Families & the Community

Parents Schooled in Learning How to Help With Math

By Sean Cavanagh — February 23, 2009 7 min read
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One recent morning, seven parents left their homes and jobs and drove to an administrative office here to sit through a two-hour tutorial on addition and subtraction.

They were not seeking a refresher on arithmetic, but rather a better understanding of the mathematics lessons their sons and daughters were studying in class and bringing home with them every night.

The adults from the Prince William County, Va., district, located in the suburbs of Washington, were taking part in a school-sponsored math workshop for parents—the sort of forum that has become a fixture in districts across the country. Schools and districts arrange the events to encourage parents to take an active role in their children’s math learning, as well as to answer questions and concerns about what students are being taught.

That outreach takes many forms. Some schools and districts organize family math nights, which bring students, teachers, and parents together, in the hope of making the subject less intimidating and more fun.

Other events, like the one in Prince William County reach out to parents through day, evening, or weekend workshops, and focus more specifically on math content.

Curricular Concerns

Interest in both kinds of forums appears to be growing, some observers say. One factor is the increasing attention that policymakers are paying to improving early-grades math curriculum and instruction. Another is mounting research showing that boosting students’ confidence and effort in math can increase achievement.

Shannon Blake had a number of motivations when she arrived at the Prince William workshop.

The district uses an elementary math curriculum called Investigations in Number, Data, and Space that has roused strong objections from some parents, who say it sacrifices traditional arithmetic strategies for what they see as less appealing methods for building students’ math reasoning and problem-solving ability.

Ms. Blake knew of that controversy. When she received a district e-mail announcing a workshop aimed at explaining the K-5 curriculum, she signed up because she was interested in learning about the new way of teaching.

Unfamiliar with the math strategies and lessons used in Investigations, Ms. Blake said she was unsure of how to help her two children with their homework, which she does every night.

Her son, a 1st grader, is catching up on math, after missing kindergarten, while her daughter, who is in kindergarten, seems to be faring well, the mother said. Ms. Blake, a software developer who says she was a fairly strong math student in school, has noticed that her children appear to learn math in different ways, with her son favoring a more visual approach she sees in the curriculum. She hoped the workshop could help her reach them both.

“The most challenging thing for me is figuring out how they learn it,” Ms. Blake said. “I’d like to build on what the schools are doing, and have [my children] enjoy math.”

Efforts to encourage parents’ engagement in other subjects, such as reading and science, are common and can pay dividends, said Jacqueline Barber, the director of the center for curriculum development and implementation at the Lawrence Hall of Science, in California. Yet schools tend to place a special focus on math because so many families and students seem to “have a block against it,” she noted.

Lawrence Hall, which is the public science center at the University of California, Berkeley, was heavily involved in establishing family math nights in the 1980s. Those forums have grown more popular in recent years, as have other endeavors to encourage parent involvement in math, she said.

One contributing factor has been a requirement by some schools that parents sign contracts to help their children with homework or take an active role in their academic work, Ms. Barber said. The introduction of new and unfamiliar math curricula, sometimes called “reform” approaches, has also compelled districts like Prince William to connect more with parents, she said.

“There’s a recognition that we need to bring parents along in that way,” Ms. Barber said.

At the Prince William County workshop, Donna Stofko, an elementary math coordinator in the 73,000-student district, led parents through a slide show that explained the Investigations curriculum. Periodically, she asked them to work on problems used in classrooms, and explain their answers.

Several exercises require adding numbers in the hundreds, such as 258 + 392. The adults begin by breaking them into combinations of 10’s and 100’s, which Ms. Stofko calls “landmark” numbers, and solve the problems from there. That approach differs from using a traditional addition algorithm, in which they would add vertically and carry the numbers.

The goal is to develop students’ number sense and give them more strategies for solving a problem, Ms. Stofko explains.

One parent, after a few such exercises, seems skeptical: Won’t this approach take too much time, particularly on a test?

Sometimes the traditional problem-solving method is indeed faster and makes more sense, Ms. Stofko responds. That’s why elementary students in the county learn both approaches, she says.

Will it be up to students, a parent asks, to choose between problem-solving methods?

Yes, Ms. Stofko replies, and with practice, students will make that choice without hesitation.

Not Just Fun

While the Prince William workshop targets parents specifically, family math nights bring parents, teachers, and children together in one setting. Those forums often arrange to have families work on math-related games and other tools, as well as larger group activities.

The most effective family math events, Ms. Barber said, are not about fun so much as “fun learning,” in which parents and children are asked to extend their knowledge of a topic, like probability.

Disagreement exists about how much math content knowledge parents need to help their children, Ms. Barber said. She believes a strong grounding in math is less important than parents’ continually encouraging their children and asking them to explain their answers.

Over the past 20 years, research on the link between parents’ involvement in education and student achievement has increased greatly, said Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey, an associate professor of psychology and education at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.

Mothers and fathers have an impact in shaping students’ “learning attributes,” such as their motivation and knowledge of how to find information, said Ms. Hoover-Dempsey, who has studied parent involvement and student achievement.

“Parents can [convince] kids that they can do the work,” she said, and in math, “for many kids, that’s a huge jump.”

Many organizations have published guides that try to help parents in that mission.

One U.S. Department of Education publication, “Helping Your Child Learn Mathematics,” written for parents of pre-K-5 children, offers examples of math games and exercises for use at home, in the grocery store, or in a car. It includes a glossary of terms and online and print resources for parents.

Full of Attitude

The influence of parents was cited last year in a report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group charged with studying strategies for improving teaching and learning in that subject. (“Panel Calls for Systematic, Basic Approach to Math,” March 19, 2008.)

Children who believe that math prowess depends largely on inherent ability, rather than effort, tend to struggle with complex math tasks, the panel found. But research shows that children can come to believe the hard work pays off, the authors said, if parents and other adults tell them so. When students learn that effort matters, they become more engaged, which leads to greater achievement, the report concluded.

By exuding a positive attitude toward math, mothers and fathers can reduce children’s anxiety toward the subject—the documented nervousness that can torpedo students’ math grades and test scores, as well as their progress into advanced math, the authors said.

The parents of students at Northview Elementary School, in Eagan, Minn., seem determined not to let the anxiety take hold.

For almost a decade, the school has staged family math nights twice a year, said Becky Hanson, an instructional assistant and gifted and talented specialist at the school who coordinates the events.

Teachers guide families through card, number, and time-oriented games built around major areas of math, like geometry, algebra, and data, chance, and probability.

Parents are drawn by the opportunity to interact with teachers one on one, explained Ms. Hanson, and by the ability to learn strategies for talking about math with their children. They’re also attracted by the sheer simplicity of it all: “Here’s a night,” Ms. Hanson said. “School’s open. You don’t have do anything except show up with your kid.”

The gatherings have proved popular. Northview arranges to have each math night serve students from two elementary grades. Between 70 and 80 students, accompanied by a parent, grandparent, or even an older sibling, typically show up, out of a total school population of about 510, Ms. Hanson said.

“I keep thinking at some point, parents are going to stop signing up for this, but they don’t,” she said. “It’s a big event around here. It’s never gonna die. I’ll tell you that right now.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week as Parents Schooled in Learning How to Help With Math


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