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To help or not to help: The homework question | Deseret News National
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To help or not to help: The homework question

Traditionally, part of good parenting is helping your kids with their homework, but new research says that might be detrimental to your child's academic performance.

According to a study by University of Texas at Austin and Duke University, which sifted through more than 30 years of longitudinal surveys, working on your child’s homework with them is more likely to be hurtful than helpful.

The counter-intuitive findings are particularly relevant in the cases of depreciable subjects, like math and science. These are “use it or lose it” subjects, meaning that if you haven’t done algebra in six months or more, you likely don’t remember how to do it.

“Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down,” an effect which, as Dana Goldstein explained in the Atlantic, could be “caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.”

The researchers said that even if you interact with the subject on a daily basis at work, that doesn’t mean you know how to explain it to your child in a helpful way.

“But there are other reasons homework help is helping our kids bomb,” Judith Newman wrote in the New York Times. “For one thing, most of us aren’t teachers; knowing a subject is not the same as being able to impart that knowledge to others, as anyone who’s ever found herself screaming, 'Just take my word for it!' to a mystified 7-year-old knows."

This research has created frustration for a lot of teachers who don't want to lose involved parents. Common-held wisdom says the more involved the parents the more successful the student, but the study found that the involvement of the parents did not matter as much as encouragement and high expectations from the parents.

The study found that when parents made verbal mention of their children academically succeeding or expectations of future college attendance, without direct help on assignments, the students performed better than those whose parents were actively involved.

The study also debunked the common beliefs about why low-income students perform poorly in schools.

“Although conventional wisdom holds that poor children do badly in school because their parents don’t care about education, the opposite is true,” Goldstein reported. “Across race, class and education level, the vast majority of American parents report that they speak with their kids about the importance of good grades and hope that they will attend college. Asian-American kids may perform inordinately well on tests, for example, but their parents are not much more involved at school than Hispanic parents are."

Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, the principal researchers, said that the performance gap between low- and high-income families does not have anything to do with parental involvement, but everything to do with environment.

Robison and Harris told the Atlantic, “Greater financial and educational resources allow some parents to embed their children in neighborhoods and social settings in which they meet many college-educated adults with interesting careers. Upper-middle-class kids aren’t just told a good education will help them succeed in life, they are surrounded by family and friends who work as doctors, lawyers and engineers and who reminisce about their college years around the dinner table.”

The researchers suggest in their book that the best way to get involved is by becoming “the pesky parents who secure better textbooks and new playgrounds that make an educational community come to life, like art, music, theater and clubs. This kind of parental engagement may not directly affect test scores, but it can make school a more positive place for all kids, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do at home.”

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard