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With Homework, a Helping Hand Can Sometimes Be a Hindrance

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2007

Joe knew just what to do when his daughter, who was studying Roman history, came home with an assignment to build a catapult. He ordered a catapult kit from the Internet and put it together himself.

The task, he was sure, was not in his 12-year-old daughter's skill set, and he wanted to give her a hand. His effort earned a D, said Joe, who asked that his last name not be used to avoid antagonizing officials at his daughter's Montgomery County school.

His daughter's overall grade suffered from Joe's D. But what most annoyed him about the project he called "silly" was that other catapults -- clearly built by parents with more expensive kits -- got higher grades.

"It was obvious parents made them all," he said.

The episode underscores a growing tension over how much parental involvement in daily homework and projects is appropriate and who is to blame when parents cross the line.

Educators say that the correct level of involvement depends on the child and his or her developmental stage but that some parents are so competitive that they go overboard.

"You sometimes run across parents who are what I call Machiavellian parents who are trying to justify the ends anyway they can," said Dan Kent, a social studies teacher at Broad Run High School in Loudoun County. "There is such a push to get the kids in the best colleges that sometimes you find a parent who goes over the edge and does the work for the kids, even in high school."

Teachers also say parents don't always understand the lessons a child is supposed to learn from a particular project; making a collage, for example, isn't a waste of time, as some parents contend, but can promote fine-motor, classification and other skills.

But some parents say schools are demanding more parental involvement by giving assignments that children can't do on their own -- such as math problems kids don't have a clue how to attack -- and failing to draw boundaries about what is acceptable parental involvement.

"I think teachers are well-intentioned, but some of the assignments are impossible for some kids to do," said Marcia Simon, a Montgomery public school parent of two, recalling one assignment in which her elementary school-age son had to design "a very lovely" restaurant menu with pictures and nutritional information about the food.

"For kids who like to do art projects, it is fine, but for kids for whom this is not a strength, it was torture," she said.

The involvement of a parent in a child's education has long been shown to be important to student success, although research suggests that intrusive parents -- especially in adolescence -- can negatively affect developmental outcomes.

The most intensive involvement is seen in elementary school, especially with projects, educators say. They often require long-term planning beyond the capability of young children and resources a child can't get on his or her own.

Sue Ann Gleason, who teaches first grade at Cedar Lane Elementary School in Loudoun, said she doesn't believe in projects that require too much of a parent's time. But she does support enough involvement to help spark excitement in a child. "The fire doesn't stay lit if the parents aren't there to keep it lit," she said.

She prefers projects that "help children bring their world into the classroom," such as asking students to interview the oldest person they know. As part of a study of the past, students write about the person and include a picture in the report.

Both parents and teachers need to see the other side, said Kathleen V. Hoover-Dempsey, chairman of the Department of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, who researches parental involvement in homework.

"The kind of help parents give needs to be keyed to the reality to allow the kids to move through and figure things out on their own," she said. "And one thing that can be immensely helpful is for schools and teachers to communicate to parents how much involvement is appropriate and what kinds of help are seen by the teacher at a particular grade level as appropriate."

Teachers say they usually know when parents overly involve themselves in their child's daily homework and projects.

"It is pretty obvious at the first-grade level," Gleason said. "When it comes in parents' handwriting, you know."

Paul L. Irvin, a U.S. history teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery, said one method teachers use to assess students' work is to have them complete assignments in class.

He assigns a paper at the beginning of the year in which students read Lincoln's Second Inaugural speech and write a constructed response that gives him a snapshot of their reading, writing and analytical abilities. Students get a similar in-class assignment about a week later, and he compares the outcomes.

The purpose, he said, is to assess skill levels. But the exercise points to potential problems with overly involved parents.

Rebecca Namm, a sixth-grader at Swanson Middle School in Arlington County, seems to have found a perfect balance in getting her homework done.

The 11-year-old said she does her homework mostly by herself but seeks help from her mother in English and history, her father in math and her stepfather in science. The adults wait for her to ask.

Her science project required some maternal help. The project involved measuring dehydration rates of different types of apples. Ten apple varieties were required, so her mother, Peg Willingham, went to several stores to find the apples and then helped Rebecca prepare them.

"I'm not so great at peeling apples with the knife," Rebecca said, so her mom assisted. They then dried them in the oven and took measurements.

Willingham said parents had to sign a piece of paper in February saying they knew the assignment and deadline dates, an exercise she thought was useful.

"I think they realize otherwise kids might be off in la-la land until the night before," she said. "But I don't know the degree to which the teachers think the kids are working independently on such complicated material."

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