It Takes More Than Money To Nurture Good Learners

With the end of spring has come another round of graduation test results here in Minnesota. Time to see if this year's eighth-graders can meet minimum standards in math and reading. The results: Wealthy metro-area suburbs of the Twin Cities have seen high rates of success while the diverse urban areas have seen barely half their students passing.

Headlines such as "Affluence at home, not at school, influences scores" have bothered me ever since these basic skills tests started in 1996. I've worked as an English teacher in several metro-area schools - public and private, urban and suburban - and such generalizations frustrate me because they add to public misconceptions. Locally and nationwide, the mood of education has swung back to support the documented judgment of standardized test scores.

The key point in this issue is that money isn't everything in providing a child with a good education and the love of learning. Beyond the amount spent per pupil or a family's financial situation, the basis of school success lies in the influences at home and the importance placed on education. Ideally, this quality should be present across the board, regardless of the family's income.

When I was an education student at the University of Minnesota, I came across a study of family reading habits and the correlation to declining reading performance among American children. It indicated that fewer than 50 percent of the families had parents who read in their free time, read to their children, or encourage their children by asking follow-up questions about what they read. The findings showed that children without this family reading background were less competent in their scholastic endeavors.

It's interesting that there actually had to be a scientific study to draw these conclusions. Ask teachers and they will tell you they can't do it all. Apathy begins at home. It's very easy to be uneducated; education takes initiative. To read a newspaper or a novel takes time - something that millions of Americans are complaining they don't have. It's all a matter of priorities. If having a family is a priority, then raising educated children should be the next most important thing.

I have had the pleasure of being closely involved with a family whose children I cared for while attending college. I was completely amazed by their five-year-old boy who "read" to me 30 pages of nursery rhymes the first time I took care of him.

I asked him if he could read and he said, "No, I just have them memorized." Clearly such familiarity could not have come from an occasional bedtime reading. His parents were making reading a pastime for themselves and their children.

Children do thrive on and adopt the habits of their parents. If reading and learning are important and stressed at home, the children will take this enthusiasm into the classroom. A strong family support system is the basic building block to a child's successful school experience.

The ultimate goal is an educated individual who can help wipe out the ignorance, illiteracy, and social injustice that plague society today. Let's look beyond snap judgments produced by standardized test scores and focus on what we all can do to help promote reading and literacy in our communities.

* Krista Hanson teaches English at Sunrise Parks Middle School in White Bear Lake, Minn.

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