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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 09/18/2009

Dorothy Rich: What Really Matters (And Is Overlooked) for Educational Success

By Valerie Strauss

Today’s guest is Dorothy Rich, founder of the MegaSkills Teacher Training Programs. Used in more than 4,000 schools, they are designed to develop the habits, behaviors and attitudes children need to succeed in school and beyond.

By Dorothy Rich
A young mother called for my advice on what public school to choose for her entering kindergartener. “The school across town,” she explained, scored two points higher on test scores. “Does that mean that is where I should send my child?”

I said that I considered other factors more important than those two points, and that to worry about that is to worry about the wrong things when it comes to the real bottom line in education.

What we ought to be worrying about is the degree to which the schools to which we entrust our children are helping them build disciplined minds, minds that can work with lots of data, minds that can question and minds that can live in harmony with an increasingly diverse world. This is the kind of teaching that builds sustainable test achievement.

Parents have become so worried about little test score differences that the big picture about what makes a good school and a good education can get overlooked.

Education is not a sleek, mechanistic enterprise of “I teach and you learn. Instead, education is an emotional set of experiences. It involves a lot more than a good curriculum or even quality teachers. They’re important, and yet so much about good education rests on what is inside of every student. This includes student confidence, willingness to work hard, to persevere, to focus.

These emotions are deeply connected to school abilities. They rise and fall and come together at times and fall apart at others: This “soft stuff” can be as hard as any rock and are often the toughest obstacles to overcome in school and in life.

Preparing children to learn effectively and with continuing motivation are not “soft” skills, as sometimes described. They are the “hardest” – they are the bedrock, the foundation for education all through school and life. This is not sufficiently understood.

Two breakthrough announcements (Summer 2009) provide strong support that these truths are at last being recognized.
1) Singapore, with the highest academic scores in the world , has identified life skills and values at the top of its education goals.

2) The Educational Testing Service has just developed a new Personality Index, identifying perseverance and related traits, for evaluating grad school applications. These so-called “soft” skills are indeed not “soft “after all.

School is a very emotional place. Many of us remember our first days at school as scary and frightening. Tears were shed. We were heading into a strange world with lots of people who did not know us. We were on our own.

These are memories that stay with us as adults. Then our children, especially our first child, head off to school for the first time. Those early memories come back to us, unbidden. As we watch our child cross the school threshold, we are crossing it too.

And we remember the low times in school – often easier to remember than the highs. About the time we were snubbed at recess and told by the class clique – you can’t play here. About the time everyone else got invited to a classmate’s birthday party and you weren’t.

How I wish that education reform could be accomplished in the easy, simplistic ways that legislators presume. We teach. Students learn. We test. Success! If this were really how it all happens, it would be grand. But the problem is that this is a romance novel version of the complexities involved in teaching and learning.

As a longtime teacher and teacher trainer, I don’t want to minimize the impact of school reform initiatives, but all depend on the attitudes, behaviors and habits that students bring into and learn in the classroom.

These are what I call MegaSkills® and they are taught and reinforced in the home and community as well the classroom: Confidence, Motivation, Effort, Responsibility, Initiative, Perseverance, Caring, Teamwork, Common Sense, Problem Solving, Focus and Respect. We need to and can teach these .

We build test scores when we build students. It’s as new and as old as that. The child who feels unmotivated or is tired will have difficulties getting high test scores.

It’s not easy to talk about emotions in school because that is what not school is “supposed” to be about. It is supposed to be about academics – “go forward, achieve.”

Yet, many of our children are being held back because they are not equipped with what it takes emotionally to do well in school. They need practice not just in phonics but in paying attention, working with others, keeping at what they need to accomplish.

Expectations for our schools and ourselves include higher test scores for students. Yet, they include much more.

To meet these expectations, we have to care about the bigger things: the self-discipline, the initiative, the perseverance, the focus that as parents and teachers we must help instill in our children. Now, that’s something really important, unlike little test score differences, to worry about.

Dorothy Rich is the author of the new 5th edition of MegaSkills: Building Children’s Character and Achievement for School and Life, founder of the nonprofit Home and School Institute and former member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She can be reached at, where you can also find sample home teaching activities, and at

By Valerie Strauss  | September 18, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Tags:  Dorothy Rich, MegaSkills  
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The only data point that has a direct relation to test scores is parental income, so sending your kid to the school w/the higher test scores just means you want him/her hanging w/the rich kids.

Posted by: johnsondeb | September 18, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I would love to see imagination added to the list of megaskills; there is a vital link between that, problem solving and delight in learning.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 18, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

What matters most in a child's education is the education of the parents, especially the mother. Related to this are the values of the parents and the educational activities that they encourage in the home.

What this means in practical terms is that the child who attends a low-performing school, but has parents who value education, will likely do better than the child who attends a high-performing school but has educationally neglectful parents.

Most middle and upper-class parents seem to know this but, for some reason, it is kept as as "secret" from low-income parents who are encouraged to think of the school as the primary educator of their child. Of course, it is not, and everyone needs to be aware of this important fact.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 20, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

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