Monday, May 26, 2008

Family Involvement and Student Motiviation

So, in a couple of different threads, we've had a couple of people mention factors in how well a student does in school. They were brief so I thought I'd throw it out for discussion, keeping in mind that we all may disagree on what could (should) be happening.

Dan Dempsey had posted a longer comment but this was part of it:

"From National Math Advisory Panelist Vern Williams...

The question for VW......I think when we talk about success in math, we talk about books, we talk about whether the books are the correct books, but the two elephants in the room, do we have a motivated student and family involvement. I just wanted you to comment on that from your honest feelings. "

Trish Dziko had posted this as part of her comment:

"Basically what it comes down to is leadership and talent. The Ed Trust folks say that districts and schools that are successful don't get lost in the red herring idea that they should also be worrying about poverty, single parent homes, and all the other issues that shape a kids life. They focus on what they can do and they do a darn good job at it."

Against this backdrop, we have a presidential election centering on a war and a sagging economy with issues that are affecting every single family in the U.S. (the sub-prime fiasco and energy/food costs).

The elephant(s) in the room - what is happening at home and is that situation/atmosphere helping/hurting the student in school?

Trish calls it the "red herring" and I think that's pretty brave. A lot of people believe that schools should be doing a lot more than they are set up (or funded to do). I was reading an article about how the city of Chicago is thinking of setting up boarding schools for homeless children. This is setting off a firestorm over the money (well, naturally, money is always the driver) AND whether it is better for kids to have a chaotic lifestyle with a relative (mom, dad, or other relative) versus stability, regular food, bedtime, etc. with strangers (and, of course, relatives having access to the children). This is a pretty extreme case but clearly, the city of Chicago and its school system is deeply worried about these kids to propose this idea.

I know many local schools have made efforts to see that kids who may not, in their home environments, have access to the same things that kids who come from more comfortable families get. The schools try to supply them with experiences or bring in people who will inspire them. We have free and reduced breakfast and lunch. The newspapers have a drive at the end of summer to send all kids to school with a backpack and supplies for school. I've read many letters to the editor over the years in various local newspapers about how "back in my day" schools didn't need counselors or family support workers so we do we have to pay for them today? Well, we pay for them because students need the help.

But, and here's the question, how is it that some students, despite challenging backgrounds, rise above them? How is it that there are some parents of modest means who may be single parents who manage to instill in their children that education matters? Asian nations who are churning out high-level students by the thousands have little time for worrying about learning styles or home situations - you learn or you don't. (They also don't seem to have time to teach about the value of thinking and analysis in what you learn - hence the differences between the U.S. and other countries.)

Are our schools feeling pressure to try to fill all the gaps? Do parents have a right to expect that? Trish seems to believe that it will take bold and brave leadership that makes the important academic changes and paths rather than getting distracted over bigger societal issues that they cannot change.


David said...

Thank you for starting this thread. You raise a very complex issue, and I hope we'll hear various perspectives on it.

I will bring up just one aspect of the question of academic achievement: summer learning loss. "Summer learning loss" occurs when students don't engage in educational activities over summer and return to school in September with lower skill levels than they had in June.

Please refer to the Center for Summer Learning at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Specific publications may be found here.

Here is a quote from their website:

"Two-thirds of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college (Alexander et al, 2007)." [my emphasis]

Has Seattle Public Schools underestimated the importance of keeping students engaged in learning over the summer?

Charlie Mas said...

We only need to look at the schools which have been successful with minority students, immigrant students, and students from low income households. Have these schools focused on the realities of the students' homes or have these schools focused on the school work? I think Maple is an example of this sort of school.
I'd say they focused on what happens in school and applied their efforts there.

What results have we seen from the schools that focused on cultural competence and culturally relevant curricula? Is there is a better example of this than the African-American Academy?

Then again, to what extent is family involvement a key factor in what make The New School what it is?

So why look any further than Seattle to see what works and what doesn't?

Melissa Westbrook said...

English teacher, I did a cursory look and man, there is a huge amount of research on this issue. I'll have to do more than glance at it but it looks like a good thread on its own.

Here's one startling finding (from "Are Schools the Great Equalizer by Downey, Hippel and Broh at Ohio State University in Oct. 2004):

"Reproductionist theorists have
argued that schooling plays an important role in reproducing and even exacerbating existing
disparities. But seasonal comparison research reveals that socioeconomic and racial/ethnic gaps in reading and math skills grow primarily during the summer, suggesting that non-school factors
(e.g., family and neighborhood) are the main source of inequality."

Charlie Mas said...

All of the research that I have seen on the academic achievement gap indicates that half of it is present on the first day of kindergarten, that it shrinks during the school year, and that it grows during the summer.

Schools narrow the gap. Homes start it and make it grow.

One of the first steps we need to take to close the gap is to stop blaming it on racism or classism or language barriers or cultural barriers in schools.

anonymous said...

My kids are fairly high achievers, but we do not emphasize academics during the summer. My son plays on an all star baseball team that takes a lot of his time, both of my kids take a few non academic summer camps (basketball, sailing, band/music), we go camping one weekend, and we take one extended (2-3 week) vacation. Aside from reading which they do voluntarily because they like to, we do not make them do anything academic. We recognize how hard they work all year long and like to give them a break during the summer. As a child I remember the same experience - the summer being about fun - not school or academics.

My kids are not behind - rather the opposite, they are working way above grade level. If they weren't, and were doing poorly, I suppose I would have a very different approach, and instead of that sailing camp, they would be at Kumon.

I should also say that during the school year we take school very seriously, and make it our number one priority. We expect our kids to do their best and work very hard. We stay very connected and involved with their learning, and in communication with teachers and staff. We also volunteer in their schools as much as we can. And in keeping with our value for education we seek out what we perceive as the best schools (for our kids)!

So, I am curious why research shows the gap is due to summer learning loss? I have always thought it was more about (just an opinion, no research to back it up) parents lack of involvement in their child's education and a lack of family expectation placed on a child to be a high achiever. All of the little things that involved parents do add up and I think that is what makes the difference - going to school fairs so you can choose the right school for your child, making sure johnny gets to class every day, checking to see if homework gets done, looking at the source, seeking a tutor when necessary (many schools provide them free but you have to seek the service), communicating with teachers, volunteering in your school, recognizing and even rewarding you child's high achievement, making a curfew so Johnny is well rested for school, etc, etc, etc.

I also agree with Charlie, that we should eliminate racism, classism, language and cultural barriers, as factors in the gap.

Maureen said...

My kids' summer sounds a lot like ad hoc's, no visible academics. However, I know that my kids learn a tremendous amount over the summer and I'm sure hers do too.

We don't always have a real vacation, but last year we did a big driving camping trip: Utah, NM, CO, Yellowstone, Idaho. This was right after my 7th grader had studied geology and volcanoes. All of the kids in his class did get to visit Mt. St. Helens and hike the lava tubes during the school year, but MY kid had the whole thing reinforced on multiple levels over a two week trek from Arches National Park, through Yellowstone and Craters of the Moon. We essentially made him lecture us (ok, we pretended we had no clue and asked him for information) and his sister for two straight weeks...

Meanwhile the third grader had just finished 'the state project' at school, so we detoured to the four corners so she could have her picture taken standing in CO, AZ, NM and UT at the same time, we kept handing her maps and asking where we were, we talked about distances and times and directions and weather (don't even get me started on Mesa Verde and Yelowstone).

I'm going into detail here because on the drive home I literally turned to my husband and said that our kids were so lucky to have all of the knowledge they gained in school reinforced and extended in such a meaningful way. That they have such an advantage because we are financially able to take a trip like that (every once in a while) and because we know enough (or can find books to help us) to carry on conversations with our kids that reinforce and extend what they learn. Every year, our kids get farther and farther ahead.

This is an extreme example. More often I have reinforced my kids' learning by going to the library or just talking with them but it happens on some level every year, and that adds up.

I believe the research that points to the importance of summer. Should we put more money into 'universal' but voluntary summer schools with the hope that kids who would really benefit from them would show up? Ad hoc and I probably wouldn't send our kids, but lots of people looking for child care might. What percent of SPS kids attend summer school now? How do kids qualify for it? Is it voluntary? Is there eveidence that it reduces summer learning loss?

Charlie Mas said...

During the summer you still do all of the little things that you did before your kids went to school and you do while your kids are going to school. It is these little things, like asking them thought-provoking questions, like modeling reading for pleasure, like solving puzzles for fun, like giving them tiny, little history and science lessons, and, frankly, just giving them encouraging words, that allow some children to move forward academically (or at least not slip back as far) during the summer. It doesn't have to be a structured, overtly academic activity.

If your kids are reading, they are learning. The book doesn't have to be an assigned text or particularly well-written, or even truly a book (graphic novels, for instance).

If your kids are with you, they are learning. Adults just naturally teach children - here's how you cook this, here's how this machine works, here's how we do complete this task.

Some families boost their children academically, some don't. If your family does, then your kids are probably on the up side of the gap. If your familiy doesn't, then your kids are probably on the down side of the gap.

It's not about race, it's not about economics, it's not about language. It is, to some extent, about culture - which can correlate with race. There are, of course, sub-cultures within cultures. I would no sooner say that all African-Americans are members of the same culture than I would say that all Whites in America are members of the same culture.

In a multi-cultural society, not only are many cultures represented in the society, each of us in the society has multiple cultures. It is not uncommon for us to be consversant in the mainstream American culture, the local Seattle culture, the culture of places we used to live, the culture of our workplace, the culture of former workplaces, the broad culture of our heritage(s), and a narrower culture of our heritage(s). Each of these cultures has its own values, language, and ettiquette. We express them unconsciously - just as we rarely consider the air we move through or our own breath.

Seattle Public Schools cannot change those cultures nor would they care to try. They need, instead, to create an additional culture, a school culture. And they should shape that culture into one of inquiry, industry, introspection, and achievement.

I used to coach little league, and I told my team that just as there is a way that they act at home, at school, and at church, there is a way that they act when they are on a baseball diamond. They will respect the umpires, encourage their teammates, hustle themselves and demonstrate sportsmanship to their opponents. It's the same at school. The message has to be very clear for everyone on campus that there is a way we conduct ourselves when we are at school - there are behavioral norms that we must match, expectations that we must meet, and attitudes that we must model. Regardless of your home culture. Regardless of your upbringing. Regardless of your race, economic status, or language skills.

We cannot change culture, but we can create one.

Maureen said...

Yes! A school culture! With school language and school behavior rules (and school spelling!). There needs to be an expectation that kids can and will learn to respect that school culture the way many learn their grandparents' culture and rules. With no apologies that the school culture is different from a home culture. Children are completely capable of understanding this as long as we are consistent (and explicit) in our expectations.

It would help if parents would reinforce this acceptance at home. This may be part of the reason that immigrant families tend to do better at school than natives from the same class: The immigrants expect school culture to be different than their own and don't fight it. They know that school culture doesn't necessarily threaten their home culture. There seems to be a belief out there amongst some low income native speakers that school culture is in conflict with their home culture (the Ebonics controversy is just one example) and must be resisted.

I actually think this is getting to be more and more of a problem at the other end of the economic scale as well. I seem to hear more and more stories where parents don't believe that the school rules should apply to their child ("You can't squash her creativity by making her raise her hand!" "He NEEDS his cell phone to stay in touch with me"). This doesn't necessarily appear as an academic achievement gap, but it erodes teacher morale and productivity.

anonymous said...

Well said Charlie and Maureen! I wholeheartedly agree!!!

David said...

I'd like to add one point to an already good discussion.

Summer reading has been mentioned several times on this thread. What I've found is that many of my struggling readers don't have examples of other people reading at home during the summer. The idea is foreign to them. There's a lot of research on the benefits of summer reading programs at public libraries. A good summer reading program can provide the social context for literacy that is missing at home. And summer programs at libraries are free—cost is not an obstacle for low-income families.

The New York State Library website has a good list of research here on the value of summer reading.

Dorothy Neville said...

Once again I would like to point readers to Jay Mathews of the Washington Post.

The first

that I thought useful and thought provoking here is a column about a teacher's idea that we let unmotivated kids drop out. (How many of us can get our teens to do something that they really don't want to do?) The crux is that we change the model of free public school until you are 18 to one of free public school until you graduate. Dropouts can be encouraged to come back once they see the value of an education for advancement. Sort of a prodigal son attitude.

Searching for that led me to a couple other columns that seem pertinent to this discussion.

Bad Parents don't make Bad Schools


Dropout Solutions that Work.