A grownup’s guide to homework, tests, and teachers
A new book by three LHS staffers explains how to get involved in your children’s education

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

02 October 2002 | How involved should you get in your kid’s science project? How much homework is too much? How do you kindle your child’s curiosity when her teacher doesn’t? A new book from the Lawrence Hall of Science attempts to answer these questions and more, while providing clear, jargon-free, practical advice to parents who want to play an important educational role in their kid’s life.

“Spark Your Child’s Success in Math and Science: Practical Advice for Parents” is based on the latest research about how children learn, and reflects the authors’ nearly 20 years of experience developing K-12 teaching tools. Jacqueline Barber, Nicole Parizeau, and Lincoln Bergman of the Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) program at LHS emphasize that their advice applies equally well to other subjects.

“There are a couple of decades worth of re-search that overwhelmingly shows parent in-volvement to be the single most important factor in kids’ future academic success,” says Barber, GEMS director and the mother of three boys.

“The Lawrence Hall of Science has long been involved in giving advice to parents and doing research on how kids best learn science and math,” says Bergman, associate director of GEMS and the father of two girls. “The book is a way for us to put together in a trade book, rather than in a teacher’s guide or pedagogical handbook, some of the lessons we’ve learned.”

Barber, Bergman, and Parizeau developed their book after reviewing questionnaires that asked East Bay parents what information they wanted.“The results weren’t what we expected,” Barber says. “In general, parents don’t want to know what their kids should be learning, or how they compare to kids in Japan. They basically want to know, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ They want to know really concrete things, such as, ‘How do I interact around homework?’”

Homework: quantity vs. quality
Homework, in fact, presents the biggest dilemma for parents. Says Barber: “There is no research — none — that shows that the amount of homework makes a difference, in the long run, to how well kids do academically. We try to distinguish between quality homework and lower-quality homework, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter — your kid’s coming home with homework, so how can you help them cope with it and do the best they can?”

“So many teachers assign more of it because of pressure from parents, rather than because that would be the best way for kids to learn,” adds Bergman. “But too much homework can lessen curiosity and smother the spark of learning.”

The book also addresses the polarizing topics of testing and assessment. “The issues are complex, and there is a lot of misinformation out there,” says Barber. “It’s not that tests are bad. There are good tests and bad tests, and you need to know enough to distinguish.”

In their book, the authors demystify testing and standardized tests, and they urge parents not to take grades or the results of tests as the final word on their child.

“No matter how good the test,” says Barber, “one data point is not enough to draw any big conclusions about someone’s overall ability in mathematics or whatever. There are a lot of other data points — including information parents can get from schoolwork or just by observing their children.”

Involvement is reciprocal
Parents tend to fall into two groups, Barber says — the uninvolved and the over-involved. The authors urge a middle course and detail a variety of ways to get involved, ranging from volunteering in the classroom, or organizing a parent support group, to simple things such as showing interest in your child’s progress.

“Involvement is a collection of many small factors,” Barber says, “including your home environment, your expectations for your child, the support you provide, your attitudes about their school and how your child is doing there. When one or more of those conditions are in place there are tangible results: higher grades and test scores, better attendance, more homework done, fewer placements in special-ed classes, on and on.”

Involvement is reciprocal, she emphasizes. Teachers also need to find ways to draw parents into the learning process, if only by sending home notes informing parents what their child learned that day. This primes parents to ask their child relevant questions, rather than just a broad “What did you do today?” — a question that all too often elicits the answer, “Stuff.”

“Schools that are effective all have articulated parent involvement strategies,” Barber says.

Larded with anecdotes from teachers and parents, the book comes with helpful “resource boxes” that summarize tips for parents, ranging from how to build a relationship with your child’s teacher and how to encourage inquiry in your child, to a list of questions that can help you guide your child through homework without doing it yourself.


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Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
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