Session 3: The meanings of schooling
Organizer: Maria-Ligia Barbosa, Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,
Parental involvement and homework policies: a discussion of gender and class implications
Maria Eulina Pessoa de Carvalho, Universidade Federal da Paraíba, Brazil
Abstract: Neo-liberal policy has been calling for parental involvement and family accountability
as factors of school success. In Brazil, the Family-in-School National Day was launched in 2002,
and national testing (SAEB 2003 5th grade student questionnaire) included questions on family
educational and cultural activities, students’ domestic routines, parents’ monitoring of school
attendance, help with homework, stress on achievement and attendance to school meetings.
Besides occasional and reduced participation of parents in school meetings and councils,
family contribution to schooling is mainly through mothers’ daily monitoring of homework, a
practice that depends on free time and cultural and academic capital. Parental involvement is
gendered, as shown by differential expectations on parental roles and the blaming of mothers
for students’ poor behavior and learning, especially those from low classes, whose children
attend public schools. In a country where school daily attendance is limited to 4 hours, policy
rhetoric stressing the impact of family input on test outcomes is blind to gender and class as
interrelated factors affecting female work and single parents. Moreover, research evidence on
family/mothers, school/female teachers, and 4 th/5th grade students’ perspectives on
homework, comparing public and private schools, in Paraiba, Brazil, shows that: (1) whereas
private school female teachers use homework that is more attractive and articulated to
evaluation of learning, public school female teachers adopt homework for compensating
students´ weaknesses and the low productivity of classwork, as well as for grading purposes,
even when they recognize that many students do not accomplish homework; blaming of
mothers and punishment of students who do not do homework is also common in public
schools; (2) mothers value schooling but many are unable or unqualified to help with
homework; even poor mothers have resorted to cheap school help services in order to keep
their children busy and safe the other half of the day; homework time is a distressing and
stressful experience for many mothers and children, especially for low-class uneducated
mothers and public school students; (3) whereas low class public school students do little
homework and are inarticulate about school, upper middle class private school students
articulate life projects in which school success is related to good jobs, thus demonstrating that
they have incorporated the habitus of school success.
Neo-liberal educational policy has been calling for parental involvement and family
accountability as factors of school success in Brazil, as well as in the United States and other
Latin American countries (Brasil, 2002; Carvalho, 2001, 2004a, 2004b, 2006; Chile, 1995;
Duthilleul, 1997; National Education Goals Panel, 1995). Since the 1990s, the family clearly
became a focus of educational policy, as exemplified by the family-school partnership model
that holds parents responsible for the academic work of children at home, as well as for shared
educational decision-making at school, and schools’ and teachers’ high standards 1 (National
Education Goals Panel, 1995). However, parental participation in the school site occurs
See National Education Goal 8 under President Clinton’s Goals 2000: Educate America Act. (National
Education Goals Panel, 1995, p. 13).
occasionally in meetings and celebrations, and is restricted to a few representatives in School
Councils, whereas it is expected to happen daily in the home through the monitoring of
homework, a traditional and apparently consensual practice.
The family-school partnership model intends to promote school success for all children. It
assumes schools cannot educate without the active participation of the family. It contrasts
with the modern school delegation model, according to which families delegated the State
children’s intellectual and citizenship education (Seeley, 1993). Within this model, the
schooled habitus2 would be a result of school effectiveness; even though the disposition for
schooling might originate from the family ethos, the skills required for learning were part of
the school discipline and of an explicit pedagogy 3. Currently, within the family-school
partnership model, the family is responsible for developing the habitus of school success
through homework, creating a domestic discipline of daily study, having an adult available as
Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1977) critique of the role of the educational system in social class
reproduction through cultural reproduction is well known: it denounces that the school counts
implicitly on the student’s habitus and cultural capital4 acquired in primary socialization
(domestic education), faling to provide an explicit pedagogical work. Representing the
dominant culture whereas proclaiming neutrality, the school curriculum and standards (both
formal and informal) implicitly capitalize on the (differentiated) cultural resources of families
and individuals, inflating or deflating them; in this way, the school converts cultural capital
acquired in family socialization into academic capital (school credentials), thus including or
excluding individuals. Middle and upper class families possess the required cultural capital,
therefore are ‘naturally’ aligned with school and academic culture, whereas low class families
are subordinated within school and high culture; so, individuals, families, and classes dispose
unevenly of the kind of cultural capital (and habitus) necessary to invest in acquiring
educational and social success.5
Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) define habitus as “a system of schemes of perception, thought,
appreciation and action” (p. 35), which includes “self-discipline and self-censorship” (p. 40), “the
product of internalization of the principles of a cultural arbitrary capable of perpetuating itself after the
pedagogic action has ceased and thereby of perpetuating in practices the principles of the internalized
arbitrary” (p. 31). Bourdieu (1986, p. 255) also referred to habitus as a “socially constituted cognitive
capacity” and as “embodied cultural capital”, that requires “a labor of inculcation and assimilation” (p.
244). In other words, the process of education, or internalization of cultural capital, initiated in the
family environment, consists of “the production of the habitus, that system of dispositions which acts as
a mediator between structures and practice” (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 487).
This was very clear in the regime of private boarding schools, but also in some traditional high quality
selective public schools that existed in Brazil.
According to Bourdieu (1986, p. 243), cultural capital presents itself in three forms: (a) in the embodied
state – its fundamental form – “as long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body”, i.e. habitus; (b) in the
objectified state, as “cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines etc.), which are
the trace or realization of theories or critiques of these theories”; and (c) in the institutionalized state, a
distinctive form of objectification, as educational qualifications, that “confers entirely original properties
on the cultural capital which it is presumed to guarantee”.
Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1977) theoretical framework suggests that the school – and educational
policy – should assume that many students lack the required cultural resources to succeed and,
consequently, should focus on maximizing the power of school resources while minimizing the impact of
family resources on learning and achievement, implying that school pedagogical work should
compensate for home disadvantages, in the interest of equity and social justice (Carvalho, 2001).
I have argued that homework, that is, school work transferred to the home – a policy/practice
that aims to capitalize on family resources, without considering families and parents’
differentiated economic, social and cultural forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1986) – has inequity
and symbolic violence effects (Carvalho, 2001): it is graded and impacts test scores (Folha
Online Educação, 2004a, 2004b; Henderson and Berla, 1994); it represents a burden for
unschooled, poor and single-parent families, especially for mothers, who have been blamed
for children’s school problems and failure (Carvalho, 2009); and it defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’
students, thus influencing children´s self-concept and self-esteem (Carvalho, Serpa, Medeiros
& Agra, 2006).6
An element of the middle-class family ethos and of the ideal family from teachers’ perspective,
homework is generally considered beneficial, either as an appropriate occupation for children
at home, or as an opportunity to extend and increment learning, especially when school time
is not sufficient and/or students lag behind. Thus, homework might allow to formally
implement a specific habitus that was taken for granted in homogeneous middle-class cultural
contexts, where there was home–school cultural continuity. However, many parents of
disadvantaged students, who are expected to support homework, precisely lack a schooled
habitus to pass on to their children.
Family contribution to successful schooling through parents’ daily monitoring of homework is a
practice that depends on adults’ free time and academic/cultural capital. Traditionally, the
parent in charge of child domestic education and school monitoring is the mother. Bourdieu
(1986) recognized that family transmission of cultural capital is done by the mother 7; for
middle-class families, it includes developing study habits and valuing school success (a
requisite of high paying jobs and professional success). Therefore, parental involvement policy
and family accountability through homework have gender and class implications (Carvalho,
2000, 2004a, 2004b).
In Brazil, where school daily attendance is limited to 4 hours in the majority of schools, and
successful fundamental education (years 1 to 9) is still a challenge 8, the Family-in-School
National Day was launched in 2002 by the Ministry of Education (Brasil, 2002). In 2003, SAEB
national testing included, in 5th grade students’ questionnaire, a set of questions on family
educational and cultural activities, students’ domestic routines, parents’ monitoring of school
attendance, help with homework, stress on achievement and attendance to school meetings 9.
Up till now, schools (at least in the state of Paraíba) do not have explicit homework policies, so
In fact, before impacting learning outcomes, homework completion produces a favorable bias on the
part of the teacher toward the student and his/her family, as teachers define good students as those
who behave well and pay attention in class, do homework and have involved parents (Carvalho, 2005-on
When the mother is not available (due to work out of the home) families with economic resources hire
private tutors in order to guarantee learning and school success. Hiring private tutors for make-up
studies is a traditional middle/upper class practice in Brazil, as well as in other countries (See Ventura,
2008; Rosenberg, 2004; Rothstein, 2001). What is new (in this neo-liberal era) is the emergence of a
market of school help services, that include not only individual teachers but small companies, offering
diverse and tailored services (also using the internet): daily support of homework, make-up classes per
hour, per subject, access to knowledge resources (Carvalho, Araújo & Costa, 2008). This means that
some families can ‘outsource’ their school support obligation, and that academic capital might be
bought or transmitted elsewhere, out of the school, and out of the home.
Universal attendance was reached at the end of the 1990’s in Brazil, however, as test scores show,
learning results are low and uneven across the country’s regions and schools.
Questionários SAEB. Available: www.inep.gov.br.
homework practices are left to teachers’ discretion. Homework is a scarcely investigated issue
in Brazil.10 It is neither a topic of teacher initial and continual education, nor of pedagogical
planning at school level. However, teachers’ complaints about students who don’t do
homework are recurrent.
Homework was the main focus of a research project that started in 2005, in Paraiba, Brazil,
aiming at exploring teachers’, mothers’ and students’ conceptions and practices both in public
and private schools (Carvalho, 2005-on going)11. As a window into family-school relations, the
focus on homework raises a number of questions: Do perspectives of teachers, mothers and
students on homework converge or differ? How does homework integrate pedagogical
planning, and impact teachers’ practice? How does it integrate parental roles and impact
family life? If it is effective, as policy rhetoric suggests, how do teachers explain its
effectiveness? Do parents value and demand it, or complain about it, or else outsource it,
hiring private teachers? Has it varied in contents, kinds of activities and forms of evaluation
throughout time? How do students experience homework? Who are the students who do and
don´t do homework and what do they say about it?
Interviews about homework conceptions and practices were conducted (by undergraduate
students) with female teachers, female pedagogical coordinators, mothers, and 4 th and 5th
grade students (both sexes) in various (7) public and (4) private schools in the cities of João
Pessoa, Campina Grande and Areia, in the state of Paraíba. The schools were those in which
the various undergraduate students, acting as research assistants, were doing their practicum,
which facilitated access to the field and subjects; the school professionals agreed to participate
in the homework investigation and all subjects signed consent terms. Classes (8 in public
schools, and 2 in a private school) were also observed in order to verify how homework relates
to class work within pedagogical practice. This paper offers an overview of some of the
research results, drawing on various works produced by the research team 12.
Research results presented in this paper cannot be generalized, as public and private schools,
as well as teachers, parents and students are very diverse anywhere in Brazil. Nevertheless
they show a part of the picture of family–school relations that deserves attention of
researchers, policymakers and educators interested in equity in education.
Teachers’ perspectives on homework
All the teachers interviewed in the various schools were female. Most of them adopt
homework with the main objective of providing students with opportunities to exercise,
complete or revise classwork. They mostly prescribe exercises from the textbook. In the
Empirical qualitative research is reduced to a few (mostly unpublished) master and doctoral
dissertations in the areas of sociology of family–school relations and teaching and learning, Tania
Resende’s work (at Federal University of Minas Gerais – UFMG) and my own work (at Federal University
of Paraíba – UFPB). See Resende, 2006, 2008.
The research project has been financed by the Brazilian National Research Council – CNPq/MCT, with
undergraduate assistantships, within a program for scientific induction at undergraduate level
The following Pedagogy students, at Federal University of Paraíba – UFPB, participated (in different
years) in the research: Conceição dos Santos Nascimento, Clotilde Miranda de Paiva, Joilce Maria de
Miranda Silva, Ângela Maria Figueirêdo Limeira, Fábia Roberta Costa, Allana Kalyni Araújo, Mayra
Medeiros de Azevedo, and Ana Cristina Batista de Souza Rosa. My colleague Marta Helena Burity Serpa,
at Federal University of Campina Grande – UFCG and her students Daniely Alves Alencar Medeiros and
Valeska Carolina Dias Agra also replicated pat of the research (Serpa, 2006).
observed public schools, they often make students copy exercises from the board. Thus,
homework is mostly repetitive; it is not planned to attract or challenge students, or with the
purpose of promoting meaningful learning, applying academic or scientific knowledge to
everyday life, or enriching the curriculum.
Classes often start with revision of past homework and end with prescription of new
homework. In one of the observed public schools, homework occupied as much as 2 hours and
15 minutes of class time, which amounts to 3 and a half hours, discounting break and lunch
time (Carvalho, Nascimento & Paiva, 2006). Thus, most of class time revolves around copying
and correcting homework. However, the efficacy of routine homework depends on
pedagogical planning articulating homework and classwork, as well as on students’ and
parents’ commitment to daily homework. It was observed that most teachers, particularly in
public schools, do not plan homework. Some of observed public school teachers prescribed
homework that had no relation to the classwork of the day; they also prescribed and
corrected, for instance, science homework, only on a specific day of the week. This implies, on
the one hand, that homework is intended to extend class time and compensate for the low
productivity of classwork; and, on the other hand, that students have to follow a weekly
homework calendar, which requires parental supervision, in the case of young students.
Therefore, the logic of routine homework is that classwork builds on what is produced at
home, and vice-versa, supposing there must be effective production at home, and, moreover,
the development of a student habitus, thanks to parental effort, a clear illustration of the
notion of “the home as an extension of the classroom” 13.
However, none of the public school teachers mentioned the development of study habits and
autonomy (learning to learn), as a goal of the homework practice, which corresponded to the
fact that they did not plan homework that students could do by themselves, without requiring
help. Accordingly, homework was not evaluated in order to identify students’ difficulties,
feeding into pedagogical planning; it was simply graded, added to (when done) the final grade.
Hence, there was no variation of tasks for different students according to specific difficulties or
progress, not even in the private schools.
Homework has also the declared objective of providing parents with opportunities to follow up
on their children’s learning, which is more likely to happen among schooled midlle-class
parents. Also, an implicit meaning of homework is to show parents that the teacher is doing
her job; yet, evaluation of the quality of teaching depends again on well schooled and involved
parents. Therefore, private school educators are more aware of parental evaluation of the
school and the teacher, and private school mothers are more likely to voice and ask for teacher
attention when they find their children unable to perform homework. Some middle class
private school mothers that were interviewed in Campina Grande, for instance, stated that it
was the teacher’s job to teach (not the mother’s job), so if their children did not learn
something it might be the teacher’s problem, not be the student’s problem (Carvalho & Serpa,
2006). Along this line, one of the investigated private schools, in João Pessoa, which served
upper-middle class families, stressed “quality homework, not quantity”. According to its
pedagogical coordinator, “homework is for the student, not for the parents”, who were
advised to “send children to school with undone homework, so that teachers can explicate it
again”. In that school, the two interviewed teachers conceived homework as a tool for building
intellectual autonomy and as an important means of evaluating the learning process.
According to one of them, homework was planned to be “fun, practical and thoughtful”; for
instance, in introducing a new topic, students were asked to collect information, and to
interview parents and friends about its usefulness (Silva, 2007).
As stated in the homework policy of a high school in the United States. See East Lansing Educational
Foundation, Student Agenda, 1996-1997. East Lansing Public Schools, p. 14, in Carvalho, 2001.
In contrast, a public school teacher interviewed in João Pessoa said she used homework for
grading purposes, as an incentive, although recognizing that students don’t do homework and
“parents don’t care, don’t know how to teach, or cannot help because they work all day”. She
argued that such “problems with students’ parents make learning difficult, that’s why an
incentive is necessary”, usually in the form of extra-credit (Silva, 2007), rewarding, in this way,
what Lareau (1993) calls “home advantage”.
According to both public school teachers and students that were interviewed in João Pessoa
and Campina Grande, teachers keep students who do not do homework in the classroom
during break time, which means they miss not only play but lunch. Students see this as
punishment, but teachers see it as help (Carvalho & Serpa, 2006; Silva, 2007). In one case
observed, the teacher detained students who didn’t bring homework for a whole week during
“I know that the majority of my students cannot do homework by themselves, but I
have to send homework, and, those who don’t do it, I help them to do it in the
classroom, also in the break time. I told one mother: ‘Your son is not doing homework’,
and she said: ‘You deal with it’. Then, I have to deal with it. I called her and she didn’t
even show up in the school. I can’t wait for this mother, so I decided: you don’t have
breaktime anymore, you stay in the classroom doing your homework, so that you learn
to be responsible.” (Silva, 2007)
Private school teachers do not complain about students and families as public school teachers
so often do. The latter complain students do not do homework, that the family or the parents
does/do not collaborate with the school: parents are “absent”, “unconcerned”,
“uncommitted” to their children’s education , “they leave it all to the school and the teacher”.
They believe that students need parental support in order to learn and succeed in school,
especially when or where school/teaching conditions are precarious (high student ratio per
class, students above regular age-grade, lack of pedagogical materials and psychological
support services14), and social conditons are alarming (community poverty and violence). They
consider the influence of the family greater than that of the school, and feel powerless in front
of students’ failure to learn; therefore, they attribute it to insufficient parental support of
school activities (that is, homework), and lack of family interaction with the school. In the
words of one of the teachers interviewed:
“It doesn´t matter much to plan well the lessons and elaborate good projects with the
intention of overcoming the difficulties presented by certain students, if external
factors are hampering learning. [...] It is the parents’ duty to commit to their children’s
education and collaborate with the school. Family collaboration helps students to
succeeed in the school and further in life, and helps to diminish school failure,
violence, indiscipline, as parents have more educational influence over their children.
The family is the basis of education and the origin of most of the difficulties that the
school faces.” (Carvalho, 2005-on going)
There were a few public school teachers who had given up on prescribing homework, since the
students didn’t respond positively (Silva, 2007; Carvalho & Serpa, 2006). They recognized the
limits of the families in supporting school work, and the problems involved in homework. A
teacher said, for instance:
“The issue of homework is problematic in the public school. If we prescribe it, the
consequence might be that children get spanked at home because they exasperate the
mother, who has no condition to help with it”. I don’t grade homework anymore, since
According to current discourse, teachers would like to rely on psychologists when they face students’
the day a mother came with a girl, who was crying because she had not done her
homework. I work in a public school in a slum area and my students’ parents are
illiterate or have not completed fundamental education 15. Mothers complain they
cannot help with homework because they don’t have time.” (Carvalho, 2005-on going)
Very few of these public school teachers were reflective about their own difficulties as
mothers accounting for their own children´s schooling. Even female teachers, who confessed
not enjoying helping their children with homework, did prescribe their students homework,
without identifying with their mothers’ difficulties. 16
Mothers’ perspectives on homework
Contrary to public school teachers negative views of families and parents, there is evidence to
suggest that mothers (the family members that were available for interviews) value schooling
and are interested in their children´s school success, although most of them are unable or
unqualified to help with homework. Mothers whose children manage homework and do well
in school were proud to say they never got any note from school reporting on homework
absence. But even very poor working mothers (usually domestic servants) were found that
invest in their children’s schooling by paying for cheap school help services17 in order to keep
their children busy and safe the other half of the day, when they are out of school (Carvalho,
Araújo & Costa, 2008).
Mothers (of public and private school children) were interviewed in their homes by young
female undergraduate students. Access to mothers was not easy because most of them
worked out of the house. Communication with low-educated (public school) mothers was
difficult and questions had to be rephrased in many different ways. Three out of 15 public
school mothers were heads of their families. One was in fact the student’s grandmother. Nine
out of 11 private school mothers worked out of the home. It was not possible to interview any
When inquired directly – selfconscious of being implicitly evaluated as parents 19 – mothers
tend to confirm school expectations, general ideas about good parenting, and the conventional
moral obligation to their children’s school success (Carvalho, 2001). The question that opened
the interview was: “Does your child enjoy homework?” Public school mothers said there was
no problem with homework, and that their children did and enjoyed doing homework. They
Fundamental education encompasses years 1 to 9 in Brazil.
They probably do not identify with their students’ mothers because of social class differences: many
public school teachers send their children to low cost private schools. Interestingly, some of these
teachers were critical of the amount of homework and the kind of meaningless homework that their
children’s teachers prescribed.
The cheapest are offered by young women with no certification or qualification for teaching, who
teach in their homes as an informal occupation.
Six mothers of public school children were interviewed in João Pessoa (Nascimento, 2006); nine
mothers of public school children and five mothers of private school children were interviewed in
Campina Grande (Carvalho & Serpa, 2006); and six mothers of private school children were interviewed
in Areia (Limeira, 2007). Quotes of mothers’ interviews in this section are from research done in
Campina Grande (Carvalho & Serpa, 2006). For an analysis of gender implications of family–school
relations see Carvalho (2009).
It is important to remember that parenting is gendered and that mothers are blamed alone for their
children’s faults, at least in Northeastern Brazil.
expressed positive views about homework, as aiding student learning (“extra study time”), and
developing “responsibility” in opposition to play and “lazyness”:
“Children think only of play, they don´t think of life responsibilities.”
[He or she] “is lazy, gets home and just wants to rest or play.”
[She or he] “prefers to watch TV, to play outside.”
They defined their parental role as “stimulating and advising their children to study”, and they
thought of it as their proper task as mothers:
“I am the mother, it is my obligation.”
“I am the one who is at home.”
“I am the one who worries.”
Only one mother mentioned the father’s involvement.
However, later in the interview, when inquired about the ‘climate’ during homework time
(“How do you feel?” and “How do you think your child feels?”), the problems emerged. Those
public school mothers did not know how to read, or did not know how to teach, or what they
had studied in school was different from what is taught now, and, in addition, they lacked the
time to supervise homework. Homework was clearly a factor of emotional distress for both
mother and child: “I get nervous’; He/She gets nervous”. Terms used to refer to homework
time were: “upsetting”, “inharmonious”, “noisy”, “irritating”, “frustrating”, and “stressful”.
According to the mothers, they had to put pressure on children to get homework done;
therefore, children felt forced, anguished, they complained, resisted, and cried, because they
did not know how to do their homework:
“He will only do it when I force him.”
“She is stubborn.”
“He is disobedient.”
“I scold her and say that she should have more patience in order to learn.”
“Sometimes she hides it.”
“I advise her/him: You are going to be punished if you don’t do it.”
“When she doesn’t want to do it, I have to threat her with a more severe punishment,
so that she will do it.”
“I am always threatening him. If you don’t do it, I’ll go find out from the teacher how
you are going.”
These children are in a difficult position between pressures from the mother and the teacher:
“When she doesn’t accomplish it she doesn’t want to go to school the next day.” Threats and
punishment might also come from the school, as the children inform their mothers that if they
don’t get their homework done they will be kept in class during breaktime and will miss lunch
Finally, four out of nine public school mothers said their children don’t like to do homework: “I
am sure she doesn’t like to do her homework. One day she ripped the sheet of paper so that
she wouldn’t have to do it.” In three cases mothers said children have to be spanked in order
to do homework: “Sometimes I spank her because she cries, because she doesn’t know how to
do her homework.”
Some mothers also felt that they are the ones to blame if their children don’t get their
“It’s always the mother who gets all the charges.”
“The school blames only the mother, it doesn’t matter if the child has a father.”
“The teacher’s reaction is to blame me and she doesn’t know why I didn’t teach her
In contrast, private school mothers had less problems with homework, because their children
did it by themselves, with the father´s help, with the housemaid´s help, with the help of a
private tutor20, or with their help, although they were very busy and lacked time. They believed
in the need of a family–school partnership and were aware of homework grading. They
thought homework was important for “learning more”, reviewing and deepening what was
seen in class and, moreover, it allowed them to follow up on their children’s learning.
However, they stressed it should not overwhelm the child.
These priate school mothers also mentioned stress during homework time: they had to “fight”
with their children to get them to do homework; children “omitted”, “complained”, “cried”,
“worked until late at night”, “got headaches”. Mothers confessed that they often lost their
patience and, also, they themselves found the tasks difficult. They were also critical of the
amount of homework (“too much”, “overwhelming”, “excessive”, “exaggerated”, “exausting”)
and felt sorry for their children when they felt frustrated and uncapable. They complained
about having to teach homework in the evening, after a tiring workday. They considered that
the homework charge on children created a negative school image. And they charged the
school with the responsibility of effectively teaching:
“If you don’t know J., Mom also doesn’t know, so you take it back to school and solve it
with your teacher.”
“When M. doesn’t know how to it by herself, I telephone the teacher and she explains
to me, so M. can do.”
“The greater responsibility is the school’s, they have to teach, not us, they shouldn’t
pass on all the responsibility to the parents, when the obligation is theirs.”
“I feel the teacher passes on the responsibility to the parents, because they could work
it better in the school... my suggestion is that they should manage better the time that
children have in the school”.
There were two cases, including one of a mother who didn’t have a job, but preferred to hire a private
Students’ perspectives on homework
A total of 32 public school students in 4 th and 5th grades, 19 boys and 13 girls, were interviewed
in the school site21 by trained undergraduate students. Students’ ages varied between 8 and 13
years old, which means that many of the public school students were above age-grade. They
were asked about doing homework (amount, difficulties, need of help), enjoying homework,
teachers’ reaction when they didn’t bring homework done (who was held responsible).
Students tended to say that they did homework and that they didn’t dislike it, even though
their teacher said they didn’t do it; therefore, many students lied in the interviews insofar as
they probably wanted to fit the good student image: one who successfully does his/her
homework (Azevedo, 2010). Some students recognized homework as an opportunity for
learning and actually did and enjoyed it. However, others confessed that they didn’t like
“I prefer to play rather than do homework.”
“I don’t like to do homework, but it is necessary.”
When asked about what they did after school, at home, they said they watched TV, played
outside, and played with videogames prior to doing homework. So, homework was clearly
opposed to play.
Some students said that they used to hide homework from their mothers, so when they found
out about it, they would get upset and punish them (Azevedo, 2010; Carvalho, Serpa, Medeiros
& Agra, 2006).
In order to perform homework, they relied on mothers’ help, or on older siblings, relatives and
neighbours, in case the mother was illiterate or was not available. However, mothers’ help was
problematic (Carvalho, Serpa, Medeiros & Agra, 2006):
“When I don’t understand, she shouts at me.”
“My mother slaps me with her sandal when I ask for help during the soap opera.”
“She gets irritated when I don’t know, and says that I didn’t pay attention during the
“She says I am dumb.”
“Mother gets angry because she doesn’t know how to teach and she spanks me.”
“My mother and father loose their patience.”
Students also perceived teachers’ anger when they didn’t do homework. According to them,
besides scolding children in front of their colleagues, teachers also threatened and punished
them: withdrawing break time and lunch, subtracting points from the final grade, reporting
and calling in the parents. They also perceived teachers blaming their mothers:
“The teacher says my mother is lazy because she doesn’t teach me at home.”
“The teacher asked: ‘What was your mother doing that she didn’t teach your
“The teacher says my mother didn’t look after my homework.”
Nine students were interviewed in Campina Grande (Carvalho, Serpa, Medeiros & Agra, 2006), and 23
in João Pessoa (Azevedo, 2010; Silva, 2007), all in public shools. Eight private school students were also
interviewed in João Pessoa (Silva, 2007). The criteria for selecting children were: does homework,
doesn’t do homework, has high performance, has low performance, as informed by teachers.
Children said they felt “ashamed”, “upset”, “nervous”, “agitated”, “sad”, and “angry” when
they were charged, because they didn’t “know” how to do the tasks (Carvalho, Serpa,
Medeiros & Agra, 2006).
Children’s discourse about homework experiences indicates the meanings of school for them
and their families. Generally, in the interviews, low class public school students were very
inarticulate as compared to private school upper middle-class students. The latter connected
homework, as an opportunity for “learning more”, with higher education careers, god jobs,
and plans for the future (Silva, 2007). A 9 year old private school boy, who always did
homework, but revealed not enjoying it, said:
“I think people study to guarantee a respectable profession in the future, because
there is too much competition, and if before you had to be one of the best, now you
have to be the best.”
A 10 year old private school girl pointed out:
“I think homework allows for better learning, to be someone in life. There are people
who didn’t study, and have no opportunities and no jobs. We have to study to get a
Other 10 year old private school children presented pro homework and pro school arguments,
that probably resonate their parents’ discourse, such as: ”to have a good job, instead of picking
up garbage” (girl); “to be successful in selections for good jobs, and to have a choice to do the
kind of work that you wish” (boy); “besides having a respectable profession, to be able to
offer a confortable life to your children, if you will have children, so that they will have a good
future” (boy) (Silva, 2007).
These upper-middle class private school students also gave detailed accounts of their daily
routines, which included, besides homework, sports, leisure time, and more study time (Silva,
So, whereas low class public school students do little homework and are inarticulate about
school, upper middle class private school students have incorporated the habitus of school
success, even when they confessed, as all of them did, that they don’t really enjoy studying.
I have argued that the homework policy/practice has class and gender implications: it fits
families with economic and symbolic capital, and which value and invest in education; it counts
with an available adult, usually the mother, with time, disposition and knowledge to teach the
school curriculum at home, and/or, in the case of middle and upper class families in Brazil,
with parents who can afford hiring domestic workers and private tutors; it is blind to the very
limited material and cultural conditions of most families that are served by public schools in
deprived areas, as well as to the gender asymmetries that charge women with the education
of children, including involvement in schooling. Most importantly, instead of focusing on
school/curricular reform, specifically on improvement of the quality of pedagogical work, the
family–school partnership diverts educational improvement to the home. It sets low paid
overworked public school teachers22 against poor overwhelmed working mothers. Moreover, it
puts pressures on families, mothers and students, especially those already disadvantaged, who
lack the adequate habitus, increasing maternal obligation, straining mother–child relationship,
making student evaluation correspond to parental evaluation, finally, converting differences of
In Brazil, because salaries are low, many teachers work three shifts (morning, afternoon and evenings)
in different schools and towns, which makes quality education – planning and evaluation of pedagogical
work, and commitment to students, school and community – practically impossible.
economic, cultural and social capital into education inequality (Carvalho, 2001, 2004a). The
data briefly presented above corroborate these claims.
Traditionally, schools have counted on families’ investments in the education of children by
drawing implicitly on the cultural capital and habitus acquired in primary socialization or
domestic education (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977), and by capitalizing explicity on the time, and
material and symbolic resources of parents through homework, an arrangement that has
worked well for middle and upper class families and students, especially in private schools, in
the case of Brazil (Carvalho, 2001, 2004b). In fact, these families perceive and try to
compensate for schools insufficiencies by offering (the other half of the day) a variety of extracurricular activities (sports, arts, foreign languages, traveling) and even curricular
reinforcement in the form of private classes.
According to this mentality, in the context of the public schools that serve low class families
and students, school failure has been attributed to the insufficiencies or deficiencies of families
and parents. In the schools investigated, representations of the ideal family (involved in
schooling), ideal mother (available as teacher-aid) and ideal student (disciplined, that is,
possessing a proper habitus) informed teachers’ conceptions and practices of homework, so
that they continued sending homework even when their students did not respond as
Most of the female public school teachers interviewed seemed to think that they cannot teach
and that children cannot learn the school curriculum without the contribution of the family.
This suggests that they feel powerless and do not recognize the school’s as well as their own
power in shaping children’s destinies. They did not plan homework so that students could do it
by themselves, aiming at constructing intellectual autonomy; they expected parents, in fact,
mothers, to teach homework; and they graded it, thus creating additional disadvantages for
those students who didn’t do it. Moreover, they punished students and blamed mothers who
failed to help their children develop the habitus of school success.
Visiting homes, in order to carry out the interviews, allowed observation of the poor domestic
conditions of public school students in Paraiba, Brazil. No child had a computer in the house or
even a desk in his/her bedroom, as bedrooms were shared among siblings, when there was
more then one bedroom in the house. The only table in the house, in the kitchen or living
room, was not always available for homework. Children did homework on the living room
floor, with the TV on and other children and adults moving around. Therefore, the domestic
environment was not favourable to homework, indicating that the material living conditions of
many students and families in Brazil do not correspond to the vision of cultural family life
implicit in the SAEB-2003 national testing questionnarie.
Both the policy rationale and teachers’ mentality converge in conceiving homework as an
opportunity for creating what is found lacking within certain family contexts: cultural capital
and the habitus of school success.
If all families are not well equipped to help teaching the school curriculum, why should
educational policy and teacher practice insist on sending homework? Is it fair to expect
homework productivity when classwork is not sufficient or productive for all children? Instead,
could the habitus of school success be intentionally, consciously produced by explicit
pedagogical work within the school, provided sufficient school time and an efficient pedagogy?
Habitus, defined by Pierre Bourdieu (2001) as an educational and practical construction, is an
important concept to explain the reproduction of social inequality through symbolic
domination (of class, race/ethnicity, gender, culture, language etc.). A durable system of
physical, emotional and mental dispositions, produced within family and social conditions and
power relations, and reproduced unconsciously, the habitus is basically the result of informal
education, starting with child socialization and continuing through the varied and constant
educational strategies of differentiation generally implicit in the practices of various agents
and institutions: family, church, school and mass media. It is learned mostly through “mimetic
suggestion” (p. 55), insofar as collective expectations are inscribed in the environment, in the
physical and social order, in objects and practices, expressing oppositions and divisions.
Therefore, as “embodied law”, the habitus (dominant or dominated) expresses itself as
investments or abstentions, and is experienced within the logic of feeling or duty (p. 39).
The schooled habitus is a product of specific social and educational arrangements. Historically,
elite families have transferred their educational tasks to exclusive schools, envied by other
families that had upward mobility projects. The schooled habitus formed the middle classes in
recent history, and has been integrated to family cultural capital. So, there is a relationship of
cultural continuity between upper and middle-class families and the school that favors the
development of the habitus of school success by their children, informally, mimetically. This is
not the case for families who have been excluded from school and do not possess cultural and
academic capital. In fact, as schools came to be generalized and democratized, access to
education not always meant school success for the majority of students, as schools have
performed (and still perform) class reproduction or social differentiation functions, through
the play of cultural capital, as explained by Bourdieu and Passeron (1977). Therefore, when
parents cannot model the relationship to valued school knowledge, their children, in order to
succeed in school, need the school to offer an explicit pedagogical work and all the resources
that they lack in their homes (books, computers, cultural activities, make up studies), instead
of transfering school work to the family.
In the era of schooling, relations of cultural domination are expressed in the presence or
absence of the schooled habitus, which functions as a passport for “a respectable profession”,
“a good job” and “a good future”, as indicated by the upper middle-class private school
students, interviewed in João Pessoa. In contrast with public school students, also interviewed,
they demonstrated having developed the habitus of school success at an early age. Hence,
private school mothers do not need to monitor, personally, daily and laboriously their children
´s homework, as much as public school mothers would need in order to get their children to
succeed in school, if they had time, proper domestic conditions, disposition and academic
capital to perform the parental task the school has assigned them. In turn, public school
mothers are not as likely as private school mothers to charge the school with the responsibility
of effectively teaching the academic curriculum, as demonstrated in the interviews.
In short, what the parental involvement, family-school partnership and homework policy and
practice expect from families who do not possess the valued cultural capital and schooled
habitus is that parents, against the odds, bestow a habitus that they do not possess – the
habitus of school success that is alien to their cultural and material conditions of life.
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