Recently, an alarmist headline at The Atlantic caught our attention: “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework.” The article describes the findings of a study by a pair of researchers at the University of Texas and Duke, who looked into the value (as measured by test scores, attendance, grades, etc.) of dozens of forms of parental involvement in children’s education and at schools. These ranged from joining the PTA to returning teacher phone calls to helping with nightly homework to penalizing kids for bad grades. The Atlantic and other media sources picked up the story to highlight the more counter-intuitive and strikingly negative findings but in interviews and in their original book, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children's Education, the researchers Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris prove to be more measured and they examine a great deal more than homework help.
For us, as parents and educators, we are most interested in seeing how the information can be used to develop a picture of what successful parental involvement looks like. Notably, 30% of the things parents do to try to help their children prove harmful, and only a meager 15% helpful. It seems that the majority of forms of direct parental involvement with schools (like PTA activity) don’t result in any discernible benefit, as measured by test scores. (This is not to say that involvement of these kinds can’t be useful tools of civic participation or family bonding, for instance.) While the fact that 85% of forms of involvement are either unproductive or even counter-productive is striking, the conclusion should not be that family isn’t central to student performance. Rather, the critical thing to take away is how the findings contribute to the evolving account of how parental support really works.
First, to the negative. The most strikingly counterproductive form of parental involvement was homework help. They found that this amplified moving forward from K to 12, seemingly because parents themselves don’t necessarily know the material well enough to offer good quality assistance and therefore can do more harm than good. In a sense, it’s a reminder that expertise matters.
The study also suggested that other activist approaches to homework could be disruptive. Dictating homework times and intervening in high school class selection seemed, at best, to offer no net-positive effect and might even correlate to poorer eventual performance. Further, it seems that creating a household culture that amplifies the stakes of every decision and every study habit can create psychologically overwhelming pressure. With the results in hand, the logic seems clear: student independence and student preference are positive forces in school life.
Also important was the study’s observation about punitive involvement. The investigators asked parents how they would respond to poor results or negative feedback from teachers. Neutral responses, like ensuring that homework time was free from distractions, correlated to better performance, while negative responses, like taking away privileges, fared poorly. Punishing kids for academic failure or poor performance, in fact, seemed to lessen the likelihood of future success.
The positive interventions look very different. First among them is talking to your child about post-secondary education in a general way. Discussing college plans and the general importance of college is key. This contributes to an environment that emphasizes the long-term value of education as well as one that underscores the value of each more immediate step toward future rewards. On both the positive and negative sides, this finding was the most statistically significant.
Likewise crucial is reading aloud to kids before they start at school and during early years as they go forward. Obviously, the exposure to words and narrative is critical for language development and cognitive maturity. The finding also resonates with recent work done by the Thirty Million Words Project, among others, on the value of exposing kids to sheer volumes of words early in life. [link=http://tmw.org/project.html] The absolute number of words a child hears correlates strongly to future attainment. The mere fact of reading, almost regardless of what is read, is huge.
In the end, we find is that the interventions that produced negative results seem so much more concrete. The negative behaviors get the headlines in part because they are so specific. The positives are nebulous. Use more words and talk in general about the value of education and future goals are maddeningly simple and passive. The general picture of the most productive family contribution to education is hard to assemble: there are a million subtle things that parents and environments do to promote academic success and they are almost impossible to untangle. (The contribution of schools and teachers are more discrete and therefore get more of our attention, for good and bad.) The keys we can observe, so far, though, seem to be those that create a general atmosphere of academic priority and value. These will often be indirect and passive: general conversations about the value of school, ensuring quiet and calm during study times, or having open, frank conversations about ideas.
So, the take-away is obtuse. The best way to ensure student success is to foster kids with the confidence and values who don’t need us to ensure their success. Just try getting your head around that one before your next PTA meeting.