Perhaps you aren’t able to emigrate to Finland but you still want your children to get a good education. You aren’t willing to assume that a country (the U.S.) that has been running a mediocre public school system for 100 years is suddenly going to snap out of its football-induced stupor. Does Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way offer any practical tips for what a conscientious parent might do? Yes.
How about joining the PTA?
PTA parents cared deeply about their children and went out of their way to participate in school functions. During the 1980s and 1990s, American parents and teachers had been bombarded by claims that children’s self-esteem needed to be protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed. Despite a lack of evidence, the self-esteem movement took hold in the United States in a way that it did not in most of the world. So, it was understandable that PTA parents focused their energies on the nonacademic side of their children’s school. They dutifully sold cupcakes at the bake sales and helped coach the soccer teams. They doled out praise and trophies at a rate unmatched in other countries. They were their kids’ boosters, their number-one fans. These were the parents that Kim’s principal in Oklahoma praised as highly involved. And PTA parents certainly contributed to the school’s culture, budget, and sense of community. However, there was not much evidence that PTA parents helped their children become critical thinkers. In most of the countries where parents took the PISA survey, parents who participated in a PTA had teenagers who performed worse in reading.
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. 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.
Giving your children lots of encouragement and praise?
In one Columbia University study, 85 percent of American parents surveyed said that they thought they needed to praise their children’s intelligence in order to assure them they were smart. However, the actual research on praise suggested the opposite was true. Praise that was vague, insincere, or excessive tended to discourage kids from working hard and trying new things. It had a toxic effect, the opposite of what parents intended. To work, praise had to be specific, authentic, and rare.
Knocking yourself out like Tiger Mom?
Korean parenting, by contrast, were coaches. Coach parents cared deeply about their children, too. Yet they spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder. They saw education as one of their jobs. This kind of parenting was typical in much of Asia—and among Asian immigrant parents living in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable. In fact, children raised in this way in the United States tended not only to do better in school but to actually enjoy reading and school more than their Caucasian peers enrolled in the same schools.
While American parents gave their kids placemats with numbers on them and called it a day, Asian parents taught their children to add before they could read. They did it systematically and directly, say, from six-thirty to seven each night, with a workbook—not organically, the way many American parents preferred their children to learn math. The coach parent did not necessarily have to earn a lot of money or be highly educated. Nor did a coach parent have to be Asian, needless to say. The research showed that European-American parents who acted more like coaches tended to raise smarter kids, too.
What if, due to a lifetime of living in America, you are too lazy to do that?
Parents who read to their children weekly or daily when they were young raised children who scored twenty-five points higher on PISA by the time they were fifteen years old. That was almost a full year of learning. More affluent parents were more likely to read to their children almost everywhere, but even among families within the same socioeconomic group, parents who read to their children tended to raise kids who scored fourteen points higher on PISA. By contrast, parents who regularly played with alphabet toys with their young children saw no such benefit.
And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of family income. Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said.
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 there were fifteen. It sounded like a public-service cliché: Read to your kids. Could it be that simple? Yes, it could, which was not to say that it was uninteresting. After all, what did reading to your kids mean? Done well, it meant teaching them about the world—sharing stories about faraway places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things. 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.
What if you’re too busy watching TV and playing Xbox to read? Can you be savvy about choosing your child’s school? Ripley has an entire appendix on the subject.
If you are trying to understand a school, you can ignore most of the information you are given. Open houses? Pretty much useless. Spending per student? Beyond a certain baseline level, money does not translate into quality in education anywhere. The smartest countries in the world spend less per pupil than the United States. Average class size? Not as important as most people think, except in the earliest years of schooling. In fact, the highest-performing countries typically have larger classes than the United States. The research shows that the quality of the teaching matters more than the size of the class. Test data? More helpful, but very hard to decipher in most places. How good is the test? How much value is the school adding beyond what kids are already learning at home? More and more U.S. school districts have this kind of information, but do not make it public. Instead, the best way to gauge the quality of a school is to spend time—even just twenty minutes—visiting classrooms while school is in session. When you get there, though, it’s important to know where to look. Parents tend to spend a lot of time staring at the bulletin boards in classrooms. Here is a better idea: Watch the students instead. Watch for signs that all the kids are paying attention, interested in what they are doing, and working hard. Don’t check for signs of order; sometimes learning happens in noisy places where the kids are working in groups without much input from the teacher. Some of the worst classrooms are quiet, tidy places that look, to adults, reassuringly calm. Remember that rigorous learning actually looks rigorous. If the kids are whizzing through a worksheet, that’s not learning. That’s filling out a form. Kids should be uncomfortable sometimes; that’s okay. They should not be frustrated or despairing; instead, they should be getting help when they need it, often from each other.
There should be a sense of urgency that you can feel.
I saw bored kids in every country. Boredom is the specter that haunts children from kindergarten to graduation on every continent. In American classrooms, I watched a girl draw a beautiful rose tattoo on her arm with a ballpoint pen; she did it slowly, meticulously, as though she were serving a life sentence.
In the best schools, though, boredom was the exception rather than the norm. You could walk into five classrooms and see just one or two students who had drifted away, mentally or physically, rather than eight or ten. That’s how you know that you are in a place of learning.
Don’t ask, “Do you like this teacher?” or “Do you like your school?”
The first thing I usually ask is straightforward: What are you doing right now? Why? You’d be amazed how many kids can answer the first question but not the second.