Need Proof that Your Homework isn’t Fair?

I had an interesting conversation this week with a buddy of mine.  Both of us joked about being “single parents” for a few days — meaning we were completely in charge of our kids and our households while our partners were doing other things.

We both ended the week overwhelmed and completely exhausted. 

Sure, our kids were washed and fed and warm from the beginning to the end of our stints as single parents, but we’re both behind in our professional responsibilities, our living rooms aren’t particularly clean, and there wasn’t a heck of a lot of “Leave it to Beaver” moments going on in our homes over the last few days.

Kristopher Roller

What struck both of us was how ridiculous our “challenging week” really was.

We are both well paid professionals who didn’t have to worry about where the money for meals was going to come from and with the flexibility in our schedules to sneak out of work early if needed to tackle family tasks that didn’t get done the night before.  Our kids are healthy, we have reliable transportation, and we live in safe neighborhoods where it is easy to access everyday needs like groceries.

And most importantly, we knew that our single parenting experience was going to come to an end in just a few short days.  While we both walked into Friday completely wiped out, neither of us had to sustain that same level of parenting momentum over the long term.

The entire experience has gotten me thinking about all of the single parent families that I serve.

If I struggled as the sole parent and provider of my family for just a few days, imagine how hard things must be for moms and dads who have raised kids alone for years and years.  The daily GRIND that left me overwhelmed in a week is a daily REALITY for parents raising kids without partners.

And that daily reality is only compounded by poverty.  When you lack access to reliable transportation or ready groceries or the resources to pay for the basic needs that middle class families take for granted, simple parenting tasks like feeding the kids becomes exponentially more difficult.

Given those circumstances, can we REALLY be surprised when some of the students in our classrooms struggle to complete the homework that we assign them?

We huff and puff about the importance of every project that we assign.  We make a big deal about missing tasks.  We say things like “homework teaches responsibility” and “in the real world you won’t get away without completing assignments given to you by your bosses” without any real sense for the inherent challenges that some of our families face.

YOU try getting your kid to complete some random worksheet on fractions after working for ten hours and then catching the #6 bus to the Central Terminal for a 10 minute walk to your apartment.  Or YOU try getting your kid to complete a ten slide presentation on an important moment during the Civil War when you aren’t sure how you are going to pay the electric bill this month.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that homework is inherently unfair.

Kids lucky enough to live in stable families with two parents and enough resources to make daily survival a given are far more likely to complete the tasks that you expect them to complete.  Their dioramas will be perfect, their papers will be wrinkle-free and neatly stored in the proper sections of their binders, and their dinner table conversation will enrich and extend the learning that they are doing at school.

Kids with single parents who are working long hours to pay the bills are far more likely to struggle to give your tasks the time and attention that YOU think they deserve — and that has nothing to do with intellectual ability, moral character, or inherent desire.  Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that “the real world” is a helluva’ lot harder for some families than it is for others.



Related Radical Reads:

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of My Quirky Kids

“We Have a Life Beyond School.”

Giving Zeros Just Doesn’t Work.

The Transparency of Parenting





7 thoughts on “Need Proof that Your Homework isn’t Fair?

  1. Pingback: Top Five Radical Reads of 2017 | THE TEMPERED RADICAL

  2. Matt Townsley

    You had me until…”We are both well paid professionals who didn’t have to worry about where the money for meals was going to come from and with the flexibility in our schedules to sneak out of work early if needed to tackle family tasks that didn’t get done the night before.”

    Well paid and flexible’re both teachers, right?!

    Okay, back to the main point, I couldn’t agree more how we, as educators, often over rely on “home” to do the work we could or should be doing in the classroom. It hit me hard one year when a math student of mine came to school for a week (or more, I can’t remember) straight, so tired he could hardly stay away during class. The reason for his tired state? He was working a late night shift at the local convenience store…so that his family could put food on the table. Shame on me for my perspective on his (lack of) homework completion leading up to the conversation I learned about his needs.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Matt,

      I’m super sorry to have gotten to this comment so late! I’ve intentionally unplugged over the last few weeks to enjoy the holiday with my kid and my wife!

      And I’m super grateful for your willingness to share your moment of conviction with your former student. I had a moment just like that once — with a boy named Tevin that I tore apart day after day for not having my homework done. Found out that his mom had to work second shift and he was in charge of his little brother from the moment he got home until the moment he woke up for school the next day. Needless to say, when you are twelve and in charge of everything — including dinner, doing laundry, bath time and bed time for your little brother, homework just isn’t a priority.

      The only silver lining in both of our mistakes is that we learned from them, right? Now, I think we have an obligation to push others to realize that homework really isn’t a practice that has much merit.

      Anyway — hope you are well and happy!

  3. Shannon

    Hey there, great article, but one issue with it. You weren’t a single parent. You were solo parenting. You knew your partner was going to be home at some point. A single parent doesn’t have that.

    It might seem picky but a single parent and solo parenting are very different 🙂

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Shannon,

      I mentioned that in my piece. In fact, it was kind of a central point:

      “And most importantly, we knew that our single parenting experience was going to come to an end in just a few short days. While we both walked into Friday completely wiped out, neither of us had to sustain that same level of parenting momentum over the long term.”


  4. Kyle Hamstra


    I can only speak from my experiences as a married, middle-class man, with only one, one-month-old child. I have also been blessed with many opportunities in life, so I have not personally lived the experience to imagine how poverty would compound challenges in raising a family. I can only imagine.

    But while reading your post, here, about being a single parent, even if only for a little while, I was hearing in my head direct quotes from previous conversations with my wife.

    At least ten times EACH, from the later stages in pregnancy to delivery to one month old, we literally said to each other: “I have NO IDEA how anyone would do this alone!” “This,” meaning doing all of those little things they don’t share with you in baby classes. “This,” meaning all of the hard work that is relentless, but it’s for your kid, the same child for whom you would give your own life. “This,” meaning how you have to constantly adjust your work life and personal relationships with adults and friends, and all of the variables that go with it, to prioritize everything for your child. (I’m sure there is even more for me to learn beyond one month, as I always hear the phrase “Just Wait…).” And those are all challenging, but necessary, because it’s for your own child.

    It will be a little while, maybe 5-6 years? before our baby starts doing homework. I wonder if homework will still be around by then? And if so, will be different in format, meaning, or implications?

    Hearing experiences like yours here, makes me extra-appreciate having an amazing partner and best friend with whom to celebrate this journey, but also more aware of the extra work single parents must be experiencing. Once again, I can only imagine. Wow.

    Thanks for sharing, Bill.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author


      Just wait until you start doing homework with your kid!

      ; )

      It’s horrible in every way. My biggest beef is that it isn’t differentiated based on student need or ability or strengths. Take my kid for example: She’s not great at handwriting anything. It’s a physically cumbersome process — especially on worksheets that have tiny blanks to write on. So homework takes her forever to complete from a handwriting only standpoint.

      We get things like, “It should only take 20 minutes” from her teachers. My question in reply is always, “20 minutes for WHO?”

      What teachers don’t realize is that their estimates about the amount of time that homework will take are almost always based on kids with the PERFECT set of circumstances — the kids who already understand the content, the kids with parents who can look over their shoulder and provide support when needed, the kids with the social and academic maturity to stay focused throughout the task.

      For the rest of the kids in the class, homework takes far longer — or just doesn’t get done.

      I think the reason it’s so hard for teachers to understand this is that we come from completely different sets of circumstances. We usually ARE from two parent homes. We usually HAVE BEEN successful at school. We usually ARE from middle class backgrounds and HAVE lived in comfortable, stable neighborhoods. Those are the kinds of people who come into teaching. We dig it because we did well at it when we were 12.

      But that sets us up for unrealistic expectations of kids with different backgrounds. And the only way to fix that is to be open to the notion that our backgrounds are not reflective of reality for most of the kids we work with.

      Anyway…thanks for stopping by,

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