American parents show up at their children's schools. A lot. Nearly nine out of 10 attended at least one PTA or other school meeting in the 2011-12 school year. Six out of 10 participated in at least one school fundraiser. American parents stay up late baking cookies for bake sales, and they leave work early for football games. It's a remarkable investment of time and heart.
Yet over the past couple of years, as I traveled around the world visiting countries with higher-performing education systems while researching my book The Smartest Kids in the World, I noticed something odd. I hardly saw parents at schools at all.
"My daughters' school does not ask me or anyone else to do anything," says Susanne Stromberg, a journalist and mother of twin daughters in public elementary school in Finland — the country where 15-year-olds rank No. 1 in the world in science and No. 2 in reading. She sounds almost wistful as she considers the absence of such solicitations. "No money donations — never!"
Finland, like most countries, spends less per student on education than the United States, but parents are not expected to top off the budget. Other than attending two short parent-teacher conferences a year, Stromberg was expected to leave school to the teachers and fundraising to the government.
I came to realize that parents are involved in education in other countries — but they are involved differently. They are more involved at home. And that, it turns out, might be one secret to their success.
In a 2009 study of parenting in 13 countries and regions, parents who volunteered in school extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer — even after controlling for children's backgrounds.
How could this be? Weren't the parents who volunteered in the school community showing their children how much they valued education? The data are mystifying, but other research within the United States has revealed the same dynamic: Volunteering in school and attending school events seems to have little effect on how much kids learn.
In that same international study, parents who routinely read to their young children raised teenagers who performed significantly better on a test of critical thinking in reading years later — even after controlling for the effects of socioeconomic background. Likewise, parents who discussed movies, books and the news with their kids had teenagers who not only performed better in reading — but reported enjoying reading more overall.
In some countries, parents get more help prioritizing what matters most. Christine Gross-Loh has four young children, and she's spent years raising them in Japan and in the United States. Japanese parents can join the PTA and volunteer for school events like American parents, but that is not what school leaders stress above all else. Instead, she says, "there is a lot of emphasis on parents and teachers being a team together to help the child learn."
During the year, her children's teachers communicated with her daily — through a notebook carried back and forth via book bag. They offered specific tips for how to help her child learn multiplication. Most important, parents were invited several times a year to come to the school — not to sell things or chaperone — but to spend the whole day observing their child's classroom. Gross-Loh found these days to be rich with insight. "You don't have to attend the whole day, of course, but it really gives you a strong sense for what school is like and how your child is doing."
So what to do? First of all, parents should make sure to read to their kids, read for themselves and talk to their children at dinner about the world around them. If and only if they have done all these things and still, miraculously have energy left over should they wash cars and set up a tent next to the soccer field.
Amanda Ripley is the author of "The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way." © 2013 Slate