Category Archives: raising children

Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should

We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.

Bill Gates interview, 2017

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009*

 

They haven’t used [the iPad]. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.

Steve Jobs, Apple, 2010 in reply to reporter about  his children using newly-released iPads

 

I do not know whether these high-tech leaders feel that way today (Jobs died in 2011) but there are other Silicon Valley dads and moms who work for Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and start-ups who wrestle with dilemma of valuing highly technology access and use but see the negatives of overuse of devices by their children. Listen to a manager for a Silicon Valley firm who limits his 12- and 10-year old daughters’ device time to 30 minutes a day yet he uses devices for hours:

“I’d give myself a B-minus or C-plus — and that’s up from a solid F at one point….The kids have called me out on it, for which I was grateful.”

The sting of parents considering themselves hypocritical in setting limits for their sons and daughters in using tablets, cell phones, and laptops at home while they are on the devices for long stretches of day and night-time (average daily use of mobile devices for adults was five hours while awake) is an ever-present issue in Silicon Valley and across the country. It pinches San Francisco Bay area parents  with devices even more so.

Sharael Kolberg says she was one of those parents. A Silicon Valley writer (her husband worked in marketing) describes an experiment they did with their daughter in A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology. She recalls: “We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps. It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”

Few parents and their children are going to go cold-turkey for a year regardless of what Kolberg writes and medical associations recommend. But many parents will try to reduce use of their devices and the ones they buy for their children because it cuts down on family face-to-face communication particularly when both (or single) parents use devices daily (and nightly) for their work (see here).

And other parents will avoid conflicts with their kids in trying to limit use.

But conflict is inevitable since the spread of devices has also swallowed schools. Although largely poor and minority schools have fewer devices than their suburban cousins, overall, nearly half of public schools now distribute one-to-one devices to students beginning in primary grades through high school. Screen time for children and youth has leaped ahead dramatically (see here and here).

Can parents do anything about schools doubling the screen time for their sons and daughters?

Schools can restrict use. There are a few schools that see the overall picture of home and classroom screen use and restrict use of devices. Google executive Alan Eagle whose children attend a Waldorf school spoke to a reporter:

[H]e says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

High tuition private schools with a clear ideology about teaching and learning and the place high-tech devices should and should not play in both have that latitude to reduce use of computers in elementary and middle school grades. That Waldorf school caters to affluent offspring of Silicon Valley parents, many of whom work at nearby companies.

Except for school policies banning cell phone use in classrooms–a policy that administrators and teachers are often ambivalent about and enforce erratically–few public schools have the luxury of restricting use of digital devices in lessons. In a society that loves technology and sees it as the solution to problems both private and public, school officials who raise questions risk strong backlash from parents, vendors, and students. Unless, of course, they are pressured by parents concerned about use of public funds for technology and increased screen time for children and youth.

Parents can raise questions with district and school administrators about use of digital tools for classroom lessons. There are straightforward questions such as why is the school adopting devices for all students (see here)? Then there are the questions that often don’t get asked: Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Such parent/school cooperation around screen time is rare although a few parents and school officials do raise such questions (see here, here, and here).

Those top leaders who founded and run high-tech organizations talk about how they reduced use of technology for their own children have yet to make the connection of total screen time now that schools have thoroughly embraced digital devices as must-have tools for daily lessons. Combined time watching screens at school and home for the young mirrors the work world where employees are always on call and boundaries between private and work lives are disappearing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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*Interview with Charlie Rose, March 6, 2009–quote begins at 42.00

 

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Filed under raising children, technology use

Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say? (Marnie Kaplan)

“Prior to joining Bellwether, Marnie [Kaplan] worked as a policy analyst at Success Academy Charter Schools, where she analyzed local, state, and federal education policies. Previously she worked as a program manager at the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she tracked and analyzed special education compliance, and as a Stoneleigh Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Education Law Center, where she proposed solutions to reform Pennsylvania’s alternative education system and improve the accountability of cyber charter schools. Marnie began her career as a middle school English and social studies teacher in New York City. She went on to earn her M.P.P. and J.D. from Georgetown University. While in graduate school, Marnie interned at the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the DC Public Schools’ Urban Education Leaders Internship Program; taught street law to high school students; worked in a day care center; volunteered with 826DC; and served as a research assistant to the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Marnie also holds a master’s in the science of teaching from Pace University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania” (Bio taken from Bellwether staff descriptions)

This post appeared December 8, 2016 in Ahead of the Heard, A Bellwether blog.

 

 

 

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You walk by an outdoor restaurant and see a toddler watching a movie on an iPad while his parents eat dinner. Your first thought is:

  • a) those parents deserve a break
  • b) screens don’t belong at meal time
  • c) is the video educational?
  • d) alert: bad parenting

Is there an app to help us decide how to respond? No. But a quorum of pediatricians might be able to help.

From 1999 till 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraged the use of screen media by children under two (which might have led an informed passerby to loosely circle answer d while feeling slightly judgmental). But just last month, the AAP departed from its previous strict restriction on screen exposure for this age group.

There was a lot of media attention heralding the departure from the “no screens under two rule.” Some celebrated the beginning of the end of the “screen wars.” In reality, while the new guidelines offer a more nuanced view of screen exposure, the debate will likely rage on. Screens continue to pervade modern life so rapidly that research can’t keep up.

Let me fill in some background on why the AAP changed its recommendations. The “no screens before two” rule was first issued in 1999 as a response to interactive videos for infants such as Baby Einstein. Research showed these videos decreased children’s executive functioning and cognitive development. In October 2011, the AAP reaffirmed its original statement regarding infants and toddlers and media. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two, studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems, and studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. Since this statement was developed through  a lengthy internal review process, it was drafted before the iPad was first introduced to the market in April of 2010. So for the last five years, the strict restriction on screen time included touch screens even though the committee hadn’t evaluated the emerging research on this media.

In the intervening years, many doctors and scientists urged the AAP committee on children and media to revisit their recommendations and take a more balanced approach to media. In 2014, Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, urged experts to base their recommendations on evidence-based decision making instead of values or opinions. He criticized pediatricians for focusing too much on negative effects and overlooking the positive effects of media on children. Later that year, Dr. Dimitri Christikas, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at University of Washington, suggested rethinking the guidelines to distinguish between TV and interactive screens. Dr. Christikas was one of the first researchers to determine that the time babies and toddlers spend in front of the TV was detrimental to their health and development. He posited that the time young children spend interacting with touch screens is more analogous to time playing with blocks than time passively watching a television. In 2015, a trio of pediatricians published an article offering further support for the idea that interactive media necessitated different guidelines than television. In the same article, they recognizing the need for further research and argued that doctors should emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.

So what are a quorum of pediatricians saying in 2016?

The new AAP guidelines still set rather strict restrictions for children under eighteen months. The AAP recommends that infants and toddlers only be exposed to screens for the purpose of video chatting with family members. This squares with some emerging observational research but likely also displays pediatricians’ understanding of modern life. The new AAP guidelines say parents can introduce children between 18 and 24 months to education shows. For children between the ages of two and five, the AAP recommends a max of one hour per day of “high-quality programs,” which they define as PBS and Sesame Network.

But there remains a lot that pediatricians, neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists cannot say conclusively. How does a small child clamoring to watch videos of herself affect a child’s conception of self?  Does the sensory experience of interactive screens have negative effects on small children’s brains?

Scientists continue to approach the research regarding long-term effects of this exposure from different perspectives. In fact, earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, new research was presented which hinted at the possible detrimental effects of touch screens on young brains. Dr. Jan Marino Ramirez, from the Center for Integrative Brain Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, presented new research which revealed that excessive exposure to sensory stimulation early in life had significant effects on the behavior and brain circuits of mice. The mice acted like they had attention deficit disorder (ADD), showed signs of learning problems, and engaged in risky behavior. Ramirez therefore recommends minimizing screen time for young children. In a recent interview, Dr. Leah Krubitzer, an evolutionary neurobiologist at University of California, Davis, was less concerned about the detrimental impacts of screen time. She believes the benefits may outweigh the negative effects. Krubitzer argues that fast-moving interactive touch screens may prepare children for our increasingly fast-paced world.

So, parents of young children can now feel less guilty encouraging their toddlers to video chat with family across the country. And possibly we have a more clear answer for the scenario above (e.g., If the child is at least two years old, the appropriate response is c, at least for now).

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Filed under preschool, raising children, research, technology

Teaching 8th Grade Science: Technology Integration

The hour-long science class at Jordan Middle School* that I observed October 13, 2016 began with the daily video announcements produced by Jordan students about the weather, upcoming events, and a segment on the new bike lanes around the school including an interview with an adult crossing guard. I looked around the room and saw that most students were attentive and enjoyed seeing classmates doing announcements.

After the announcements, Erica Goldsworthy launched the lesson for the day. She has taught six years at Jordan and, as she told me, “ I have the hang of it now.”

There are 24 eighth graders sitting four to five students at joined tables facing one another. On each combined table sits a cup filled with markers, colored pencils, and rulers.

erica room.jpgerica agenda.jpg

erica poster.jpg

Wearing a gray sweater over knitted white blouse and dark slacks, Goldsworthy directs students’ attention to the slide on the interactive whiteboard (IWB):

Bell work: day 3

1.Do you think gas molecules move differently if they are cold or hot? Explain your answer.

  1. What is the phase change from solid to gas called?
  1. When does thermal apply in our phase change cartoons/story?

As I scan the class, I see most students writing answers to the questions in their notebooks. A special education teacher is also in the room for the half-dozen students with disabilities. She goes from table to table to see how these mainstreamed students are doing on the questions.

After five minutes, Goldsworthy begins review of student answers to questions, calling on students who raise their hands by name.

On the first question about hot and cold molecules moving differently, one 8th grader says hot molecules move faster and gives as his reason kinetic energy. Teacher explains difference between thermal and kinetic energies and compliments student—“great answer, Michael.”

After finishing the Bell Work questions, teacher says:

“I am going to segue into our storyboard conversation—I checked off your storyboards—you need to double-check—look at your rubrics that I passed out on your tables”

Goldsworthy and her next-door colleague have teamed up in designing a “Phase Change Project” to understand how a solid changes into a liquid and then into a gas (e.g., ice, water, vapor). Concepts of thermal and kinetic energy are central in explaining how solids go to liquids and then gases (see here for slides that elaborate on the project).

The project requires each student to:

Create a cartoon or story about a substance going through a series of phase changes (solid to liquid to gas) to show how energy affects the phase that substance is in.

They are into day 3 of the project. The teachers have each day’s work broken down into a series of activities in which students work. The class has been working on drafting their storyboards and cartoons by hand and today they will complete a draft of storyboard, decide whether to do a final copy by hand, use a computer to type their text and add cartoon panels and even go further by making a video out of cartoon they have created. These student decisions are governed, in part, by the categories in the rubric called “above and beyond.”  See below.**

Above and Beyond

Meeting Requirement – Computer generated cartoons.

Above – Paper or computer generated cartoons with YOUR OWN pictures (either computer generated or hand-drawn).

Beyond – Creating a video that includes voice and your own pictures.

*All categories must meet all requirements listed*

Goldsworthy is ready to have the class working for the rest of the period on the project. Students vary in what stage they are in completing the project; some are drafting their storyboard; others are typing in text and putting their cartoon on the computer and some are figuring out how to do a video.

Before launching into a work session, Goldsworthy says: “Be mindful how you are completing your work” She gives example of how to make project look professional by using a ruler. She gives another example by pointing to student and saying if “Leo wanted to make a stop/motion video of his cartoon, he can do it on the computer.” She finishes by saying: “If you are not sure of what meets a standard check with us. Tomorrow we have Science Friday.

“OK, get started,” Goldsworthy says.

Students go to cart to get a iPad or laptop and return to their table. Students confer with one another and look at each other’s draft of storyboard, cartoon figures in each box and after a bit of shushing from teacher, get down to work. Teacher circulates through room asking and answering questions from individual students.

I look around the room and see all students writing, showing their storyboard to table-mates, or tapping away on their device. Low-level murmuring envelops the class. I do not see anyone off-task.

I go around to various tables asking students to see their storyboards. One student showed me her storyboard cooking with coconut oil . Then she showed me the final product of cartoon panels that she was typing into her iPad. After she finished, she told me, she would compare her cartoon of cooking oil as it went from one phase to another, to the standards in the rubric in assessing her work to see what she needs to add or amend before turning it in.

Another student is working on final storyboard that he will turn in. It is a one-foot square white laminated board showing how a solid—ice—turns to water and then evaporates. He is going to go “above and beyond” by making a video. He has looked at the rubric and wants the highest grade the teacher can give.

As I look around the room, there is a noticeable quiet, a purposeful silence with a few murmurs from students showing one another what they are doing. Many students have pencils and colored markers in hand; others are tapping away on devices (at least half of the class is working in laptops or tablets. Here is a combination of low- and high tools in use for this teacher-chosen project. Students easily shift back and forth between paper, iPads, and storyboards. I see one 8th grader holding an iPad in his left hand and with the right hand draws with colored markers on his laminated story board what he sees on the device.

The teacher announces that: “You have 20 more minutes left in class.”

Both Goldsworthy and the special education teacher move from table to table inquiring of each student if he or she needs help or materials and answering questions.

Some students confer with one another, others laugh and speak softly in showing their storyboards. A few go to Goldsworthy to ask questions.

I see one student working on an iPad and ask him what his storyboard is. He shows me a series of cartoon panels of a man—solid—who goes to a sauna and turns into a liquid. He then goes to a doctor who lowers his temperature to zero degrees so that the man can return to his solid state.

At this point, Goldsworthy tells the class, “we have 3 minutes so it is time to clean up. Put away your rulers, colored pencils. We will work on this tomorrow.

Students with devices return them to the cart. Others pick up paper off the floor and put rulers back into cups on the table. In a few moments the whispering turns into open talking among students. The teacher says “if you are cleaned up please be quiet in your seats.

Buzzer sounds but the teacher doesn’t release students. They wait until she looks around to see that chairs have been returned to their places at the tables and the floors under the table are clean. Teacher lets students go to their 15-minute brunch recess and wishes them a good rest of the day.

_____________________________________________________

* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged”, meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards (see here)

** I asked Goldsworthy about the rubric and the “above and beyond” category. She told me that her students felt that if they completed the work as assigned they should get an A+ . The teacher felt that completing the work minimally was satisfactory, a C. So she developed in the rubric that meeting the standards was adequate but not “above and beyond,” work that merited the highest grades. She then laid out those specifications.

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Filed under how teachers teach, raising children, technology, technology use, Uncategorized

10 ways parenting has changed in 10 years (Jamie Davis Smith)

Jamie Davis Smith is a Washington, D.C. based mother of four. This Washington Post article appeared March 18, 2016. She can be reached at jdavissmith03@gmail.com.

“10 Ways Parenting Has Changed in 10 Years”

With nearly 10 years between my first and last child (and two in between), I often feel more like a grandmother telling first-time mothers with children my baby’s age about what it was like “back then.”  These are 10 of the biggest differences I have found between parenting a young child 10 years ago and today.

Strollers only faced one way. With the exception of a single stroller on the market that cost upwards of four figures, the baby faced out. Little did I know then that I was endangering my child’s language acquisition, social skills and overall development by allowing her to look out into the world — instead of at me — while in her stroller.

Cribs were deathtraps. When I purchased a crib for my oldest child, a drop-down side was a must to allow easy access when I was putting her down to sleep and getting her up for diaper changes. Choosing crib bumpers was a process that took weeks, while I searched for just the right shade of pink and the perfect visually stimulating pattern. Now, both drop-side cribs and crib bumpers are considered too dangerous to be sold in many states.

Infant seats were for infants. Things were simple back then when it came to car seats — babies stayed in their rear-facing infant seats until they were a year old. After their first birthday, newly-minted toddlers were turned around to gain a view of something other than the seat. Now, children are relegated to face the back of the car for at least two years — three if they still fit.

Baths were a necessity. My first child was given a bath within an hour of birth. Anyone who has given birth or seen a brand-new baby might think this is sensible, as being born is messy business. Once she came home, I bathed her every day or two. Now, many hospitals and midwives ask mothers if they would like to delay baths after birth, because there is some evidence that newborns benefit from staying a little messy for a while. There is also new thinking that kids don’t need to bathe multiple times a week unless they have spent some time jumping in mud puddles.

There were no smartphones. Ten years ago my phone was not touchscreen. I did not have Siri to help me figure out where to go, or what my baby’s cough might mean. This was both good and bad. While I did not have to resist the temptation to check my email or post to Facebook while I was with my baby, I also could not pull up will.i.am’s appearance on Sesame Street to calm my baby after his shots, or simply ask my phone to text a friend when I am running late.

Photos were a big to-do. Ten years ago, good cell phone cameras were still a few years away and there were no editing apps. You had to take out a camera to capture a moment, and I rarely made the effort. This means that, unlike past generations, there are more photos of my younger children than there are of the older children.

I panicked a lot more. Without easy access to multiple parenting blogs and Facebook forums to get reassurance that what my baby was going through was normal, I worried and called the doctor more often. With my youngest, I was able to check online development charts and hear from other moms in Facebook groups that it was perfectly normal that he wasn’t walking at 14 months.

Explaining marriage was a lot harder. With my older children I had to answer complex questions about whether boys could marry boys or girls could marry girls. Now it’s a simple answer: Yes.

Screen time was a lot easier. Ten years ago, screen time meant watching TV or a DVD.  There were no smartphones or tablets to stream videos and allow kids to play video games anyplace, anytime. The American Academy of Pediatrics had clear-cut guidelines on screen time. With my older children, we made it a point to be home when Sesame Street came on. Now, the question of “what time does your favorite TV show air?” makes no sense to kids who are used to immediate access to nearly any show they like. The American Academy of Pediatrics has revised its strict no-more-than-two-hours-a-day of screen time recommendation to recognize the changing nature of interactive and educational programming and apps.

Families didn’t have as many choices. Ten years ago stay-at-home-Dads were almost nonexistent. Now they are a staple at story times and school pickups. Telecommuting was not as common and many mothers had to choose between going to an office or being at home. Now it’s more common for parents to be able to work flexible schedules and part-time jobs. Paid family leave was not even something being discussed; now Washington, D.C. is considering offering 16 weeks of paid leave to families to care for a new baby or sick child.

MY COMMENT:

Has parenting really changed in the decade, as she claims for the four children she bore within the past decade? I think not. Why? At least six of the 10 items that Davis listed involve changes in technology (e.g., electronic devices, new strollers, infant seats)—but, most importantly, the rest do not (e.g., uncertainty over how best to raise child).

Three points occurred to me as I read the article: (1) These 10 items mirror what an educated U.S. middle-class white mother notes over a decade in raising a child. Were a low-income Latino or African American Mom who had dropped out of high school and had also raised a family over the same time span to have been asked about her experiences, I am unsure she would have listed similar items. That socioeconomic status and culture influence child rearing practices is commonly known and too often unnoticed in appraisals of changes in parenting. (2) Historically, differences in traditional and non-traditional child rearing practices across income, education, and ethnicity have been contested and commented upon in manuals for parents and the media of the day (see here). (3) Some essential behaviors and practices have not changed in parenting. Experts in psychology and child-rearing practices and non-experts such as grandparents know how crucial core practices are in any family be it the two-parent working family, single Mom or Dad, grand-parent or any mixes of these. They persist across income, ethnic, and ideological differences in child rearing and changes in technology (see here, here, and here.)

*Loving the child

*Setting boundaries for behavior and holding kids to those boundaries

*Helping the child grow up proud of who he or she is, self-confident, and minding others.

 

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Cartoons on Parenting

Some cartoons about parenting that I found amusing. Enjoy.

 

 

'Did Dr. Spock ever write anything about how to handle PARENTS?'

 

If I learn how to write Roman Numerals, will that help me write computer code?

 

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Color-Parent-skills-WEB

Print

 

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200711142

 

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Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework (Dana Goldstein)

Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute. This article appeared March 19, 2014 in Atlantic Online

One of the central tenets of raising kids in America is that parents should be actively involved in their children’s education: meeting with teachers, volunteering at school, helping with homework, and doing a hundred other things that few working parents have time for. These obligations are so baked into American values that few parents stop to ask whether they’re worth the effort.

Until this January, few researchers did, either. In the largest-ever study of how parental involvement affects academic achievement, Keith Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke, mostly found that it doesn’t. The researchers combed through nearly three decades’ worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and tracked 63 different measures of parental participation in kids’ academic lives, from helping them with homework, to talking with them about college plans, to volunteering at their schools. In an attempt to show whether the kids of more-involved parents improved over time, the researchers indexed these measures to children’s academic performance, including test scores in reading and math.

What they found surprised them. Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire—regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education.

Do you review your daughter’s homework every night? Robinson and Harris’s data, published in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, show that this won’t help her score higher on standardized tests. Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.

Similarly, students whose parents frequently meet with teachers and principals don’t seem to improve faster than academically comparable peers whose parents are less present at school. Other essentially useless parenting interventions: observing a kid’s class; helping a teenager choose high-school courses; and, especially, disciplinary measures such as punishing kids for getting bad grades or instituting strict rules about when and how homework gets done. This kind of meddling could leave children more anxious than enthusiastic about school, Robinson speculates. “Ask them ‘Do you want to see me volunteering more?

Going to school social functions? Is it helpful if I help you with homework?’ ” he told me. “We think about informing parents and schools what they need to do, but too often we leave the child out of the conversation.”

One of the reasons parental involvement in schools has become dogma is that the government actively incentivizes it. Since the late 1960s, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs that seek to engage parents—especially low-income parents—with their children’s schools. In 2001, No Child Left Behind required schools to establish parent committees and communicate with parents in their native languages. The theory was that more active and invested mothers and fathers could help close the test-score gap between middle-class and poor students. Yet until the new study, nobody had used the available data to test the assumption that close relationships between parents and schools improve student achievement.

While Robinson and Harris largely disproved that assumption, they did find a handful of habits that make a difference, such as reading aloud to young kids (fewer than half of whom are read to daily) and talking with teenagers about college plans. But these interventions don’t take place at school or in the presence of teachers, where policy makers exert the most influence—they take place at home.

What’s more, although conventional wisdom holds that poor children do badly in school because their parents don’t care about education, the opposite is true. Across race, class, and education level, the vast majority of American parents report that they speak with their kids about the importance of good grades and hope that they will attend college. Asian American kids may perform inordinately well on tests, for example, but their parents are not much more involved at school than Hispanic parents are—not surprising, given that both groups experience language barriers. So why are some parents more effective at helping their children translate these shared values into achievement?

Robinson and Harris posit that greater financial and educational resources allow some parents to embed their children in neighborhoods and social settings in which they meet many college-educated adults with interesting careers. Upper-middle-class kids aren’t just told a good education will help them succeed in life. They are surrounded by family and friends who work as doctors, lawyers, and engineers and who reminisce about their college years around the dinner table. Asian parents are an interesting exception; even when they are poor and unable to provide these types of social settings, they seem to be able to communicate the value and appeal of education in a similarly effective manner.

As part of his research, Robinson conducted informal focus groups with his undergraduate statistics students at the University of Texas, asking them about how their parents contributed to their achievements. He found that most had few or no memories of their parents pushing or prodding them or getting involved at school in formal ways. Instead, students described mothers and fathers who set high expectations and then stepped back. “These kids made it!,” Robinson told me. “You’d expect they’d have the type of parental involvement we’re promoting at the national level. But they hardly had any of that. It really blew me away.”

Robinson and Harris’s findings add to what we know from previous research by the sociologist Annette Lareau, who observed conversations in homes between parents and kids during the 1990s. Lareau found that in poor and working-class households, children were urged to stay quiet and show deference to adult authority figures such as teachers. In middle-class households, kids learned to ask critical questions and to advocate for themselves—behaviors that served them well in the classroom.

Robinson and Harris chose not to address a few potentially powerful types of parental involvement, from hiring tutors or therapists for kids who are struggling, to opening college savings accounts. And there’s the fact that, regardless of socioeconomic status, some parents go to great lengths to seek out effective schools for their children, while others accept the status quo at the school around the corner.

Although Robinson and Harris didn’t look at school choice, they did find that one of the few ways parents can improve their kids’ academic performance—by as much as eight points on a reading or math test—is by getting them placed in the classroom of a teacher with a good reputation. This is one example for which race did seem to matter: white parents are at least twice as likely as black and Latino parents to request a specific teacher. Given that the best teachers have been shown to raise students’ lifetime earnings and to decrease the likelihood of teen pregnancy, this is no small intervention.

All in all, these findings should relieve anxious parents struggling to make time to volunteer at the PTA bake sale. But valuing parental involvement via test scores alone misses one of the ways in which parents most impact schools. Pesky parents are often effective, especially in public schools, at securing better textbooks, new playgrounds, and all the “extras” that make an educational community come to life, like art, music, theater, and after-school clubs. This kind of parental engagement may not directly affect test scores, but it can make school a more positive place for all kids, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do at home. Getting involved in your children’s schools is not just a way to give them a leg up—it could also be good citizenship.

 

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Cartoons about Families and Schools

For this monthly feature of cartoons, I pulled together a bunch that got me smiling, chuckling, and occasionally laughing out loud. About half of them are about parent-child relationships in the home; the other half are about teachers and students from ex-middle school teacher Diana Bledsoe whose work I have featured before.

I met Diana through my blog. I read hers and saw that she did cartoons about a fictitious middle school. She told me that she is a “cartoonist who has been in the education field for over 15 years: first as a volunteer, then a teacher and currently as an administrator. My cartoons are inspired by my daily interactions with students and educational professionals.

In these Bledsoe’s cartoons, she features Stewart, a student with a mop of yellow hair who has only passed Gym and has given Mrs. Banks, a teacher, a hard time. Enjoy.

 

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