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Improve Education From Day One: Leverage Parents

By Bill Jackson & Leanna Landsmann — January 21, 2009 3 min read
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Barack Obama, who becomes the nation’s 44th president this week, is getting plenty of advice on which goals to tackle first in this ugly economy. Most ideas call for urgent action and carry a big price tag.

When it comes to education, however, there is one high-impact, low-cost lever we hope he and his choice for U.S. secretary of education, Chicago’s accomplished schools chief, Arne Duncan, can pull immediately to boost student achievement: parent power.

President Obama has a good start. During the campaign, parents and teachers cheered when he said the magic words: “Turn off the TV, read to your children, check their homework, and send them to school ready to learn.”

Many parents heard what they’d been thinking, and teachers were thrilled that someone so persuasive was singing their song.

Parents are the first teachers of the nation’s nearly 55 million school-age children. Research clearly shows that many of these students’ foundational skills and attitudes toward learning have already been shaped by the time they get to kindergarten.

We look forward to the morning President Obama walks into a morning press conference and says: “Sorry I’m late. Today was my turn to drill the girls on their spelling words.”

Children are deeply influenced throughout their schooling by parents’ expectations, behavior, and support. Many studies show that parents have at least as much impact on their children’s academic success as teachers do.

Mr. Obama can use the full weight of the presidency to unleash the transforming power of this latent resource. For too long, schools have assigned parents the role of fundraiser and bake-sale booster. Let’s launch a national campaign that draws them more deeply into their children’s education.

Here are four ways this can be done, and how Mr. Obama and his team can help:

First, work with states to develop national K-12 education standards that define what it takes for young adults to be successful. Communicate those standards in plain language to parents and citizens everywhere. Many of the current state standards and uneven assessments are unfair to students and often misleadingly reassuring to parents. National standards—focused on what matters most—will be a powerful rallying cry that everyone can get behind, including parents.

Second, leverage new technologies to show parents how their children are progressing. Show them what it looks like for their children to be academically “on track,” and how they can support their children’s learning. We all have heard horror stories about parents who are suddenly shocked to learn that the reason their 8th grader is having trouble in science can be traced to her reading at a 4th grade level, which means she has to scramble to catch up. New Web- and cellphone-based technologies have the power to keep parents updated on progress daily and draw them into deeper involvement and support—and at a very low cost.

Third, use the presidential bully pulpit to make it cool to do well in school. Kids show great excitement about Mr. Obama’s presidency. The day after his election, one high school junior snapped up a newspaper to keep for her future children. “I love Obama!” she exclaimed. Why? “He’s just like me!” Because she was white and blonde, it seemed worth asking, “And how is that?” The girl explained: “He’s smart. Like me. Now I won’t get teased for good grades. He’s skinny, like me, and he’s from a messed-up family but he made it to the White House. So can I.” Now there’s a child who will not be left behind.

Fourth, be “parent in chief.” Parents took note when the young president-to-be called his daughters from the road and asked about their homework. Attending a parent-teacher conference the day after he was elected also sent a splendid message: We may have been up all night, but this is important. That he didn’t delegate this to Mrs. Obama set a great example.

The so-called chattering class logged a lot of broadcast airtime about where the Obamas would be sending their daughters to school. But their choice of the private Sidwell Friends School may not be as important to the girls’ academic success as the involvement the president and first lady continue to have in their daughters’ education: the questions they ask, the reading they encourage, the support they give, and the high expectations they set for academic performance.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Improve Education From Day One: Leverage Parents

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