Educator Dorothy Rich dies; she pushed parental involvement

Dorothy Rich created the MegaSkills books and training program and founded the District-based Home and School Institute.
Dorothy Rich created the MegaSkills books and training program and founded the District-based Home and School Institute. (Larry Morris/the Washington Post)
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By Valerie Strauss
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dorothy Rich, 77, an educator, author and lecturer who became one of the nation's best known and most persistent advocates for mobilizing parents' interest in their children's education, died of cancer Oct. 25 at her home in the District.

Parental involvement in the education of school-age children is largely taken for granted. But it was not so when Dr. Rich was a teacher working in New York and Arlington County in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During her teacher training, the word "parent" was not even mentioned, she once said.

Besides attending PTA meetings, making brownies for bake sales, offering clerical help and pushing children to do homework, parents were told to "keep out" of their children's schooling, she said.

But educational research in the 1960s and 1970s began to show a correlation between home life and students' success or failure, and Dr. Rich played a vital role in the movement to raise awareness among parents and students that learning happens before the school bell rings and after class is dismissed.

By then, she was a parent with two school-age daughters and began publicly asking whether schools and parents should be working together more cooperatively to improve student achievement. As a columnist on school and home life for The Washington Post, she had the platform to draw attention to the issue.

"At school, I observed students having trouble," she later told The Post. "I couldn't understand why they were having difficulties. The high school teachers said it was the rotten junior highs, and the junior high school teachers said it was the rotten elementary schools. The elementary teachers, of course, said it was obviously the home background."

The periodic column, called "Home and School," brought her a core readership that led her to develop workshops for parents and then the Home and School Institute, a District-based nonprofit educational organization that won financial backing from major foundations. She also created parent-oriented guidebooks written at a sixth-grade level and "without educational gobbledygook."

Over time, these were expanded into best-selling volumes intended to help parents reinforce learning at home. The emphasis was not so much on reading and writing, she said, as "perseverance, finishing a task, the feeling that you can really do something." She called those the "mega skills" of defined behaviors and habits she considered vital for successful learning.

In practice, her MegaSkills program suggested that parents teach their children about fractions by having them fold paper towels or napkins and about how to manage finances by finding bargains in a store. In the classroom, a math teacher might have students use a cookie recipe to understand measurements.

To underscore the "mega-skill" of confidence, Dr. Rich said that the telephone was an ideal teaching tool. "With a very young child, we do activities that help the child to get confident about dialing numbers, dialing grandma, reading left to right," she told the Phi Beta Kappan. "With an older child, we use the telephone to get information. When does the movie start, or when does the library close?"

MegaSkills is used in more than 4,000 schools and thousands of homes, many in low-income neighborhoods. MegaSkills books sell hundreds of thousands of copies and have been endorsed by leading educators and child-welfare leaders such as Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.

Dr. Rich was credited with helping make some form of parent involvement a requirement for schools seeking federal Title 1 money, which is aimed at schools with students from low-income households.

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