If only education were extracurricular

/ 29 December 2013 / eunice

Nina Hamza, Star Tribune Commentary, December 29, 2013 – Birthday present? Check. Birthday card? Check. Parent waiver? Check.

When did going to a child’s birthday party start involving reading fine print?

We spend money and energy on extravagant birthdays; we pay for lessons on everything from piano to fencing — and the irony is we’re not doing our children any favors.

So I wasn’t surprised by the results of the recent study comparing American kids’ educational results globally. In the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), our results stink. And we’re getting stinkier. In the past three years, our math scores have dropped from 24th to 29th place. In science, we’ve gone from 19th to 22nd, and in reading, from 10th to 20th. The only list we’re near the top of is how much money we spend on our children. There we are fifth.

My kids are by no means athletic; we are a family of book readers, back-yard inventors and movie watchers. But sports are important. They teach kids teamwork, determination, how to win graciously and how to lose with dignity. So I suited them up in cleats and uniforms that could be the envy of Manchester United and sat on the sidelines for their games. And there I had an “aha” moment.

Boy, we are very serious about our sports. Those fields and games are run with military efficiency. Parents use elaborate scheduling techniques for multiple children going to multiple sports events. We come prepared with camp chairs and coolers because we have spent thousands of dollars to get our child here and will not miss a minute of it. Yes, we are very serious about our sports.

The PISA report states that practice and hard work are integral to good test results. Seems obvious. Our kids get tons of practice and have no problem with hard work. But most of it on the sports fields, only a little in the classrooms.

Imagine bringing that same level of parental involvement to the classroom. We would be bragging about the results of a history test the same way we go on about the outcome of a football game. We’d be driving across state lines to a museum, as we do for a weekend game.

Teachers would find more success educating our children if the task didn’t rest solely on their shoulders.

Last year, my son joined a soccer league. Four-year-olds don’t need leagues. I should have just thrown him in the back yard with an old ball. Perhaps we need to spend our money more efficiently. We should not be fifth on the list and still be hearing about poorly funded schools and teachers buying school supplies with their own money.

We teach our children that learning is fun and sports is hard work. A coach can run hours of drills, and we appreciate it. A teacher, however, has to somehow make algebra fun. America is at the forefront of creativity and innovation because we make learning fun, but sometimes work is just work. Write my multiplication tables 50 times? Yes, coach!

We take our fun seriously and we maintain a deliberate lightness about our learning. We need to balance the scales — less structure with birthday parties and sports, more structure with homework.

I want my kids to have fun playing sports and kick ass when they are learning. I want to be able to throw them in the ring with kids from China and Finland and watch them thrive.

And, hey, if that means less time spent at the sidelines of a game on a Saturday morning, I am willing to make the sacrifice.

Nina Hamza lives in Shorewood.