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A Contract With America('s Parents)

Strong schools require strong parents. Let's make it happen

This past fall's inaugural Symposium on Educational Equity at TC showed just how much America's education achievement gap results from causes outside the classroom.

That's not news. We've long known that families, not schools, are the key determinant of children's academic performance. Yet education reform continues to focus on school improvement, while the law holds schools, not parents, accountable for compliance and results.

No one wants the state meddling in family life. But what if America established a contract with parents to encourage practices they could use to help their kids succeed in school? What if we helped enable families to follow these practices?

Not surprisingly, families of high socioeconomic status are more likely to practice such behaviors. Higher income, better-educated parents read more to their kids, monitor homework more and get more involved with school-based activities. Families of any means can learn those behaviors. Further, parents in white-collar jobs succeed by emphasizing problem- solving and seeking alternative solutions to challenges-- and they pass those values on to their children. That may be a tougher sell to blue-collar parents who have learned that obedience is the best survival skill.

The bottom line: All parents want their children to do well, in school and in life. If a given set of practices will improve the odds, they will willingly undertake them if given the capacity to do so.

But the contract must work both ways; America must invest in strong families as well as strong schools. Parents who are unable to assist with a tough homework assignment should get free tutoring help--though certainly they can contribute by ensuring that their child does the assigned work. More importantly, the poorest parents should receive adequate housing and access to health care and preschool and after-school programs so they can fulfill their side of the contract. The cost would be substantial, but a new generation of young people would exit the welfare rolls, thereby reducing costs of other public services and increasing tax revenues--their own rise in society facilitated by education.

That, as October's Symposium amply demonstrated, is an investment well worth making.

Henry M. Levin is William Heard Kilpartick Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College. In October, he chaired TC 's first annual Symposium on Educational Equity.  

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