Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Home is the Heart of Learning and Where Education Starts by Dr. Alan Singer

The ETS does some things other than scaring teenagers with those 3 dreaded letters--SAT. In this column, I describe a terrific study that was recently sponsored by the ETS. This column was published in the Home News Tribune on 02/20/08.

Three letters send shivers down the spine of most academically conscientious teenagers — ETS. Or maybe you know the Educational Testing Service by the better-known abbreviation — SAT.
SAT questions "are developed by a prestigious team of world-renowned academic experts, who get them from "Jeopardy!' " according to humor scholar Dave Barry. In fact, Barry says "the original idea behind the SATs, as stated in the ETS's Official Historical Statement of Goals and Purposes, was "to sell a huge quantity of No. 2 pencils that we ordered by mistake.' "

When I came across a recent research study published by ETS, I was gratified to learn that there are products of this company that are not designed to primarily put fear in the hearts of adolescents. And what a terrific piece of research they produced, "The Family: America's Smallest School." In the introduction, the study's authors, Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, state, "Improving a child's home environment to make it more conducive to learning is critical if we are to improve the educational achievement of the nation's students." Toward reaching this goal, the authors suggest, "We need to develop cooperative partnerships in which families are allies in the efforts of teachers and schools."

I called Richard Coley to chat about the study. He directs the Policy Information Center of the ETS. "This report seems to have struck a chord," Coley said, adding, "ETS has conducted research reports that go back over 20 years."

Here are several types of family and home conditions that research has found to make a difference in children's cognitive development and school achievements:

Parent-pupil ratio: "In selected international comparisons, the U.S. ranks the highest in percentage of single-parent households, and Japan ranks the lowest." The number of U.S. children who live without two parents has declined to 68 percent (from 77 percent in 1980). An astonishing 44 percent of births to women under age 30 are out of wedlock. "Being raised by a single parent in itself steepens the odds considerably," explains Michael Winerip (The New York Times, December 9, 2007). "On average," suggests Winerip, "the child with a single parent is 2.5 times more likely to repeat a grade." Children need as many contact hours as possible with their parents. I have urged it before in this column, and it bears repeating. Children need quantity time with parents, not just quality time.

Family finances: "Income is an important factor in a family's ability to fund the tangible and intangible elements that contribute to making the home an educationally supportive environment," explain the authors of the study. "Nationally, 19 percent of children live in poverty, and 11 percent of all households are food-insecure. One-third of children live in families in which no parent has full-time year-round employment."

Literacy development: Income has relevance to this category as well. The study's authors found, "By age 4, the average child in a professional family hears about 20 million more words than the average child in a working-class family, and about 35 million more words than children in welfare families." Can we agree that talk is not cheap? The spoken word is vital to each child's education. And the written word? There is an income disparity in this category as well. "Sixty-two percent of high socio-economic status (SES) kindergartners are read to every day by their parents, compared to 36 percent of the kindergartners in the lowest socio-economic status group."

The most interesting finding of the study, in my opinion, is the ability to predict two-thirds of the large differences among states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth-grade reading scores. Four family-home factors stand out, and — to some degree — each is likely to be related to the others: single-parent families, parents reading to young children every day, hours spent watching television (35% of eighth-graders watch four or more hours of television on an average weekday) and the frequency of school absences (one in five students misses three or more days of school each month). Therefore, if you want to help your children academically, keep your marriage strong, read to/with your children frequently, discourage excessive "screen time" and monitor your children's attendance at school carefully.

And one more interesting tidbit that the study's authors found: Make sure your child has a desk or table where he/she can study. Eighty-six percent of U.S. eighth-graders do, which is just above the international average. In our phone conversation, Coley stressed, "Not all kids have a quiet place to study, and they certainly need it."

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog or e-mail "Be Counted" columnists are members of the public.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Marriage Veterans Share Conflict Resolution Secrets by Dr. Alan Singer

I interviewed 9 New Jersey Couples who are celebrating their 30th Wedding Anniversary this year. You'll see their terrific insights in this first installment covering conflict resolution, that was published in the Home News Tribune on 1 /23/08

According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, there are 20 percent fewer couples reaching their 15th, 20th and 25th anniversaries. This new data comes as no real surprise but does address a major problem for families from a different direction. Rather than describing the enormous divorce rate, this survey shows a decrease in the number of long-term marriages.

For a better understanding of long-term marriages, I decided to survey nine Central Jersey couples who are celebrating 30 years of marriage this year (as are my wife and myself). Here is the collective wisdom of the couples who responded to the survey. Incidentally, half of the respondents are grandparents. Multiplying 30 years by two spouses by nine couples means that you will be benefiting from almost 600 years of marital experience here!

Since all of the sage advice from these couples will not fit into one column, I decided to begin with a practical topic: marital disagreements. I asked the marriage veterans what method of resolving marital arguments is most effective for them. The research of Dr. John Gottman in his Seattle Love Lab at the University of Washington indicates that each normal healthy marriage comes along with a package of irresolvable issues, such as division of household tasks and differences in approaches to child rearing. The key to a good marriage is not the resolution of conflict but rather the regulation of conflict, according to Gottman.

Couples who choose divorce to escape from low-conflict marriages often do not realize that with a second marriage they are likely to encounter a new set of irresolvable issues. Researchers Paul Amato and Alan Booth discovered that two-thirds of American divorces (involving children) are of couples who are in low-conflict marriages. Worth noting is that, from a child's point of view, these marriages are "good enough." Author Linda Waite, in her book "The Case for Marriage," found, "Eighty-six percent of unhappily married people who stick it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier."

It is within the context of that encouraging research that I would like to share some comments of the 30th anniversary couples. Lisa and Mort believe that "listening to the other point of view and considering the possibility you might be wrong" is the most effective method of resolving a disagreement. Similarly, Robin and Michael stated, "Put yourself in the other person's shoes." They suggest that the key to conflict resolution is "remembering to look at the situation not only logically but with empathy for your spouse's feelings and emotions."

Susie emphasized that she and her husband, Barry, try not to let things fester. Their response points out the need for open, clear communication between spouses and the importance of "not taking things too seriously." Susie's method of choice is to "frankly express disappointments and disagreements with each other."

Steven and Diana emphasized the need for direct communication, as did Larry and Judy, who stated, "We discuss the problem and try to resolve it, but that is only after we spend time away from each other to cool off." The need to "cool off" was mentioned by other couples. Linda and Leonard try not to speak to each other at all before calming down. They stress "thinking before speaking," so that they don't regret it later. Linda considers what caused the argument and determines what they can do in the future to prevent hurting each other. She added, "We try to be more sensitive to each other's feelings."

Susan's humorous response shows her honesty and candor: "I try to cool off but sometimes my screams can be heard all around the world — yes, that was me last week!" For her and Leibe, "The most effective method is to talk it out or maybe just let it go." "Eventually you learn to forgive," Susan concluded, "if not always to forget." Last are the candid comments of Heather and Arthur: "We're not so good at resolving disagreements . . . between one passive-aggressive partner, and one upfront emotional partner, our disagreements tend to be very difficult."

"But compromise is certainly the best solution," Heather urged, "or when one partner swallows (his or her) needs in favor of Shalom Bayit" (Hebrew for "Peace in the Home"). Here is Linda's postscript: "Marriage is the best mistake we could have ever made, and may we be here to answer these questions again after 60 years of marriage!"

Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog or e-mail