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Primer from UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science gives parents tips on how to get involved in children's education
26 September 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Berkeley - 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 at the University of California, Berkeley, attempts to answer these questions and more, and provides clear, jargon-free, practical ways that parents can 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. The authors, Jacqueline Barber, Nicole Parizeau and Lincoln Bergman of the Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) program at the Lawrence Hall of Science, emphasize that the book's advice applies equally well to other subjects.

"There are a couple of decades worth of research that overwhelmingly shows that parent involvement is the single most important factor in kids' future academic success," said 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," said 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 in a pedagogical handbook, some of the lessons we've learned."

Barber, Bergman and Parizeau based their book on questionnaires they distributed in the East Bay that asked parents what information they wanted.

"The results weren't what we expected," Barber said. "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, in fact, presents the biggest dilemma for parents.

"The section on homework was the one section where we had a hard time being balanced," Barber said. "In fact, 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 less quality homework, but in the end, it doesn't really matter - your kid's coming home with homework, so how can you help your kids 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," added Bergman. "It can lessen curiosity and the spark of learning."

The book also addresses testing and assessment, which tend to polarize parents - a fact reflected in a sharp split between pro-testing and anti-testing groups, Barber said.

"The issues are complex, and there is a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "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, one data point is not enough to draw any big conclusions about someone's overall ability in mathematics or whatever," Barber said. "There are a lot of other data points - assessment broadly, information parents can get from schoolwork or just by observing their children."

The key emphasis in the book is involvement. Parents tend to fall into two groups, Barber said - 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, including your home environment, your expectations for your child, the support you provide, your attitudes about their school and how your child is doing in school, about their future. When one or more of those conditions are in place there are very tangible results - higher grades and test scores, better attendance, more homework done, fewer placements in special education classes, on and on," Barber said.

Involvement is reciprocal, she emphasized. 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 said.

Larded with anecdotes by 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.

The primer also deals with other hot issues in education, such as the learning and developmental differences between boys and girls and how today's educational system and classroom often favor girls over boys.

Though the book fills parents' needs, it also satisfies the needs of teachers. Barber and Bergman previously wrote a book for teachers and parent activists about how to encourage parental involvement in school education. "Parent Partners, Workshops to Foster School/Home Family Partnerships," led to the new book.

"Our book is straightforward: it doesn't have to be a perfect school or a perfect teacher or a perfect situation for your kid to do really great," Barber said. "Look at who your kid's teacher is this year, look at the strengths that teacher brings and the gifts she has to offer, and capitalize on that."