BOSTON — The heady days of summer have not yet erased from memory the lessons Kate Matison learned while helping her sons with their school work.
Fourth-grader Jonathan's consumer reports. Sixth-grader Daniel's computer spreadsheet for tracking stocks. Without the active involvement of mom and dad, none of it would have been possible.
"Over the long term, if a child has his parent's intellectual involvement and enthusiasm, the tendency is to do well in school," says Mrs. Matison, a full-time doctoral student in Southborough, Mass. "At the same time, it all got rather onerous."
Parental involvement is fast becoming a favored solution in the nation's quest to improve its public schools. Moreover, both the president and vice president today lend the weight of their offices to family-school partnerships, as they lead a major conference on families and learning in Nashville, Tenn.
Rethinking parents' role in public schooling is causing a fundamental shift in the relationship between schools and parents.
"For at least 70 years, the tradition has been for isolation from schools," says Don Davies, an education professor and founder of the Institute for Responsive Education at Northeastern University in Boston. "Parents send their children to school clean, dressed, and rested, and teachers take it from there."
But the iron curtain between parents' and teachers' responsibilities is starting to lift. Many parents and educators are looking for ways to bring back the familiarity and collaborative spirit of the one-room schoolhouse.
Proponents of parental involvement, from grass-roots parents groups to Fortune 500 companies, say the family's role in schools is vital. Parents who read to their children, volunteer in schools, and get involved in children's homework are, in reality, helping to fight illiteracy, truancy, and low achievement, they say.
Parental involvement goes beyond checking up on homework assignments, says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Tracking family partnership programs in 80 Baltimore public schools last year, Dr. Epstein found some surprising results. Schools that encouraged volunteering, communication, parent-child homework assignments, and collaborative decisionmaking experienced better attendance rates, better writing and reading scores on standardized tests, and a slight overall improvement in math scores.
Types of involvement vary from school to school. Some introduced voice-mail systems so parents can keep track of homework assignments, even if they're on business trips. Others offered literacy or parenting workshops. Still others formed standing parent-teacher committees to build consensus for school reform.
But the partnership movement is still young - and far from pervasive. Many schools still keep families at arm's length. Some parents, especially those in poor, ethnic neighborhoods, feel unwelcome in schools and inadequate in helping their children.
"Well-educated middle-class parents know more about what to do to help their child's education," Dr. Davies says, "but even they are frustrated with schools' unwillingness to communicate." "One reason the charter school movement has pushed up a head of steam is that it gives parents influence to shape their child's education," he adds.
For her part, Kate Ryan of Manchester, Mass., loves being informed of the progress of daughter Meara, a ninth-grader, and son John Patrick, a sixth-grader.
"We're very fortunate; our kids are motivated," says Mrs. Ryan, an executive assistant to the president of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "Their homework is done by the time I come home. They get tired of waiting for me."
But sometimes, all the interactive assignments can seem like work. "It's so different from when I was little," she says. "Now it seems like parents are always involved, almost over-involved."
Indeed, more participation can be daunting for those who work, leaving less time to go over multiplication tables and vocabulary.
Building support for reform
But including parents in decisionmaking can help to build support for school reform, says Davies. If excluded from the reform process, "parents can undermine it all, by taking their kids out of the schools, voting against bond issues."
Making schools more approachable for families will mean changing the way teachers are trained, says Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Columbia Teachers College in New York. "I don't think in the past parent-teacher relationships have been taught at all," she says. "Teachers should interview parents" to learn about a child's strong points and how to motivate him or her, she says.