By Walter Ruehlig
School Board Trustee, Antioch Unified School District
I often get asked by concerned community members as to what single attention can best advance education? It’s a complex challenge that, truth be told, defies single remedy.
Actually, education can be likened to a three-legged stool, with any one unstable leg, student, teacher or parent, causing potential wobble. The student needs exercise discipline and motivation; the teacher effective communication, passion, rigor, relevancy and classroom management; the parent guidance and strict vigilance.
Needless to say, volumes have been written extolling the crucial role of good teachers. Substantial data, in fact, indicates that a child having three consecutive years with high performing teachers has a virtual lock on succeeding. Given three years with mediocre or poor teachers, the adverse is also more likely true.
Hence, we place great premium on recruiting, and then peer training, the best teachers available. The fact remains, though, that like police officers, dentists, or landscapers, for that matter, there will always be the good, the bad and the ugly in the mix.
One thing, though, that rests firmly in our personal control is effective parenting.
Every three years the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development examines fifteen year olds in the worlds’ leading industrialized nations through the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Reading comprehension and the ability to use what has been learned in math and science to solve real problems is tested.
The U.S., once among educational world leaders, sadly now scores in the middle of the pack, right above Cyprus, and far trailing Finland, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Compelled to find some success denominators, in 2009 the PISA team went beyond the classroom and interviewed 5,000 parents to find out what they were doing. The conclusion shows that students whose parents often read to them during their first years of primary school, performed, regardless of socio-economic status, significantly better. The average difference was 25 points or the equivalent of half a year of schooling.
Little surprise as competent parenting was never, we’d agree, a spectator sport. Spending time with your children by talking, playing, or sharing a family meal, is the most priceless treasure youth can inherit. Reading to your child, though, now there is true ‘quality time.’ Stress, then, the written word by having books and magazines around the house. Lead by example and read to yourself as well.
If you can’t get involved in helping with homework, at least show an interest and ask what your child is doing. Check into School Loop, which allows you to computer monitor your child’s attendance, homework and grades. Let them know you are involved and consider education paramount. Praise and reward their efforts, for filling their bucket of self-esteem insures it can never run short. Know your child’s associations and keep them busy.
“Hanging out” and boredom germinate mischief. Contrarily, youth involved in clubs and organized activities channel their energy with a positively reinforcing circle of friends. Though I think ‘tiger parenting’ can be taken, like anything, to excess, and that some free time is needed to keep childhood from uber- seriousness, it is o.k. to keep expectations high.
Truth be, I am a zealot on parental involvement because I have been hit by lightning twice on family matters. I grew up in Great Neck, Long Island in a predominantly Jewish town. The prevailing question wasn’t ‘if’ college, but ‘what’ college. Little wonder, neighbors routinely entered professions like accounting, dentistry or law or started profitable businesses like furrier or jewelry.
I owe gratitude, then, to my blue collar dad, a chef, for sacrificing so we could move from working-class Queens into a community where expectations were unlimited. I then married a Filippina and, double bingo, again saw the effects of a parental culture dead set on education. Though the Academic Performance Index (API) for Antioch is 727 out of a possible 1,000, with 800 the California goal, the Filippino sub-set scores 835.
Certainly, its’ not Asian Wheaties the kids are eating for breakfast that makes such a profound difference. Credit family values. Of course, there is no substitute for an inspired teacher. We can’t, though, put all our marbles there. We also need better parents. They will inexorably make our teachers better.
As Shakespeare said, “the voice of parents is the voice of god, for to their children they are heaven’s lieutenants.” Teach your children well. After all, isn’t it a funny thing how fortunate parents who have conscientious children usually have fortunate children who have conscientious parents?