The day to day life of children in schools has been very consistent from generation to generation. From village schools in Tudor England well into the twentieth century, learning Latin was the mark of a good education.
Eventually, even traditions can be changed. In the late 21st century, Latin has been replaced by computer languages.
Another instructional practice that has lingered long in the tool box of teachers is "homework."
Homework made its appearance in the developing system of American public schools in the late nineteenth century. While there was to be no homework for youngest children, older children, older children were expected to do two to three hours of school work at home.
While the reputation of homework as an effective instructional tactic has fluctuated over the years, it is currently in favor with parents wondering "why?" on those nights when their children do not have it.
As Dana Goldstein observes, the regular assignment of homework helps American parents fulfill "one of the central tenets of raising kids that is that parents should be actively involved" in their children's schooling, with 'helping with homework' right up there at the top of the list.
This belief, while popular, is despite the fact research apparently shows that neither homework nor certain kinds of parental involvement help improve student learning. In their book The Broken Compass, Keith Robinson (professor at the University of Texas, Austin) and Angel Harris (professor at Duke University) set out to quantify the effects of parental participation in their children's education, both at home and in school, by assessing 63 different measures of how parents across socioeconomic and ethnic groups contribute to the academic performance of K-12 children.
What the researchers found was surprising: when these measures were indexed against children's academic performance in reading and math, most forms of "parental involvement (including homework) seem to yield few academic dividends for kids...regardless of a parent's race, class, or level of education." Students whose parents help them with homework do not improve. To add insult to injury, if parents help with their middle school student's homework, those students' test scores may actually suffer. (Goldsmith, 2014)
Other researchers have identified mathematics homework as a minefield into which parents should venture with caution.
It all seems so simple: the math teacher gets the ball rolling by introducing a new math algorithm, say, subtraction with regrouping. The teacher works examples at the board and gives the students time in class to practice and closes the lesson by assigning problems for homework. The homework assignment, as it were, tosses the now rolling ball to the parents to keep it moving.
And, just as in real life, when a ball comes rolling your way, unless you know what the game being played it, you don't know how to respond: duck (dodgeball), catch it (baseball), kick it (soccer).
When the parent is confronted with a confused third grader who didn't understand what the teacher meant by "regrouping," the parent may be as bewildered as the child, since when the parent was in third grade, the operative word was "carry."
Harris Cooper, a professor at Duke, recognizes the parents' problem. "Educators can't take math, turn it into Greek [carry--> regrouping], and say 'Mom, Dad, will you help your kid with this?' and not expect to get a 'wha?'" (Hoffman, 2015)
To further complicate matters, research also suggests that perhaps 20% of American adults suffer from math anxiety. Like, for instance, Jennifer Hare, a math anxious daughter of math anxious parents, who went so far as to change her college major to avoid required math courses. Or, like Theresa Ellson who even posted on Facebook about her struggles with fourth-grade Common Core: "I've taken to labeling math homework by how many glasses of wine it takes me to peel myself off the ceiling after I'm done. 'That was a two-glasser,' after whatever it is we're calling long division." (Hoffman, 2015)
The effects of math anxiety of parents on their children were the subject of a study of 438 first and second graders who attended 29 midwestern public and private schools. Parents were asked about their math anxiety and how often they helped their children. The children whose parents were both math anxious and who also reported that they frequently helped their children with math, did the most poorly in math, slipping more than a third of a grade level behind their peers. (Hoffman, 2015)
So following tradition (homework) and culture (parents should help their children with homework) puts us in danger of creating yet another generation of math anxious adults.
In an article from the ASCD by Cathy Vatterott, a University of Missouri--St. Louis professor, has some recommendations about how teachers can create better homework tactics.
If we ask our students to spend time on academics, we should make sure that the work can 1) be done by the student without adult assistance and 2) that it has an academic purpose. If the lesson is about a new math algorithm, there should be enough classroom time for the children to master the algorithm so that the time for independent practice can actually be devoted to independent practice. Other meaningful learning includes checking for understanding (explaining how a type of problem can be solved) and the application of new knowledge to an unfamiliar situation.
Center for Public Education (2007). What research says about the value of homework: Research Review
Goldstein, Dana (2014). Don’t Help Your Kids with Homework, The Atlantic, April Issue.
Hoffman, Jan (2015). Square Root of Kids’ Math Anxiety: Their Parents. New York Times, August 24, 2015.
Lehrer, Tom (1969). The New Math from That Was the Week That Was.
Vatterott, Cathy (2010). Five Hallmarks of Good Homework. Educational Leadership, 68:1, pages 10-15.
The mathematician and song writer Tom Lehrer captures the problem facing parents like Jennifer and Theresa in his song New Math. Lehrer begins by noting that “some of you…may have perhaps put in the embarrassing position of being unable to do your child’s arithmetic homework” because of what he called in 1969, “The New Math,” which translates in 2018 into perhaps “Common Core.”
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.