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Want better students? Teach their parents.

Children of less educated parents often enter school unprepared for instruction – programmed for academic failure. But early coaching for parents with pre-school age children can change that trajectory. Why not include more of these cost-effective ideas in education reform?

By Jerome Kagan / February 16, 2011



Cambridge, Mass.

Education in the United States has been the recent recipient of generous acts of philanthropy. Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg has donated $100 million to improve education in Newark, N.J., with the goal of reversing the acute high school dropout problem in that city. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged nearly $3 billion to support education at the elementary through college levels.

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But the usual focus on improving education, with an emphasis on the quality of teachers or curricular reform, ignores what is an equally productive opportunity for education reform: altering the child-rearing practices of parents of preschool children. This approach is especially critical in tackling the achievement gap that plagues low-income and minority students throughout their academic careers.

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Although schools play a major role in teaching children the basic skills required for jobs in an advanced economy, the family remains the primary institution that prepares children to take maximal advantage of formal schooling and motivates them to persist despite difficulty.

Parents are key to school preparation

A child's academic training begins long before he or she sets foot in school. Studies show that more-educated parents instill patterns of thinking, processing information, and early reading instruction that form a vital foundation for later learning.

Sadly, children born to parents who have not graduated from high school are more likely to enter primary school less prepared for instruction and less motivated to learn these vital skills than those children growing up with college-educated parents. Yet most social scientists advising government on education reform do not emphasize the importance of changing the attitudes, behaviors, and opportunities for less-educated parents with low socioeconomic status.

The best predictor of reading and arithmetic skills in the early grades of school is the education of the parents. This relationship can have a major effect, because parents without much schooling are less likely to read to their children, to engage in reciprocal conversation and play, encourage improvement of their children's intellectual talents, and promote in their children the belief that they can effectively alter their current conditions.

The universality of this factor in children's academic performance rules out genes as an explanation for the dramatic differences in later achievement between children of educated parents and those of less-well-educated parents.

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When the Soviets occupied Poland after World War II, they mandated that well- and less-well-educated parents live in the same apartment houses and send their children to the same schools. But despite having the same teachers and curricula, the children of professionals received better grades than those growing up with parents with less education.

The same result was affirmed half a century later when African-American children from educationally and economically disadvantaged homes were bused to a more affluent Washington, D.C., suburb. A teacher in this school noted that, as early as age 5, most of these children had already been "programmed" for academic failure. By and large, children of less-educated parents arrive on the very first day of school already significantly behind their peers with more-educated parents.

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