School & District Management

International Study Examines Parent Actions, Attitudes on Math Learning

By Erik W. Robelen — December 07, 2010 3 min read
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Just as the latest international testing data once again highlight the relatively poor performance of U.S. students in math, a new report has come out to further explore why the United States may be struggling, with a focus on the math attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of parents, and their children’s out-of-school activities. The survey involved more than 1,000 parents in the United States, Singapore—a top international performer—and England.

Among the key findings: Parents in Singapore are far more likely than those in the United States and England to engage a math tutor to help their child, they’re more likely to get assistance from teachers and others in how to help their child, and their children more often take part in math competitions and math/science camps.

“We come back to this phrase of active learning: More parents in Singapore and students in Singapore are participating in things that are very active,” Lia Schultz, a researcher at Eduventures who co-authored the study, said in an interview.

Consistent with these results were some responses related to parental attitudes reported in the study, which was commissioned by Raytheon Company. For example, 75 percent of Singapore parents said it’s important to provide math learning opportunities outside the school curriculum, compared with 53 percent in the U.S. and 49 percent in England.

Interestingly, U.S. parents expressed much higher confidence in their ability to help their children in math than did parents in Singapore. Whether this U.S. confidence is well-placed is hard to say, but the report suggests that one explanation may be that the middle school math curriculum is more advanced in Singapore than in the United States.

“This is really the first study that I know of that is an international comparison of parental attitudes and their active engagement,” said Brian Fitzgerald, the executive director of the Business-Higher Education Forum. “It’s very very clear that we need to equip our parents to do a better job of helping their sons and daughters become truly math proficient.”

The CEO of Raytheon, the report’s sponsor, is currently the chairman of the Business Higher-Education Forum.

The survey was conducted online, and the majority of parents had some postsecondary educational experience. Of U.S. respondents, for instance, 59 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

I did wonder whether the higher rates of tutoring in Singapore might be explained in part by the economic circumstances of the families surveyed. But Schultz said she didn’t see evidence for this, noting that, in fact, the income levels of the families surveyed in Singapore were lower. (Indeed, further data supplied show that about 80 percent of the U.S. parents surveyed had a household income of $60,000 or more, compared with 48 percent of those in Singapore).

In essence, the sample of parents is representative of parents with children who are college-bound for a four-year degree.

Here are some more detailed highlights from the study:

• 39 percent of parents in Singapore report using a math tutor to help their children, compared with 16 percent in the United States and England.

• 33 percent of Singapore students (ages 10-14) participated in a math competition over the past year, compared with 20 percent in England and 9 percent in the U.S.

• 14 percent of Singapore students participated in a robotics competition, compared with 2 percent in the United States and 1 percent in England.

• At the same time, participation in science fairs by students in the United States and Singapore was about the same, and more U.S. students (17 percent) participated in spelling bees than those in either Singapore (10 percent) or England (13 percent).

• 26 percent of Singapore students participated in a camp or extracurricular activity focused on math or science in the past year, compared with 11 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent in England.

• 52 percent of parents in Singapore report the use of math worksheets or work books by their children outside school, compared with 19 percent in England and 18 percent in the United States.

• 51 percent of Singapore parents report getting help from their child’s school or another organization to help prepare for math exams, compared with 25 percent in both England and the U.S.

• The difference in outside support was smaller, however, when it comes to getting help in completing specific math assignments, with 46 percent in Singapore, 36 percent in England, and 34 percent in the United States.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.