One of the books I’ve been reading of late is journalist Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way). In it, Ripley chronicles the lives of three different American students – one from Oklahoma, one from Minnesota, and one from Pennsylvania – who spend a year of high school overseas in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, respectively. Ripley uses these students’ stories to put flesh on her facts from international research that suggests the right kind of rigor, parents who focus on the right things, and students who have bought into the promise of learning all matter a great deal in educating for a civilized society.
While I commend the book and its observations on rigor and results, I found the content on pages 107-109 most interesting. In this section (subtitled “The Geography of Parenting”), Ripley discusses research concerning the role and importance of family in a student’s academic success. She writes:
(Scientist) Andreas Schleicher noticed after the first PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test in 2000 that a student’s home environment dramatically affected scores. He wanted to know more about how families shaped education, so he tried to get all the participating countries to agree to survey parents…By 2009, Schleicher and his colleagues had managed to convince thirteen countries and regions to include parents in the PISA. Five thousand of the students who took the PISA test brought home a special survey for their parents. The survey asked how they had raised their children and participated in their education, starting from when they were very young.
That parents affected their children’s learning was not in doubt; the question was, how?
Strange patterns emerged. For example, parents who volunteered in their kids’ extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer, even after controlling for other factors like socioeconomic background. Out of thirteen very different places, there were only two (Denmark and New Zealand) in which parental volunteering had any positive impact on scores at all, and it was small.
Ripley was incredulous:
How could this be? Weren’t the parents who volunteered in the school community showing their children how much they valued education? Weren’t the mothers who chaperoned field trips and fathers who brought orange slices to soccer games the ones with the most time and energy to devote to their children? The data was baffling. Yet other research within the United States revealed the same mysterious dynamic: volunteering in children’s schools and attending school events seemed to have little effect on how much kids learned.
So what parental action actually had effect? Ripley continues with her findings, which again should come as no surprise:
By contrast, other parental efforts yielded big returns, the survey suggested. When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen. It sounded like a public-service cliche: Read to your kids. Could it be that simple?
But what about after fifteen? Again, there should be no shock:
As kids got older, the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels. Research from within the United States echoed these findings. What parents did with children at home seemed to matter more than what parents did to help out at school.
Uh-oh. There go all our parent volunteers! Perhaps, but honestly, if it’s a choice between volunteering at school or reading books and discussing ideas with your student(s) at home, then so be it. The point is this: educating our kids has more to do with how we as parents interact with them, and less to do with signing up to be seen doing so.
Sure, Petra needs plenty of parental volunteer help (particularly when we’re a week out from our first feast next Friday, October 30, with food prep and service opportunities still to fill), but we’ll get it. When you sign up to help (and thank you in advance for doing so), give some thought to what you signed up for when you brought child(ren) into the world. As parents, we are called to read with them, to discuss with them, and to give them the gift of time spent together. Indeed, rigor and results are important, but neither more so than their relationship – now and always – with us.