Good test scores begin with room to think

The recently released 2005 Nation's Report Card brings to light once again that our educational process needs more than tweaking. While the report shows modest gains by some student groups, the rate of improvement has slowed, and this while teachers are undoubtedly under pressure to "teach to the test." Narrowing the curriculum to content anticipated on standardized tests and drilling students in order to improve test scores is a poor excuse for enlightening young minds, and it won't hold up in the long term.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report for 2003 showed US students lagging behind their counterparts not only in Japan, but in a broad range of countries, including Latvia. Some experts emphasized quality of teaching as the key factor in students' achievement. They suggested American students would score better if more of their teachers held degrees in math and science. James Stigler, author of "The Teaching Gap," feels the key differentiator among students' achievement in mathematics is whether or not teachers are able to engage students in "sustained thinking" about mathematics.

This is just one more strike on the anvil in our nation's efforts to hammer out an improved educational system. As a former educator, I believe that what teachers and schools are doing is only half the equation. The other half is what is going on at home.

The TIMSS report itself acknowledged the importance of "home background factors, and the students' activities and attitudes," and identified parents as "the first and probably the most important educators." The significance of this cannot be underestimated. Students' unwillingness or unreadiness to learn because of what is happening in their lives outside school is a widespread problem that erodes the effectiveness of even the best teaching.

In Montessori kindergartens, children work individually at tasks which don't look very academic, such as pouring colored water from a pitcher into small cups. But this simple exercise is grounded on the concept that for students to achieve academic success, they must first learn to concentrate, free from distraction.

This power of focus is crucial to a student's ability to engage in sustained thinking about advanced math and science concepts, not to mention literary analysis or sound political reasoning. Yet the typical American 4th-grade classroom fairly simmers with noise and nervous movement. In 8th grade the distraction may not be as visible, but there are blank stares, kids who have "checked out," or who exhibit abhorrent behavior in a desperate attempt to gain recognition.

Some teachers are more successful than others at engaging students. A 5th-grade teacher I know devised a game show, complete with a spinning, flashing "wheel of chance," for teaching geography. Winners were rewarded with treats from the teacher's well-stocked candy cupboard. A clever act, but a sad comment on the diet of entertainment to which kids are becoming increasingly accustomed.

Here is where I think the significance of the child's home life comes in. There is so much parents can do.

The crying need is for kids to arrive at a mental place quiet enough to enable them to concentrate and "engage in sustained thinking." For this to happen, parents need to be proactive about calming the pace of their children's lives, reducing the level of auditory and emotional noise they are subjected to, and curbing their kids' appetite for incessant amusement. Entertainment is dessert. Kids need things that nourish, such as satisfying literature shared aloud (even in the upper elementary grades); unhurried time for artistic expression; the discipline and joy of learning to play an instrument; outdoor play; a little rhythmic work; and family dinners with the TV turned off.

Also, for a child to do his or her best in school, the home life needs to be nurturing - stable, loving, and disciplined in the positive sense. Schools cannot bear the burden of teaching children the respect, positive attitudes, and healthy work ethic that will make them attentive and successful in the classroom and later in the workplace.

Perhaps most of all, children need more quiet time at home with a parent or grandparent who cares deeply about them and their progress.

Thoughtful attention to encouraging these conditions by policymakers and parents will do much more to improve US test scores - and society - than the tweaking or overhauling of school systems.

Nancy Humphrey Case is a freelance writer with a master's degree in education and the mother of three children.

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