the basis of rewards or punishment. Ideally, it means treating homework as a sort of optional practice,” Calarco said.