SALT LAKE CITY — Before you sit down to another evening of ninth-grade algebra after a long day at the office, consider this: Children whose parents help a lot with their homework may not perform any better on standardized tests than those who do it all by themselves.
That's the finding of a recent global survey that examined parents' attitudes about schools and their involvement in their children's education.
In a survey of more than 27,000 parents, the London-based Varkey Foundation found one-quarter of parents worldwide spend seven or more hours a week helping their children with homework.
Parents in India helped the most, spending an average of 12 or more hours each week helping with homework and reading to their children. Parents in Japan spent the least, about 2.6 hours. American parents, clocking in 6.2 hours, were just below the global average of 6.7 hours.
Presumably, parents are assisting their children in hopes that they will perform better academically. About 4 in 10 parents said it is "very important" that their children go to college. But analysts rarely found a correlation between increased parental involvement and better test scores, which raises a question: Should parents be helping with homework at all, and if so, what is the optimal amount of involvement?
The answer may vary by family, but experts generally agree it's important that parents at least know what their children are working on and how much time it's taking them to complete it. Taking an interest in your child's homework also helps to create a home in which learning is valued, said Joshua Cramer, vice president of a Kentucky nonprofit that promotes family learning.
"There should be a daily habit of learning that happens in a home, even after a long day," Cramer said.
What researchers found
The Varkey Foundation’s research, conducted online in December 2017 and January 2018, involved more than 27,000 parents in 29 countries, who answered questions ranging from the quality of education their children receive to what parents worry about most regarding their children’s future.
Drilling down about how much parents help with homework, the foundation asked parents how much time they spend helping their children, whether they believe the time spent is sufficient and what keeps them from spending more time helping their children.
They then examined how the countries fared on the Program for International Student Assessment, a test that measures the reading, math and science literacy of 15-year-olds around the world. That test, known as PISA, is given to a representative sample of students every three years. About 5,700 American students took it in 2015.
Only in three countries — Singapore, China and Vietnam — were parental involvement and test scores relatively high. In some other countries, however, PISA scores were lower than average even when parental involvement was high.
Nearly 40 percent of parents in Colombia, for example, reported spending seven or more hours helping with homework, but the average PISA score there was 416. That's more than a hundred points lower than Japan, where 45 percent of parents said they did not assist their children at all, yet the average PISA score was 538.
Germany also had a high percentage of parents who said they don't help their children at all (36 percent compared with 19 percent in the U.S.), but the average German PISA score was 509, higher than the United States.
Globally, one-third of parents said they spent too little time helping their children, and one-half said it’s because they’re too busy. Twenty-nine percent of parents said they didn't think they knew enough about the subject matter to help, and 19 percent said they don't think it's their job to help.
About one-third of American parents, however, said there were no particular obstacles to not helping their children. Their lack of involvement, however, could be because they believe their schools are doing a good job educating their children without their help.
The U.S. came in second, behind Kenya, in the number of parents who rate their child's education as fairly good or very good.
'32 different situations'
Regardless of what's going on in India or Finland, most American parents believe they're doing just what they should with regard to helping their children. Sixty-one percent said they they're giving the right amount of assistance, compared with 21 percent who said too little and 13 percent who believe they're helping too much.
That roughly corresponds with what Marrianne Asay sees as a fifth-grade teacher at Highland Elementary School in Highland, Utah.
“There are some parents who are micromanaging, or enabling a little bit too much, but not all,” said Asay, who also has three children of her own and is one of the national nonprofit Hope Street Group’s Utah Teacher Fellows.
Asay’s children are 16, 20 and 22, but when all were in primary or secondary school, she says figures she spent about two hours a week, just being supportive and making sure the work was getting done. But she says the amount of parental involvement can never be consistent because every child requires different amounts of help.
“I have a friend who spends five to six hours a week helping one child who has a learning disability, and maybe one hour a week helping another,” she said, adding, “I have 32 students, and they have 32 different situations."
Regardless, the amount of parental help generally decreases as children age, the Varkey Foundation found. The amount of help begins to fall off when children turn 11, and between the ages of 16 and 18, 41 percent of students are getting no assistance from their parents at all, the survey said.
The subject of whether children should have homework at all has been contentious in recent years, with many parents complaining that homework causes stress for both them and their children and interferes with family activities.
Some schools have implemented homework-free weekends; others have done away with it altogether, such as a Florida elementary school that only asks its students to read for 20 minutes each evening.
In fact, the culture of homework and its necessity varies by nation, which may help to explain the foundation's findings about parental involvement.
In Finland, where parents spend only 3.1 hours helping each week, students only did about three hours of homework each week in 2012, according to the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the perceived importance of homework has waxed and waned with cultural changes.
"In the 1960s, educators and parents became concerned that homework was crowding out social experience, outdoor recreation and creative activities. Two decades later, in the 1980s, homework again came back into favor as it came to be viewed as one way to stem a rising tide of mediocrity in American education," a government pamphlet, "Homework Tips for Parents," says.
The Department of Education says homework is good for children because it helps them learn how to study and manage time. Also, "it can foster positive character traits such as independence and responsibility."
Parent can help their children by making sure they have a quiet place to study and all the materials they need, such as a pencil sharpener, calculator and dictionary. They should provide guidance, but not answers, the Education Department says.
The government's tips also stress that parents should not say anything negative about the child's assignments and not instruct them to do something a different way, which is also something Asay said is important. She finds it frustrating when a child comes in and says a parent told him he didn't have to do it the way he was instructed in class.
“I love when parents give support and help, but they should mostly just guide them. When someone says, ‘I was struggling on No. 12, but my mom helped me through it,’ I think that’s fantastic.”
Previous research specific to the United States has found a correlation between parental assistance and homework completion. In 2003, researchers at Duke University analyzed 22 studies on the subject and concluded that parental involvement helps students complete their assignments and reduces the number of problems they have doing it.
"Yet the effect of parental involvement on achievement was negligible to nonexistent, except among the youngest students," the researchers wrote, reaching a similar conclusion to the Varkey Foundation's.
The importance of family learning
The psychologist and parenting columnist John Rosemond argues against parental assistance except for occasional feedback or answering a rare question. "The operative word is and should always be 'occasional,'" he has written, saying the child needs to understand that she alone is responsible for her schoolwork.
Nearly 1 in 5 parents the Varkey Foundation surveyed said homework is the child's job, not theirs. For some parents, this position is likely a relief, since one poll by the National Center for Family Literacy (now the National Center for Families Learning) found that nearly half of parents have difficulty understanding their child's homework.
It's not individual assignments that matter most, but the emphasis on learning that helps children succeed, said Cramer, vice president of the National Center for Families Learning, based in Louisville, Kentucky.
If parents struggle with the subject matter, or if homework is assigned “for homework’s sake,” there isn’t much value a parent can add, which is why the center focuses on continual learning for both parents and students, particularly in a low-income family, Cramer said.8 comments on this story
“We don’t think there’s a magic number (of hours), but we know that when parents show that they value education and learning and create that academic habit in the home, this can help improve academic achievement," he said.
Parents can show learning is important not only by being interested in a child’s homework, but also by making learning part of everyday life, whether in the car, at a supermarket or in the backyard, Cramer said.
“Homework can be a gathering point for that kind of learning, but what’s most important is having a daily habit of learning, which can also just be reading to your child, or having your child read to you.”