As Homework Gets Harder, Parents Need a Course in How to Help

PHOTO: President Obama is seen in this photo speaking to the press.
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Sixth-graders report spending 60 to 90 minutes a night on homework, and two-thirds of kids routinely ask their parents for help. But student homework has become so complicated that parents often find they can't help.

That's where the Boston public school system's Parent University, a cram session for moms and dads who can't quite remember the difference between Pythagoras and hypotenous -- and similar programs across the country -- come in.

"My fourth-grader is in Boston public schools, and I need to help her learn how to do her fractions," Jill Cox told "Good Morning America" today.

"Homework, I believe, is way harder than when I was a kid," said Ken Gunsberger, the father of a sixth-grader.

"What we're doing is really breaking it down and helping them understand it, helping them walk through it," said a teacher in Parent University, which is open to parents of students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Parent University offers free, online "parent guides" aimed at specific grade levels. They're geared toward parents of various education levels -- high school dropouts or college graduates. It also teaches parenting skills: How to have a conversation with kids about cyberbullying and social networks, drugs, sex and gang involvement.

A mother of three boys, "GMA's" Juju Chang decided to find out just how equipped she was to help her boys stay at the head of the class.

Chang ventured into the Little Red School House, a private school in New York's Greenwich Village, to go head-to-head with a fierce group of sixth-graders.

"Don't be nervous," Chang said to one student, trying to psych out her competition.

The first question: "What is the formula to find torque?"

"I don't even know what torque is," said Chang.

"Weight of counterweight times distance to fulcrum," said a student named August.

"I thought torque was a new sports car," said Chang.

Chang scored four out of seven, not bad for someone a few years out of sixth grade but dead last against her 11-year-old competitors.

"I go to my parents a lot, and they hate it," said Guthrie, one of the sixth-graders, 'cause they can't figure it out. It's really frustrating for them."

Today's Homework Tougher

Today's math is taught a lot differently than the way it was taught to Chang -- it's about different strategies and critical thinking that make parents say, "It's Greek to me," when they look at their children's math homework.

A number of studies have found a correlation between parental involvement and student achievement. But it's the level of parental involvement that matters. It's more than just going to PTA events -- it requires learning about the curriculum and getting involved in homework.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union address in January, parents should do homework with their kids. Now, there's programs to teach them how.

Click here to read the parent learning guides for each grade level provided by Boston public schools.

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