Read to your kids, give them a better life (and better test scores)

The debate about the sources of weakness in American students’ test scores vis-a-vis those students in other countries continues. The most recent addition to this debate comes in the form of some research recently released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD) in conjunction with the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and recently reported by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times .

What is remarkable about this research is that the researchers were able to draw linkages between what happens outside the classroom with performance inside the classroom. Many have long recognized the effects of socioeconomic status, but even among students coming from families of similar economic background, when parents read to their kids very early on — in the first year of school even — those kids do significantly better on the PISA test than kids from homes where parents do not read to their kids.

Friedman also quotes research from the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education that shows that it is more helpful for parents to be involved in their children’s academic achievement than by being a volunteer in the school. He quotes Patte Barth, the center’s director: “parental actions that support children’s learning at home are most likely to have an impact on academic achievement at school.”

Robby van Moor /Foter

A few things strike me about this research. First, as a parent who works full time, I sometimes struggle to keep up with my third grader’s activities, homework and general well-being.  Although I have long gotten over the guilt of my inability to fit PTA and classroom volunteering much into my schedule, I have to make trade-offs all the time regarding my level of involvement in what our kids do in and out of school every day. One thing we try to do is have dinner together as much as we can and to use this time to catch up on our lives. We play a game we read that the Obama’s do with their children: roses and thorns. Everyone goes around the table and picks out one rose and one thorn for the day. (And I can only imagine what President Obama’s thorns must be!) JJ and I listen carefully to these conversations to learn what is and is not happening at school. They provide an interesting insight into where our kids are succeeding and struggling.

As I think about my 4-year-old, who will be attending kindergarten next year, this research helps me think about my priorities in spending time with her. I have always enjoyed reading with her and she loves it. Turns out, this activity is not only enjoyable for both of us,  but it might also have a lasting impact on her.  Seems like something I should work hard to continue, even when my schedule gets demanding.

Secondly, the results from this research make me wonder: how can we as a nation influence how parents direct their energies when it comes to their children’s lives? Watching JJ’s experience bringing Ascendly into the DC Public Schools suggests that a fun and engaging curriculum can prompt at least some parental involvement. Parents of kids in JJ’s class are making an effort now to visit the class and sit next to their children while their kids explain their solution to the day’s engineering problem. Might this experience be a cause for continued conversation at home about different ways to construct a building that can withstand strong winds or earthquakes? Perhaps it’s wishful thinking but the parental interest in this program is practically tangible. In some communities, schools have to work harder to bring parents into the fold. Given this most recent round of research findings, these efforts may be more important than ever.