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Posted: December 10, 2013 10:00 p.m.

Education stories highlight many points to ponder

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has had several interesting articles lately concerning education. A Dec. 4 article contained ratings of various countries on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). According to the AJC, more than a half-million students in 65 nations took part in the testing.

U.S. students ranked 24th in reading, 36th in math and 28th in science. Shanghai, China, ranked first in all three areas. Hong Kong and Singapore rounded out the top three. European nations in the top 10 were Finland, Poland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Ireland. Canada ranked 10th in science and ninth in reading.

An article in the Dec. 5 AJC said that China is becoming worried that students are so focused on getting into good schools that they are not becoming well-rounded. One high school student from Shanghai stated that she routinely studies four hours daily after school, as well as attending study groups. And she spends weekends with various tutors.

I traveled to China for pleasure several years ago. The guide for our group said she began studying English after school as an extracurricular activity when she was in first grade. By high school, she had to choose whether to study American or British English. Education in Far East is both focused and high-stakes.

An earlier AJC article discussed how family income affects test scores. Students from schools in affluent communities routinely score significantly higher on the SAT.

If just the scores of students from these affluent communities were considered, according to this article, the United States would rank among the top 10 nations on the PISA test.

To bring this closer to home, 21 of 23 school in Newton County are designated Title I Schools. A school is designated as Title 1 if 40 percent or more of its students live at or below poverty level. The economic level for students is determined by their qualifying for free or reduced-fee lunches, Aid for Dependent Children or Medicaid.

Title I schools offer special pull-out services for student who need remediation, extended day classes, and other services designed to improve student learning and test scores.

Yet, apparently, all these services offered to economically disadvantaged students cannot and have not helped these students improve their scores significantly. Their scores do not match the scores of students who live in affluent areas.

Why does money make such a difference?

I have to believe that all parents want what is best for their children.

Yes, children of economically disadvantaged parents have less access to print during their children’s pre-school years. Books and magazines typically are not routinely available in their homes, and trips to the library may not be feasible. Parents may not have the transportation or the time.

Head Start and pre-K programs have been designed to address this problem. Newton County Reads also distributes children’s books free to families who ask for them.

Despite what many idealists believe, not every child has the capabilities to become a nuclear scientist. But every child should be given the keys to use his education to the best of his abilities.

And all school systems try to do that. I do not think we can place the blame solely on schools and teachers if that expectation is not met.

Parents need to be parents and expect the best from their children. They need to teach their children discipline so that their children can approach school and their learning with a positive work ethic.

I know parents often face an uphill battle when popular culture seems to offer children an easy path to success.

Children counter the exhortations of parents and teachers with this answer: "I don’t need to study because I am going to make a million dollars by being a rapper (substitute pro athlete, actor, even reality star)."

So what it eventually comes down to is that public schools and teachers are expected to fight the influences of popular culture and singlehandedly drag a child screaming and hollering to the peak of education perfection.

And to prove that teachers are doing just that, their effectiveness is to be judged by the test scores of their students.

The better the scores of the students, the better the teacher. But evidence ties test scores to family affluence, not teacher effectiveness.

Teachers need time to teach, not test. If you really want to know who is a good teacher, just ask a student sitting in his or her class.

Paula Travis is a retired teacher from the Newton County School System. She can be reached at ptravis@covnews.com.

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