The lessons, Dorothy Rich explained, can be taught with buttons and cereal boxes, towels and grocery lists, magazines and paper bags.

The classroom, she said, can be anywhere around the house.

In the dining room children can learn fractions by folding the napkins. In the kitchen they can learn the alphabet by picking out letters on cans and cereal boxes. Even in the bathrooms they can pick up a little science - by seeing soap in the bathwater, or practice a little math - by counting the tiles.

"There doesn't have to be any mystery about education, and it doesn't have to be complicated," said Ms. Rich director of the Home and School Institute at Trinity College in Northeast Washington. "I can be all around you, in every room in the house.

"Most people have been accustomed to the idea that learning is out of a textbook," she added, "and I'm not against that. But parents can do a lot with ordinary objects. You don't have to buy something expensive for a child to learn something. You just have to use what's around."

Rich's classes and similar ones being given this fall in five schools in different sections of Washington are part of a growing effort in many parts of the country to try to increase academic achievement by teaching parents to teach their children at home.

"Our whole thesis is that schools can do a great deal for children, but they're limited in institutions," Rich explained. "They reach kids only half the days of the year, and then only from 9 to 3. It's clear that schools can't do the whole job of teaching."

James Van Dien, director of the master of arts in teaching program at Trinity College, said the programs for teaching parents have flourished, not only because of the limits of schools, but also because of the changes in homes.

"With so many single parent homes or both parents working," Van Dien said, "all kinds of learning that we assumed would happen at home just isn't happening. Many things just don't happen any more. We have to plan for them with recipes."

This fall Rich plans to turn several rooms at Terrell Elementary School in Southeast Washington into a model apartment, with "recipes" pinneed on each piece of furniture telling how it caan be used for teaching children.

The apartment, like the "parent involvmement" courses in Wsashington schools, is being paid for by the federal Title One program, and is aimed at the parents of low-income children. However, similar course are given to parents of all income levels by most of the area's suburban school systems, as well as by Mrs. Rich and her staff.

In Prince George's County, the school system sends monthly leaflets on parenting to the homes of its kindergarten children, and has even arranged classes for the parents of pre-schoolers. Several years ago one small program in Prince George's sent out "home visitors" to tutor the parents of young children at home.

One of the main goals of all the programs and courses is to get parents to talk to their children as much as possible and as concretely as possible - even when the children can't say anything themselves.

"One father asked ys, 'What's the use of talking to a child if he can't understand?'" said Margaret Conant, head of the child study program in Prince George's. "We told him it's important for the child to learn the rhythms of speech and the patterns of speech, and then he can start talking himself."

Looking at television, even at "Sesame Street" is no substitute for parents talking to their own children, Rich said. Of course, children do watch television, she added, but the way they can learn the most from it is for parents to watch along with them and talk about what's going on.

"That way the child becomes the focus of attention," she said, "instead of the television, and he reacts to what's happening rather than just staring."

Around the country, parent education courses, often with tutors visiting homes, have become part of many Head Start nursery programs, financed by the federal government for low-income children.

Richard Johnson, an administrator in Head Start's national office, said some parents object to the courses, presumably because they imply that parents don't know enough about raising children, but, he said, most parents in them are enthusiastic.

The parents in Rich's courses also seem to like them and many say they have had an impact on what they do. For example, Sylvia Robertson, who lives in the Trinidad section of Northeast Washington, said the parenting course has changed the way she talks to her children.

"I don't just say 'Do so and so.'" she explained."I make a point of being specific: 'Put that cereal box on the right side of the shelf. It's funny how you can get involved in these things, and the children like having you involved with them."

How effective are the parent education programs?

In one research study two years ago Rich reported that children whose parents did home-learning activities made greater progress on reading tests than another group that didn't get them, but scored no better on math tests.

Several other studies also show gains for children whose parents took part in teaching programs. However, like other Head Start children, few have shown major long-term achievement gains, although one research review by Cornell professor Urie Bronfenbrenner said the parent-tutoring programs had more long-term effects than nurseries.

The parent programs, though, have one major problem: some of the parents whose children have the most severe academic difficulties are unwilling or unable to take part in them.

"No one's arguing about the value of parent education," said Bernard Brown, a research analyst for the U.S. Office of Child Development, "but it's not always something that's easy to achieve. Some parents are too busy; some just refuse to take part . . . The schools still have to do the best they can with all the children who come to them."