There is a must-read book on education by Amanda Ripley called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Parents should go out and buy this book for themselves and all their parent friends, NOW, it’s that good. The premise is based on extensive research from studies carried out by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) under the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (Note for the American reader: the latter is a European spelling) The international analysis measured student competencies in math, science, reading, and critical thinking. Data from the most recent study in 2012 showed that over 85,000 children from 65 countries participated, all with an approximate average age of 15. The handwritten test lasted 2 hours, and featured a variety of open-ended, and multiple choice questions.
Without reading ahead, where do you think the U.S. ranked in terms of education? For math we were below average, in the 27th spot, science slightly less pitiful in the 20th spot, while mediocre in reading at 17th. We are a great nation with a substandard education problem raising poor thinkers. That is now an internationally proven fact.
Certainly, Americans do not take well to criticism and the U.S. Department of Education has responded seriously to the study, calling for more rigorous and higher standards in education. This is a long, uphill battle, where the majority of parents and educators resist change, refuse to acknowledge blatant deficiencies in our system, and negate any weakness in our young minds. The new Common Core standard was created in part to remediate these obvious issues, particularly in critical thinking, but any time a new standard is mentioned, the community goes into an uproar.
For me, what was most fascinating about the study was the parental survey that accompanied it. Answers within not only provided us with a personal component, but also a snapshot of how much parental involvement plays a role (if any) on children’s test scores. The notion of parental involvement has many facets, with cultural, linguistic, and ethnic variances. Generally speaking, the "apple-pie" American way is towards enhancing self-esteem, placing emphasis on extracurricular activities, and depending on socio-economic status putting forth much energy on the PTA and its efforts. This will include a continuous amount of fundraising activities year-round. If you were to compare this to an Asian country, such as Korea for example, you will see that parents there have little patience for matters regarding self-esteem, maintain extremely high expectations for their children, and comport themselves as rigorous academic drill coaches. They also don’t waste too much time volunteering at their children’s schools. Korea happens to be in the top 5 performers across all areas: problem solving, math, reading, and critical thinking.
I would never want to negate the benefits a good PTA can have on a school. My daughters attend a great public school with a fantastic and energetic PTA. They do amazing things there, from staying on top of classroom repairs to purchasing technological tools so dire these days. PTA parents are an admirable breed, their enthusiasm and motivation is contagious. But, there is a fundamental difference between parental involvement and PTA involvement, in the same way there is a huge difference between caring about your child’s needs and dedicating all your waking hours to working for their financial benefit. The time commitment it takes to involve yourself as a parent to all their efforts can divert you from what really matters: your child. And as committed as I am to improving the quality of schools for all, there are other ways to achieve this.
The PISA results revealed something else that was quite astonishing. Kids whose parents were very heavily involved in the PTA tended to score worse on reading. Though this needs further research, I am willing to bet that it’s the time required to make your kid a good reader. It’s painful to sit through a child reading for the first year, while they improve their diction and incorporate tone into the story. It’s as painful as watching paint dry and your skin will literally crawl, all as you attempt to appear serene, peaceful, and encouraging, so that your little budding reader could get to the next level. And reading is not something that you can step back from after a year; they should probably read out loud to you for a solid 2-3 years before you can consider them independent readers. Once they achieve that though, you should still invest a lot of time in inspiring them to read every day, encouraging diverse reading material, and if multilingualism is your goal making sure they have other language books too. It is a time consuming but well worth feat!
So, if you ask me to decide between organizing a school fundraiser or focusing on my child’s intellectual growth, I will definitely choose the latter. But because I still admire and appreciate the PTA, I will continue to renew my annual membership, buy the spirit gear, and support the bake sales by buying as many treats as we can eat. I wonder how much time and effort would be saved if every family was required to pay the PTA a certain sum of money per year to be applied towards the school? It would be the best of both worlds, to have all the resources needed plus parents with more time on their hands for their kids.
If you are interesting in reading the key findings of the PISA 2012 study, please click here: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf