The Recipes of Dorothy Rich

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For years, educators scoffed at Dorothy Rich's homespun concoctions for involving parents in their children's education. Now, the creations that she has whipped up are in hot demand.


These days, when it seems as though everyone is paying homage to the importance of families to their children's educational success, it's hard to imagine the obstacles that Dorothy Rich faced 30 years ago.

Back then, as a high school English teacher in Arlington, Va., she began puzzling over why some of her students were having trouble learning. High school teachers cast blame on middle schools. Middle schools disparaged elementary schools. And elementary schools pointed the finger at students' home lives.

Rich decided to try to do something to help families fulfill their educational role--a huge one in her opinion. But other educators weren't convinced. Schools, after all, prided themselves on having all the answers. Meanwhile, teaching was becoming more of a profession, Rich recalls, and what parents and kids did at home was viewed as "extraneous to the real work of education."

In 1965, she created a class called Success for Children Begins at Home. She used "home-learning recipes" to help parents understand how to use common household mate-

rials, objects, and activities to teach their children the skills and attitudes that they would need to thrive in school.

The reaction of most educators, she recollects, was: "'Oh gosh, Dorothy, that's nice, but what we really need are reading specialists.'

"They never quite said it outright like this, but the impression I got was that that was the sort of thing a woman would do."

Now "old enough to know better," Rich refused to be deterred. And for the past three decades, she has pursued her work with zeal and single-mindedness in a field whipsawed by fads.

Along the way, she's managed to sell 350,000 copies of her book MegaSkills; the third edition is due out this year. So is What Do We Say? What Do We Do?, a book to help families cope with bad days at school. Her Home and School Institute, incorporated here in 1972, has trained 100,000 families in 48 states in the homespun arts of learning mathematics in the bathtub and playing matching games with egg cartons. Rich also has formed a new partnership with the Council of the Great City Schools to try to reach more parents in urban districts.

Although she doesn't intend to complain, it's clear that Rich believes that her efforts haven't gotten the credit they deserve.

These are no small accomplishments, but Rich has had to struggle every step of the way. For nearly 18 years, her husband, Spencer, a Washington Post reporter who covers Social Security and health-care issues, was the institute's major financial supporter. During much of that time, the Riches reared and helped educate two daughters, now a doctor and a lawyer, in a spacious 100-year-old farmhouse in the city's Cleveland Park neighborhood.

Although she doesn't intend to complain, it's clear that Rich believes that her efforts haven't gotten the credit they deserve. "If I had been with Harvard, if I had been with Yale, or any of the prestigious universities, and not the Home and School Institute, which I started, people wouldn't question it in the same way," she says of her work. "When you do something on the ground and very practical, it's very hard to get the same level of respect as when you produce a study. When somebody looks at something that you've worked hard to make easy to do--something that a parent can go home and do something with--it doesn't carry the same level of seriousness. Now, that's got to change."

What has changed are attitudes toward parent involvement, now regarded as a key factor in students' achievement. And that delights Rich, although she thinks some people are wasting their time in trying to involve parents in running schools.

"There's a remarkable level of energy going into what I would call less productive kinds of parental involvement," she observes. "I have always been more interested, and I think the research evidence supports it, in what families do at home than in what they may do at school in a council or advisory panel. If I were given a choice between you volunteering in the classroom, or going around soliciting funds for your school, or coming to council meetings to discuss how long recess ought to be, I would opt to have you do reading or home-learning activities at home with your child.

"How many of you are taking a walk around the block and pointing to five different nature objects? Or how many have sat down and said to your child--which is one of our high school learning activities--'Come on, let's go look at our mortgage together. Let's go look at our insurance policy together.' I think the numbers are tiny. The parent doesn't know yet that that is a really important task."

'Maybe because I've been around a little while now, I've learned to appreciate endurance. [Dorothy Rich] has it.'

Michael Casserly
Executive Director,
Council of the Great City Schools

Not everyone, of course, agrees with her. Phillip Harris, the director of professional development and services for the association, Phi Delta Kappan, notes that putting democracy into action by involving parents in decisionmaking can be messy.

"I would describe Dorothy as someone who likes to have things in order," says Harris, a supporter of shared decisionmaking efforts. "Her concern regarding whether parents need to be that involved in running the school is a fairly traditional view."

If Dorothy Rich had her way, every parent in America would understand his or her educational role clearly. If she had her way, towns would become "learning cities," schools would work seamlessly with families and communities, and home-learning recipes would be everywhere. "All of this stuff could just pour out of the gas stations and the grocery stores," she declares.

"I've got all these plans ready to go," Rich says. "I've got another thing in my files--my files are golden if we can only make some of these things happen--a whole public-information campaign for parents on what you can do, like math using the garbage can. I'm not ashamed about talking about what you do with a rug and a chair and a lamp."

Make no mistake, though. Rich is also conversant with more esoteric subjects and has done her share of swimming with the big fish here in Washington. She sat on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national tests that are given periodically to gauge students' knowledge. But policy discussions don't touch her heart.

"I've been on some fancy panels," she says. "I always find it interesting what intelligent, energetic, fair-minded people believe is important. It's like, 'Hey, come on guys. Three points on a test is not where it's at.' Where it's at is, we're looking to help to create in this society responsible, motivated people who work hard, who know that they're going to have to keep on learning all their lives."

Rich doesn't mention it, but she also has been instrumental in helping members of Congress to write legislation for the federal Title I program, which provides school districts with extra funds to educate poor children.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says Rich is one of only a handful of people who influenced the parent-involvement component of the law. Title I now requires greater involvement of parents and community members through compacts that spell out the shared responsibility for improving achievement. She has worked closely with the Department of Education to write a book on how to form compacts.

Casserly has known Rich for some time. She persuaded him to submit a joint application for funding to Kraft Foods, which is underwriting the MegaSkills training in urban districts. Rich, he says, is "focused like a laser" on parent involvement.

"Maybe because I've been around a little while now, too, I've learned to appreciate endurance," he says. "She has it. Anytime you have a conversation with her, it's like you've known her your entire life. She's very hard to say no to. She's very aggressive without being abrasive."

The MegaSkills programs are now in seven cities, with an additional eight scheduled to start up this year.

The Home and School Institute also works closely with the National Education Association. For many years, Rich had a small office in the NEA's building on 16th Street here and notes proudly that she always paid the rent. But when the teachers' union renovated the building into much grander quarters, she was displaced by the soaring atrium and moved around the corner to modest digs on the ground floor of a Massachusetts Avenue apartment building.

The NEA pays for MegaSkills training for teams of parents, teachers, and community workers in urban districts. The programs are now in seven cities, with an additional eight scheduled to start up this year. A judge in Trenton, N.J., has even mandated that some parents of troubled children get the training.

"MegaSkills works with all people, regardless of their race, religion, or their background," says Warlene Gary, the manager of the NEA's Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education. "Whether they don't read or have no education, they can really get into it. It really is a program that deals with people's value systems and how they were raised and what they are transferring to their kids."

Gary, who calls Rich "a real advocate," notes that people sometimes scoff at MegaSkills because it's so simple. "It's not rocket-science stuff," she acknowledges. "But it's what families need."

The inspiration for the MegaSkills book came from Don Cameron, the executive director of the NEA and a member of the Home and School Institute's board of directors. On a visit to her office, he urged Rich to take the home-learning recipes she'd whipped up in various training programs and put them into a book, suggesting that she could be the "Dr. Spock of education."

First published in 1988, the book crystallized Rich's thinking about what it really takes for kids to make it. Its original title was along the lines of Basic Skills Plus, reflecting the intense interest in fundamental skills at that time. But its author wasn't quite comfortable with the name. "It came to me that I was talking about something I considered more important, and my husband gave me this wonderful phrase: inner engines of learning."

The list of MegaSkills came from school report cards and job-performance evaluations--what Rich calls life's "never-ending report card." They are confidence, motivation, effort, responsibility, initiative, perseverance, caring, teamwork, common sense, and problem solving. For the third edition of the book, she is adding focus because so many children today seem distracted and unable to concentrate.

While some people may think such traits are innate or the result of parenting that can't necessarily be taught, Rich begs to differ. She also insists that the MegaSkills activities are firmly grounded in academics and shun an emphasis on self-esteem and "touchy-feely stuff." The new edition of the book, in fact, will identify the academic objectives for every activity.

"I just want to make sure that people know that, gosh darn it, academics isn't just something that's sitting in a textbook."

Rich believes that teachers' most important job is to 'make a synergy happen between the schoolroom and the home and the community.'

The home-learning activities were designed to take up little time, be easy to do, and cost nothing. But the payoffs can be great, Rich asserts.

Take Mystery Word Box for ages 5 to 9. With a recipe-card box, index cards, and alphabet dividers, families can help their children learn new words. The youngsters pick five words that appeal to them, and the parent writes them on the cards. Then families discuss the words and save them to use another day. Rich herself did the exercises with her daughters.

"During the day, I would sometimes find my child on her bed, the contents of the mystery word box set out before her," Rich writes. "These were her very own words, and she would be playing with them, saying them aloud, caressing them with her voice."

Older children, ages 7 to 9, can do The Long Receipt, checking grocery purchases against the supermarket receipt to make sure that the items match up correctly.

A favorite of hers is A Special Place for ages 4 to 9. Children decorate large cardboard boxes any way they like and park them by the front door to hold their belongings.

"The box is the first stop for school items, hat, toys, glasses," Rich writes. "It is the last stop on the way out the door in the morning. Finished homework and supplies needed for school are put in the box at night, ready for the next day."

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