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Helping Parents Help Their Children Learn

A little more than a decade ago, James Traub wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine with a provocative title that I still remember ("What No School Can Do," Jan. 16, 2000). He argued that even the best schools are limited in what they can accomplish with students. Although Traub was primarily referring to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, his comments apply to other students as well.

I was reminded of this piece the other day when I was at the dog park. Parents often bring their children there while they allow their pets to blow off steam. I happened to overhear one young mother talking to her toddler. What she was doing was essentially engaging in a dialogue that required the child to answer a series of questions followed by immediate praise or gentle correction. "How many legs does that dog have?" "What color is the dog?" I wondered if she had read Terry Meier's chapter cited below?

It seems to me that this kind of interaction is precisely what is too often lacking in other families, particularly in poor families. Education Department data show that disadvantaged children enter kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading and math skills, and never catch up. Critics of public schools like to blame ineffective teachers for this failure. But a better explanation is that these children were never given a solid foundation for subsequent learning.

In Rethinking Schools (The New Press, 1995), Terry Meier delves into this subject, which is called language socialization. In working-class black families, for example, children are rarely asked questions to which the parent already knows the answer. Instead, they are presented with questions that call for an open-ended response, e.g, "What do you think you're doing?" In contrast, in white middle-class families, parents tend to ask their children questions that are simply structured and have a known answer, e.g. "What is that bird doing right now?" The differences may seem insignificant, but they carry over into the classroom, where children who have received extensive practice answering a series of set questions perform better on average.

What can parents do to help their children become better learners beside the above? Or to be more specific, how can parents become engaged partners in their children's education? The facile answer is to buy them computers and other learning devices that are heavily advertised as "educational." But a study that will be published early next year in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that there is little or no educational benefit of home computers for children from low-income households ("Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality, New York Times, July 9).

These questions also have legal ramifications. Under a little-known provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are expected to make parents partners in the educational process. Districts receiving more than $500,000 a year in Title I funds are required to spend one percent of those funds to engage parents. Last year, with an infusion from the economic stimulus program, the amount came close to $225 million nationally, according to the Education Department.

That's where an interesting program called The Learning Community comes in (thelearningcommunity.us). Founded in 1993 by Sarah Stanley, TLC is a non-profit, public-benefit corporation funded by proceeds from Ornaments to Remember. TLC provides free parenting support, including videos and links to websites. It organizes its resources according to the child's age (newborns to teens) and by format (Tips for Parents, Recursos en Espanol etc.). For Hispanic parents, TLC can be particularly valuable. A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that children of Hispanic immigrants tend to start life on an intellectual par with other American children, but by age 2 they begin to fall back in linguistic and cognitive skills ("Hispanic Immigrants' Children Fall Behind Peers Early, Study Finds," New York Times, Oct. 21, 2009).

There's no guarantee that parental involvement will result in better outcomes in school. Even Start, for example, a 20-year federal early-childhood program that stressed this strategy, failed to demonstrate more literacy skills after a year than a control group. But that doesn't mean we should give up.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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