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Want to Improve Students' Educational Outcomes? Start with Their Parents.

On Tuesday, results of a study called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies were released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), bringing to light not altogether surprising information: American adults--not just kids--lag behind their global peers in math, reading, and problem-skills. The study findings "reinforced just how large the gap is between the nation's high- and low-skilled workers and how hard it is to move ahead when your parents haven't." Adults with college-educated parents were far more likely to have gone to college themselves, and to have higher skills and better wages as a result. Unfortunately, these results belie the prevalence of the iconic first-generation college student, who defeats all odds and lifts him or herself to a better station than that of the previous generation.

The study supports the observations my colleagues and I have routinely made, that parental investment in education--actively, by encouraging their kids to perform well academically, as well as passively, by setting an example of valuation of learning--is the key component to student success. To be clear, this is not me saying that the parents who are insufficiently invested all lack formal education themselves, or that parents must have had the benefit of higher education in order to support their kids' academics; moreover, in the cases of parents who are not college-educated (or in some cases have not finished high school), this has often been due to circumstances outside of their control--needing to work at an early age to support family, health problems, tumultuous immigration experiences, etc.

What I am saying is that the correlation between parents' level of education and their children's shows some important causations: Parents are better able to do everything from assisting with homework, to navigating the bureaucracies of school systems, to helping kids make decisions regarding course-work and long-term goal setting, to promoting an environment of literacy and analytic thinking in the home, the higher their own skill and knowledge levels.

I once had a student who was absent for a few days. He came in with a note, written in a tentative hand by his mom (for whom English was a first language, it bears mentioning for this anecdote). The note read, Please escuse Chris absence, he has algies, followed by her phone number. (I realized after a moment that she meant Chris had allergies.) I appreciated that this parent had taken time to write a note (particularly since, too many times, kids who are absent return to class without any excuse whatsoever, which is a separate issue), all the more so when I saw how she had clearly struggled with the writing. How much more so, then, must she have struggled with the more complex ways (some of which I mentioned above) in which parents support and engage with their kids' education?

The study also underscores what many critics of education reform have been saying all along, that blaming teachers for socio-economic achievement gaps is a wrong-headed approach to the problem. There are teachers of all levels of ability in schools all across America; the strongest correlate to high student achievement is not teacher quality (since that tends to be determined after-the-fact anyway, by looking at students' test scores) but the precursory factors of their parents' income and education levels, which are themselves linked.

Better solutions to address achievement gaps include more affordable post-secondary continuing education opportunities and job-training courses (which nations in Northern Europe already implement consistently, making parents' socio-economic status less difficult obstacle to overcome in these countries), "wraparound" programs through schools wherein parents can learn computer skills and ESL in the evenings, and increased support for first-generation college applicants throughout their entire journey towards post-secondary education, starting as they enter high school. Reform efforts that target root problems of low achievement (rather than addressing ancillary issues, like test scores) will succeed on a much broader level.

Naturally, some government funding at the federal and state levels is needed to operate these types of programs. Now, I can't quite remember, but I think there's some reason those monies aren't available right now... Something about Congress and a government shut-down? Anyone?

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