The title of Dorothy Rich's new policy maker's guide -- "The Forgotten Factor in School Success: The Family" -- sounds anachronistic. The family a forgotten factor? Why, everybody these days talks about the importance of home training, family reinforcement, parental involvement.
Rich hears the talk, too. But she knows that too often that's all it is. State and federal legislation on schooling seldom addresses what parents might usefully do; local school administrators, while they might spend a lot of effort coaxing parents to come out for special nights, almost never give parents anything to do that would help their children learn.
They don't, I suspect, because they don't know how to involve parents in the learning process. If that guess is correct, they ought to listen to Dorothy Rich.
Rich, founder and president of the Washington-based Home and School Institute and a recognized expert in the area of family-assisted learning, has, in two decades of research and practice, come up with a bundle of low-cost, common-sense ways for parents to help their children in school.
"The crucial thing is to have a partnership between teachers and parents," she says. "The need is for a role for the family that is complementary, not duplicative of what teachers are doing. There's so much that kids can learn in families that they cannot learn even in the best of schools."
What, for instance? Well, time management, for one. "Children forget what they are supposed to do and why they are supposed to do it. So in order to give them a memory jogger and help them plan ahead, I have parents get a plain calendar with squares for each day and ordinary colored markers or crayons. Starting with the current month, you go over the calendar with the (elementary age) child, filling in special days -- birthdays, appointments and so on. Let the child decorate the calendar to personalize it, and then hang it where everyone can see and use it.
"With that as a base, you can talk about the future -- "How old will you be in 1991? How old will I be? What do you think we'll be doing?'
Or, one of Rich's favorites, the family "TV diet." "You agree to go on a TV diet for a week, meaning that, for that week, the family will watch no more than two hours of television a day. You sit down as a family, select the shows, add up the viewing times and post the list. You can have some family games or puzzles or books ready for the non-viewing hours. After a week, the family might agree to reward itself with a picnic or some special outing."
All of Rich's tricks -- and it's something of a disservice to list just one or two -- do at least double duty, sometimes more. The TV diet, for instance, teaches time management and self-discipline and also brings the family closer together. If the children are invited to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the shows they view, it helps to develop their critical abilities. And most of the things Rich suggests involve at least some reading and writing.
This sort of thing -- which some parents do on their own and which virtually all would do if they were prompted to do so and told of the educational implications for their children -- is what Rich means when she talks about parental involvement.
Her booklet concerns itself mostly with a philosophical overview and policy recommendations. My own fascination, though, is with the particulars of how to do it.
Rich's little tricks cost virtually no money and not much time -- the necessary materials can be sent home by the children, saving parents even the necessity of a trip to school. And yet it seems obvious that the payoff is far greater than you could hope to get from having a parent serve as a classroom volunteer or member of some busy- work advisory boards.