Show me a home where education and learning are central values, and where the parents are reasonably competent at the business of child-rearing, and I'll show you the home of a good student.
The correlation between parental competence and academic success isn't perfect, of course. There are homes where parents are indifferent (or absent) but where children are eager learners. And there are homes where parents seem to be doing everything right but where the children turn out to be awful.
But the correlation between good homes and good students stands. Further, the clearest identifying characteristic of what we call a good school is a critical mass of children from good homes.
If this is so, why do our public policies pay so little attention? Listen to our school leaders and you'd think the difference between school success and school failure lies in the quality of the superintendent, the size of the school budgets, or the academic backgrounds and skill levels of the teachers.
But watch the parents. Give them the choice that money and mobility can afford, and they quickly arrange to put their children in schools with a critical mass of students from "good" homes. Indeed, the reason vouchers, charter schools and other alternative arrangements have such strong appeal among low-income parents is that they believe their children will benefit from being in learning-centered environments.
I don't mean to suggest that the things that schools and school districts do don't matter. Of course it matters to have qualified teachers, principals who can provide safety and support, budgets that furnish the tools of learning, and competent staffs to bring all these things together.
But it matters more what parents do -- and believe.
My point is not to let the schools off the hook but to offer an explanation of why a torrent of school reforms over the past few decades has brought the merest trickle of improvement. We haven't paid enough attention to improving the homes our children come from.
Maybe one reason is that we have confused good homes with affluent homes. It's true that the educational values I'm talking about are more likely to reside in the homes of economically successful adults.
But the values that place a premium on education don't exist only in rich homes. Good homes in the sense I'm talking about are homes where parents understand and stress the importance of knowledge, quite apart from its economic utility.
The problem is that we have thousands and thousands of parents, mostly poor, with only a limited understanding of the transforming power of education. Many of them are poor because they left school, which, in any case, wasn't working for them. How can they tell their children of the wonders education will open up for them?
Well, they can't -- unless they believe it. And they won't believe it unless those of us who know the truth take the trouble to teach them.
That simple notion is at the heart of many successful parent-education programs across the nation -- Head Start, Parents as Teachers and a host of others. And it is at the heart of what I am trying to do with a modest program in my Mississippi home town. Baby Steps, I call it, and the major aim is to help parents understand the critical value of what they do at home. We try to do it by teaching parents of young children -- birth to age 5 -- some of the tricks for getting them ready for learning and for life. And we try to make it fun.
We are talking, mind you, about parents who love their children but who may think they don't have much to give them by way of academic help. We tell them that the best help they can give is to make their children know how much they value learning.
So far only a few dozen parents are regularly involved -- not bad for a town of 3,500, and perhaps enough to create a critical mass of "good" parents.
My hope is that by the time the children of our Baby Steps parents emerge from the preschool pipeline into regular classes, the difference will be plain to see.
I don't exempt either the school system or the larger community from its responsibility to help the town's children grow up smart and successful -- and, indeed, both the system and the community have come together in support of Baby Steps in its first year.
But I am convinced that all the other things we do will have limited impact unless we also undertake to enhance the competence of our children's first and most effective teachers: their parents.