A FEW YEARS ago in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the school system spending $565 per child to send its slowest first graders to remedial reading classes. With the tutoring, students gained 42 percent in reaching achievement. The next year, school officials convinced parents of a similar group of children to help teach them at home. Those students improved 53 percent. And the cost was only $21.13 per child.

In Los Angeles, school officials asked parents from 20 of the city's inner-city schools to spend 15 minutes a day on simple math and reading projects with their children. Five thousand parents volunteered. In the first year of the program, scores in nearly 80 percent of the schools had improved, in one by as much as 10 p0oints. Reading scores for all the schools previously had been far below the national average.

Successful projects like these indicate that the greatest untapped resource for dealing with the problems of America's school children may in fact be parents. They are economical, have a vested interest in their children's achievement, and apparently are eager to help. So far, more than 90 percent of the parents in Project AHEAD have agreed to continue their tutoring. And despite heavy budget cuts last year, school board officials voted $600,000 to keep the program going. They apparently agreed with one school official who said it would cost the school system $5-$6 million if they had teachers doing what the parents had done.

In both Benton Harbor and Los Angeles, the teaching materials sent home to parents were modeled after education "recipes" designed by Dorothy Rich, president of the Home and School Institute of Trinity College here in Washington. Rich, who holds a doctorate in education and is a former Arlington high school English teacher, began developing her recipes when her own children reached school age in the early '60s.

The idea arose out of conflict in her own life. As a teacher she had been trained to discourage parental involvement, but as a mother she found herself teaching her own daughters to read before kindergarten.

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

After looking at new research and her own experiences, she concluded parents were a powerful educational resource, and parent teaching became Richhs crusade. Now she doesn't hesitatge to speak plainly about teachers who believe parents -- especially poor, ghetto parents -- are not up to coping with their children's education: "That's hogwash!" she says.

Rich's solution to failing students is to teach parents to teach their own children. Not as a replacement for school, but to enrich what students are getting in the classroom. The idea is so simple, she says, "I can't figure why everybody in the country isn't doing it."

Even the best schools cannot educate children properly alone, she says. "There are morale problems in the schools because they're asked to do far too much -- sex education, and drug education, and breakfast and drivers ed. The responsibility for education children should be assumed by the family -- alla the families."

Rich's recipes, which have all been carefully researched and tested, are step-by-step lessons which parents can do with their children a few minutes each day as they're doing the dishes or sorting the laundry. By using odd bits around the house -- soup can labels, shopping bags or paper plates -- parents can improve their child's reading or math skills. For instance, one activity suggests the child help put away the groceries by putting away all the "m" words first -- meat, margarine, mushrooms -- and then all the "b" words and so on. Another recipe, a science lesson for bath time, directs the parent to collect several objects -- plastic containers, combs, metal spoons -- and line them up on the tub. Have the child guess whether they'll sink or float. Then let him test each one to see if his guess was correct.

In school systems were Richhs program is used, such as Benton Harbor, one recipe is sent home with the child each week. Parents are asked to send back a sheet recording whether they did the exercise, if they liked it and suggestions they might have.

"We struggle to make these things so clear," says Rich, "that you would say, 'Of course, why didn't I think of that?' Maybe taht's harmed the program. People tend to revere what they don't understand."

Rich has already trained 2,000 teachers at the Institute, and her recipe ideas, spread mainly by satisfied customers, already draw thousands of letters from parents each year. This fall, Simon and Schuster will publish many of them in Families Learning Together , a collection of activities for parents with children from kindergarten through sixth grade. Rich and Institute artists Nancy Harter are also working on another book, Bright Ideas , a collection of problem-solving comic strips that the non-profit institute will distribute for a $16 donation.

The success of Rich's approach hnges on her belief in the resourcefulness of the family. All families, not just those who are middle-class, educated, and well-motivated, although she certainly has a message for them, too. The most overwhelming response has come from low-income, inner-city families -- those traditionally thought to be the most difficult to involve in their children's education.

"Quite honestly, the response of parents has really surprised me," said Len Guedalia, project director for a Rich-designed program at Tubman School. The program for 20 poor D.C. students who are learning-disabled uses a replica of a home called the Learning Place and requires heavy participation from parents. Guedalia says frankly, "I was very suspicious of how long we could maintain the program."

Federal grant officials and D.C. school personnel were equally skeptical, he said, when they saw that the program required parents to attend sessions at school two hours a week, plus putting in considerable time at home. "School officials sayd we'd never get the parents to come," Guedalia said.

Since the program began in February, parents have had difficulties. Many come to evening sessions because they work during the day; others have transportation problems. Some parents come from as far as 10 miles away on the bus with their children. But despite these hardships, Guedalia says, parent attendance has been 80 percent. "And nobody has just not shown up. They always call if they can't make the sessions."

School officials in other cities which have used Rich's programs have found similar responses from working-class and inner city families. The reason, Rich believes, is that parents desperately want to help their children -- if just given a chance. She herself has done much to debunk the once president conventional wisdom which said parents should leave education to the educators. Middle-class parents in particular, she says, have been discouraged from teaching their children. At times veiled hints by "experts" even suggested parents could damage their youngsters by pushing too hard.

Rich, who is the mother of two daughters -- Rebecca, a medical student, and Jessica, a sophmore at Harvard -- fiercely denounces these theories. "Most eminent people come from pushy parents."

Restoring parents' confidence to give children that extra push has been a message she delivers frequently. Not long ago in the Home and School Institute Newsletter, Rich -- herself a Jewish mother -- wrote:

"First let it be known that you don't have to be Jewish to be a 'Jewish mother.' Rose Kennedy, Ida Eisenhower, and the mothers of Pablo Cassals, Frank Wright, and Booker T. Washington -- they were Jewish mothers. You may ask what made them Jewish mothers. The answer -- they saw themselves as teachers of their own children, they pushed, not just "stimulated' (the more acceptable word today) their kids' talents and skills. They believed in the possibilities and achievements of their children fierecely, maybe even irrationally, but they conveyed a sense of pride and what some educators today have called 'overachievement.' What that really is I don't know, but Frank Lloyd Wright's mother didn't worry about it. Before her son was born, she decided he was to be an architect. She framed 10, large wood engravings of old English cathedrals and hung them in the nursery. Crazy? Maybe, but then again, maybe not."

By stressing achievement -- through learning exercises at home that are both quick and fun -- Rich has produced some interesting results. Gladys Burks, director of Benton Harbor's state and federal programs, reports students are enthusiastic, not just about Project HELP, but also about their other school work. She tells of one first grader who was reminded by his teacher not to lose that week's recipe. "Don't you worry, teacher," the little boy said. "Ain't nobody gonna mess with my mama's homework."

To skeptics who question whether parents are actually doing the exercises at home, Burks replies: "The first graders won't let their parents not do the work. In fact we've gotten letters from some parents asking, 'How do you turn them off?'" Burks and other educators believe that these habits will carry over as students enter higher grades.

Burks, who designed the Benton Harbor program, has found a few drawbacks to the home exercises. "Not all teachers are receptive to parental involvement. They feel it's their bailiwick, and they don't want parents to interfere." Besides some teacher resentment, Burks also discovered that her recipes for the latter part of the school year were not sufficiently challenging. "You have to keep in mind that children grow. We neglected to do that."

In the Los Angeles Project AHEAD program, officials say the project has directly changed parents' and students' attitudes. Unlike most of Rich's programs, where there is little personal contact between school and home, Project AHEAD sends 30 consultants to visit regularly the 5,000 parents enrolled in the program. The consultants, all neighborhood people who have been trained by the school system, explain the "appetizers" or recipes, and get firsthand reports of parents' reactions.

"Our results have been good," said project director Marnesba Tackett. Not only have test scores improved, but parents are talking to teachers about their children's schooling. "Some parents say the program has made the difference with the children's attitudes toward school and wanting to go to school."

But perhaps the most encouraging, and for the nation's schools the most crucial, side effect, Rich feels, is that by involving the whole family in a pursuit of knowledge, even the least advantaged will discover what they can achieve, not just in the classroom, but in the society.

One District mother, Shirley McLaughlin, says her son Alvin, 10, has become a different child since he enrolled at the Learning Place. Alvin, who has difficulty with visual and auditory discrimination, repeated the first grade three times in the D.C. schools. He spent three more years with a child psychologist before he was properly placed in school. Six months ago, when he began the project at Tubman, he was disinterested in school and seemed unable to help at home, McLauglin said.

Now, she says, he looks forward to school, has begun to work with fractions and three digit numbers and can handle going to the store with a grocery list of several items.

Alvin works on his recipes -- especially adapted for his disabilities -- three nights a week with his mother, and helps her with the laundry and cooking, as well as keeping his room tidy. McLaughlin, who has watched her son's confidence and competence blossom, says simply: "The program is great. . . . It makes me feel good about myself and him, too. And it makes him feel good too."