How Parents Can Be `School Smart'

BOOKS

THE SCHOOL-SMART PARENT by Gene Maeroff, New York: Times Books, 341 pp., $19.95

IF every parent read ``The School-Smart Parent'' by Gene Maeroff, I bet we wouldn't read so many horrifying and embarrassing statistics on what American children don't know. (Example: How do American children rank with other developed countries as far as math goes? Last.)

Just last month, Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos released the annual report on the state of education in the United States. The verdict: We're not improving. Parents, if they ever could, can no longer afford to take less than an active role in their children's education.

This kind of book didn't exist years ago when, Maeroff writes, ``there were fewer pitfalls into which children could stumble and the world was in some ways a gentler, simpler, less harsh place.'' But times have changed and common sense underscores his belief that ``the more parents can do to help their children reach full potential in school, the more likely the children are to find fulfillment in the competitive era ahead.''

It's been a long time since most parents were in the first grade. It's impossible to remember what we learned then, or what differentiated second grade from third. Without that knowledge, how can parents possibly keep track of not only how their children are doing, but what they should be doing?

Maeroff begins by telling parents how to choose a school. Options exist now that didn't in the '50s. He goes through preschool, kindergarten, and the early grades, explaining in a clear, straightforward manner - little gobbledygook - what children should encounter in the classroom, what teachers should emphasize, what a child should be able to do or know before going on to the next grade.

At the end of the preschool chapter, Maeroff makes one point worth the whole book. It is aimed at the many parents who let their child get away with murdering manners so long as the kid is smart. ``Too many parents concerned about grooming their children for a future of achievement,'' he says, ``tend to be indulgent with their children in matters of socialization. ...'' Parents can and should ``do things to avoid having a child who is spoiled rotten.'' Amen.

Maeroff repeatedly stresses the importance of what he calls ``the great beginning'' - reading. Good readers are good students. All studies bear this out and anything a parent does to help his child enjoy reading will reap rewards. In all subject areas, not only reading, Maeroff encourages learning in the home. He makes it sound like fun, which in the best of circumstances learning should be.

For many parents, math is problematic in this regard. ``Math is not only uncomfortable and baffling for many people, but also fraught with unpleasant memories of lessons not understood and tests that made one feel stupid,'' Maeroff says. He takes the mystery out of math by telling parents that ``mathematics ought to be depicted as just another form of communication.'' If kids realized that early on, a lot fewer algebra books would be hurled at walls in frustration.

Many other chapters make up this long book: on dealing with teachers, on the problems peculiar to the handicapped or gifted, on subjects like science and the social studies in the later grades, and on the role of computers and television. (Maeroff takes the view that to prohibit TV viewing makes it irresistible. Better to set limits and within those let children choose among the programs. He also shows ways to use what's good on TV to educational advantage.)

What's most comforting about the book is that Maeroff, while advocating fairly determined measures, champions the child. He makes the parent remember some of the frustrations of learning. On making a child read above his level, he writes, ``A child who trips over words in every sentence is probably confounded by a lack of success and may well turn off to reading. An adult can best appreciate this frustration by trying to read about an esoteric subject like high-energy physics.''

He includes a welcome chapter on the necessity of (and controversy about) teaching values in school. There's no mistaking what he thinks: ``Forget it when someone tells you that the teaching of values has no place in school. This is nonsense. Almost nothing that happens in school is value-neutral.''

Most important, the book removes the mystery that confounds many parents when they confront an educational system. Maeroff insists that as far as their children's education goes, parents can make a difference. They have to. The years of benign neglect, when parents could count solely on the schools automatically to produce children proficient in the three R's, are gone.

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