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Tarin Weiss: School start not about shopping

If “Back to School” equates doing well with looking good, then we’re all set.

A popular clothing store states that our kids can earn high honors if they’re well-dressed and that their intellect is obvious if they just wear the right T-shirt. A major office supply store touts that school success comes with their pencils, pens and notebooks!

But, we know that academic achievement has never been that easy. Still, this time of year, we spend a lot of time talking to our kids about back-to-school stuff and not enough time conversing about doing well in school. Along with the new outfits and notebooks, we need to invest in discussions with our children about our expectations.

Now, and throughout the school year, we need to talk about their learning and continually motivate them to actively listen and ask questions, seek help and study hard.

While popular sentiment points to the teacher as a major factor in our students’ academic achievement, educational research findings do not agree.

Studies find that only 10 to 20 percent of achievement outcomes can be attributed to teachers, while more than 60 percent is attributed to non-school factors (the remaining percent accounts for errors and other influences).

Families, particularly parents, play a huge role in that 60 percent. And, while we cannot discount socioeconomics as a major dynamic affecting achievement, we must not be lulled by the promotion that the school and teacher are ultimately responsible for our child’s success. In truth, most teachers go above and beyond to support our kids’ learning, but within the structure of the school system there is only so much they can do.

Years ago, a veteran teacher in a PBS series said that most parents spend more time meeting with their car mechanic than they do talking with their child’s teacher about how things are going in school.

If that’s true then maybe it sheds light on why many students are so disinterested in school. If kids do not see that we value their learning, then their interest can wane and peer group expectations take over.

This is especially true for upper elementary through high school students. It is well-documented that peer groups play a huge role in who our kids emulate while in school. And many students face continued social pressure to disengage from learning — the “too cool for school” mentality.

We parents need to intervene — to engage, ask questions and seek help to understand our huge our role in our student’s academic life. Meeting with and calling teachers and guidance counselors is a good way to begin this effort. Modeling our own interest in life-long learning pursuits is another.

Outside resources are also available. Harvard University’s Family Research Project publishes accessible reports online about how to get involved in your child’s education. The group recently highlighted the types of parent involvement that are most beneficial. They found that, across all student populations, investing substantial time communicating with your child about school, especially about your expectations, had the greatest impact on achievement.

“Back to School” announcements send most of us to the mall. Yet the message is bigger and more important than shopping.

We all want our kids to learn and be successful. We know that education and knowledge create great opportunities — now and in the future. Let’s begin that discussion with our children as we munch at the food court, and keep it going all year long.

Tarin H. Weiss lives in Westhampton and is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Westfield State University.

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