You've shopped for new school clothes for the kids, bought the notebooks, pencils, and other supplies, even vowed to do better at checking nightly homework. Do you think you're off the hook?
By the new parenting standards, you aren't nearly back to school yet -- not even at the crosswalk out front. Because you haven't taken one step inside your child's learning experience where, educators are now convinced, parents have more positive impact on a child's progress than they ever could.
If one new commandment of education has been etched in stone in the '90s, it is that active parental involvement in a child's schooling is essential. Check out the research that for years has concluded that involved parents are the linchpin in their child's safe and successful learning journey.
Studies have found that one or both parents actively participating ups the odds of the child earning the best grades, and makes it less likely the student will be suspended or expelled, or have to repeat a grade.
Researchers say that providing a variety of appropriate reading materials at home and limiting TV watching make a big difference in achievement in most students. Studies have established that reading aloud at home regularly to children from the earliest age is one of the surest predictors of classroom success.
"The active involvement of parents in their children's education is absolutely crucial," says U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who has made it a touchstone of his education agenda. "This `connecting up' of parents with their children through education is very healthy for the child's learning process; and the connecting up of parents and teachers and the school further builds on that strength."
Five years ago, Riley started an annual nationwide program called "America Goes Back to School" to encourage families to create new "partnerships" with schools and the community from August to October. "It's not just a parent spending time with his child at night. In addition, the parent joins with other parents and teachers and the principal and students to support school activities," says Riley, whose initiative has grown from about 40 to more than 5,000 parents, schools, churches, community groups and businesses.
Increasingly, other groups are pushing for parental involvement as a key to solving problems that undermine childhood and education.
Though television is often reduced to T-word status in education circles, Cable in the Classroom (CIC) is celebrating its 10th anniversary with "Watch Us Learn!" programming throughout September -- a lesson in how TV can help kids learn.
"It's something positive we're offering to try to bring parents and kids together," explains Megan Hookey, managing director of CIC, the cable TV industry's nonprofit effort that provides free cable service and commercial-free, nonviolent, educational programming to schools.
Usually these programs air in the middle of the night. Teachers tape them to use with their daily curriculum. But, every day next month, CIC is going prime-time. On Sept. 9, for example, Court TV presents a program on social issues facing middle school students. On Sept. 12, ESPN2 airs a "SportsFigures" special in which New York Yankees star Derrick Jeter explains the speed of light and how it plays out on the baseball field. "Knowing that children are drawn to the TV set," says Hookey, "it's nice to see some redeeming value to it."
Betsy Taylor, meanwhile, is promoting back-to-school as prime time for parents to teach children about commercialism and to ask schools to counter its intrusions in the classroom. "Parents are concerned about the influence of advertising on their children," says Taylor, director of the Center for a New American Dream, a Takoma Park-based nonprofit group promoting responsible consumption.
A survey the Center released this month as part of its "Kids and Commercialism Campaign" found that 87 percent of parents of children aged 2 to 17 said commercialism was making kids too materialistic; two-thirds admitted their children define their self-worth in terms of possessions.
"Kids spend most of their time in two places -- in front of the television and in school. And those are the places where advertising has exploded," says Taylor, who believes parents want to draw the line, especially in schools.
Channel One, the in-class TV channel that airs 30-second commercials and now reaches some 12,000 schools, is at the top of her list of commercialism creeping into classrooms. So is "Cover Concepts," which gives students free book covers covered with ads. "We all hope kids are going to school for reading, writing and arithmetic," she says. "But the three R's are being replaced by retail, retail, and retail."
Taylor advises parents to talk to their children about advertising's impact, and to contact their school's PTA and principal about stopping commercialism in classrooms. She says that the center's free brochure, "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture," can help. It is available by calling 877-683-7326, or at the center's Web site, www.newdream.org.
This week, Education Secretary Riley kicks off a five-state bus tour to spread the parent-involvement message. He asks parents to visit the America Goes Back to School Web site, www.ed.gov/Family/agbts/, and to call 800-872-5327 for a free kit for getting involved in schools. "We're trying to take this period, the beginning of school, and make the most of it," he says, "in terms of it being a positive force in children's education."