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.


Unknown said...

Some excellent details here, Alan. What is important is that parents have the skills to teach and impart wisdom to their children. Some free information can be found at to assist parents in this most important task.