THE past 10 years have witnessed a litany of proposals to improve education in America - from voucher systems to extending the number of school days. None of these proposals, however, deals with the most important influence on how well a child does in school: the child's parents. The verdict seems clear on how the schools are doing, but what about parents?
Education is a low priority among many American parents. Parents are not sufficiently supervising homework, limiting TV watching, or controlling the hours adolescents spend on part-time work. Studies report that fifth grade students spend, on average, only 2-1/2 hours per week doing homework, and more than two-thirds of 12th graders spend less than one hour a day on homework. Japanese students, on the other hand, put in five times more hours on homework per week than do American students.
Parents are finding it difficult to encourage their children to spend more time on homework. One study, for example, found that 69 percent of the parents had problems finding time to help their children with homework. Many parents also seem to do little to encourage their children to read; one-third of American students do not read at home.
So what, then, are American children spending their time on, if not on homework? They are spending a lot of time watching TV and working at part-time jobs.
A study published by the Department of Education found that 37 percent of fourth-grade, 49 percent of eighth-grade, and 34 percent of 12th-grade children in the United States watch an average of three to five hours of TV per day.
The majority of American high school students spend 15 to 20 hours a week at part-time jobs. Profs. Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg report in their book, "When Teenagers Work," that as many as 75 percent of 16- and 17-year-old boys, and 68 percent of girls, participate in the labor force. This is an American phenomenon. Less than 20 percent of teenagers work in Sweden; less than 2 percent of Japanese teenagers work.
Most teenagers who work are not from lower-income backgrounds, working to make ends meet. They are from middle and upper-middle class families, working to buy cars, stereos, Nintendo games, high-priced footwear, and designer clothes. Moreover, most teenagers work at low-skill, service jobs.
These trends go beyond statistics about how children spend their time; they reflect deeper problems with parental values toward education, the educational atmosphere in American homes, and parents' commitment to education reform.
Parental values toward education are crucial; they inform choices about how the family allocates its resources (a new TV versus an encyclopedia). They also provide guidelines for how children spend their time and where they invest their energy. And parents' values influence the goals they set for their children and that children set for themselves. Therefore, it is not surprising that children whose parents value education do better in school than children whose parents do not value education.If we are s erious about educational reform, we need policies that also focus on parents' roles in education and that encourage parents to value education. This involves nothing less than a fundamental change in our culture. As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," the majority of Americans throughout United States history have been ambivalent toward education.
Cultural change begins by leaders articulating values and then making it worth people's while to follow those values. National leaders (in business, education, and government) need to articulate new values toward education. Those values need to be transmitted to local educational leaders and then to leaders in families - parents. Opinion leaders must encourage parents to value education and to spend family resources on their children's education. Parents need to hear that they - parents - play the most i mportant role in their children's educational success.
TEACHERS also must take a leadership role. For example, school districts could hold half-day seminars for parents to explain what children in various grades will be learning during the academic year, and what parents can do to enhance their children's learning. They could recommend the amount of time needed for homework, show parents how to help with homework, and describe strategies for seeing to it that homework is done. As an inducement, a parent would need to complete one seminar each year before his
or her child could enroll in school. Such seminars need not be time consuming. They could be conducted during an evening or a Saturday morning.
Tax incentives can be used to encourage educational achievement and results that demonstrate achievement. For example, sending children to educational programs outside of school is an activity that encourages educational achievement. Therefore, expenses for programs should become tax deductible. These include tutors, special programs (for example, summer math camps), and private remedial programs. In addition, private-school tuition should be at least partially tax deductible.
Families where one parent stays home when the children are in school should receive a tax break. While this will not ensure that the home-based parent will work on educational activities, it increases the probability. After working all day, a parent has little time or energy left to read to a child or to help with homework. A parent who does not work outside the home is likely to have more energy and time to devote to children. Programs that help single parents spend more time with young children - such as tax incentives for corporations that provide parents with time off for children's educational needs - also should be encouraged.
Rather than just talk about "family values," this is one area where policymakers can acknowledge a family's contribution.
Parents who allow their children to engage in behavior that detracts from education should face tax penalties. Tax withholding and Social Security records make it possible to monitor part-time work. Parents who allow their teenage children to work in paid employment for more than 10 hours a week should face a tax penalty.
Tax incentives should be used to motivate parents to take responsibility for their children's educational performance. It is a national shame that our high school drop out rate is 29 percent (compared to Japan's rate of 6 percent and Germany's 9 percent rate), and that our country's leaders do little more than talk about the problem.
To encourage parents to keep their children in school, parents should receive a one-time tax credit for each child who completes high school by age 19. Parents whose children do not complete high school by age 19 should face tax penalties for several years or until the child finishes high school.
MAKING parents financially responsible for remedial instruction should also motivate them to encourage their children to work hard in school. If children do not meet local standards required to pass to the next grade level, they should be required to attend summer school to improve in those areas where they are deficient. However, rather than the school district picking up the tab, parents should bear the cost.
These policies would not be easy to implement. Parents, who are also voters, will not be enthusiastic toward programs that imply that they share the blame. Yet changing parents' values is where the war for education reform will be won or lost.