U.S. 4th Graders Get More Help With Less Homework, Study Finds

By Holly Kurtz — April 22, 2014 3 min read
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U.S. 4th grade teachers assign less math homework than their colleagues in other nations but their students get more help with it.

These are among the findings of a preliminary research study presented earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia. The presentation, led by doctoral student Sakiko Ikoma of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, drew upon newly available data from the 2011 TIMSS, which included 608,641 students and 49,429 teachers in 63 countries.

In the United States, 4th grade teachers who participated in the study reported that they assigned an average of 19 minutes of math homework per night. By contrast, grade 4 teachers in other countries typically assigned 25 minutes of math homework per night.

Ikoma and her co-authors are still working on examining the association between 4th grade math homework and math achievement on TIMSS. But I did a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation to look at the relationship between nations’ average scores on the 2011 4th grade math exam and the amount of 4th grade math students teachers said they assigned. I found no correlation between the homework time and math scores. And it’s easy to see that homework time is all over the place when compared to math achievement. For instance, high-achieving Singapore and Hong Kong assign more than half an hour of 4th grade math homework each night, an amount that is well above average. But low-achieving Thailand, Romania, and Iran assign similar amounts of homework. It will be interesting to learn what Ikoma and her co-authors eventually discover since I did not have the right data to conduct an in-depth analysis.

Although U.S. teachers say they give less 4th grade math homework, their students are more likely to report that parents help with what homework is assigned. For example, 79 percent of U.S. 4th graders said their parents made sure that they set aside time for homework on a daily basis as compared to 70 percent of students worldwide. It is unclear why this was the case.

Again, researchers have not yet completed the analysis that will link homework practices to achievement results. But Ikoma said she was intrigued to find that parents were less involved with their children’s fourth-grade math homework in some of the highest-achieving East Asian nations. For instance, just a quarter of Japanese students and 22 percent of South Korean students reported that their parents made them set aside daily homework time. No East Asian countries were among the top ten nations in which parents were most likely to be involved in homework.

“We tend to have an image of so-called ‘Tiger Mom’ onto mothers in East Asian countries based on the book and other sources from media” Ikoma said, referencing the 2011 best-seller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Chinese-American law professor Amy Chua described her harsh, hyperinvolved parenting style. “But whether parents perceive their help on homework is a ‘good’ educational practice for their children may result from cultural norms and values embedded in each country. This was surprising but truly interesting for us.”

Although their research is ongoing, Ikoma and her co-investigators, have, so far, drawn two conclusions from their TIMSS homework data. One was that more affluent parents were slightly more likely to help their children with homework in most nations, including the United States. However, Ikoma noted that the relationship between income and homework help was smaller than expected. Another conclusion was that there was generally no correlation between teachers’ years of experience and the amount of homework they assigned. In other words, more- and less-experienced teachers assigned similar amounts of 4th grade math homework.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.