In this era of school reform, frequent calls are made for increasing parental involvement in education. Yet many parents feel unwelcome in their children's schools or are unsure of what they can do to help public schools. A batch of recent books provides some ideas.
SAVE OUR SCHOOLS: 66 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO IMPROVE YOUR SCHOOL WITHOUT SPENDING AN EXTRA PENNY, by Mary Susan Miller (HarperCollins, 163 pp., $8 paper). This practical handbook prods parents to get involved and make their views heard in schools. "Your voice is loud. All you have to do is use it," writes Miller, a teacher and education columnist for the Ladies Home Journal.
While recognizing the funding shortages facing many schools, Miller argues that money is not the issue. "We can stop laying the blame on money and start looking for solutions within the budgets we have; we can solve our own school problems," she writes.
The bulk of the book consists of a numbered list of the 66 "tried-and-true" suggestions for improving schools. Each item is followed by several paragraphs answering why and how this can be done.
Throughout these short takes on substantial issues, Miller distills education research into practical advice. Readers get a short, simplified course in the latest educational theories and then are told how these ideas apply to a parent's role in education.
Even heavily involved parents may not have thought about some of Miller's suggestions, such as including your child in parent-teacher conferences.
Some of the most helpful advice is on the politics of dealing with teachers. Miller suggests that parents go to see teachers early in the year before problems crop up and check out complaints from their children "rather than storming the classroom."
Some of the 66 items begin to sound repetitive and the section on "How You Can Strengthen Teaching" may be overly optimistic about how much parents can change teachers. But this book is a helpful guide for parents looking to become more active in their local schools.
YOUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS: WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP THEM, by Barbara J. Hansen and Philip English Mackey (Catbird Press, 234 pp., $19.95). Billed as "a complete resource book for getting involved in public education" on the cover, this book is aimed at both parents and people without school-age children.
"Despite the pervading sense of impotence that many Americans feel about our political system," the authors write, "public education is one institution where individuals really matter."
Hansen and Mackey discuss a range of "strategies" for helping schools. "A simple, but largely unrecognized way for you to aid public education is to vote," they write. Since voter turnout for school-board elections and special elections for school levies can be as low as 5 percent in some places, fulfilling this basic civic duty can have a real impact.
For those interested in making a bigger commitment, the authors suggest helping launch a local education foundation. These nonprofit organizations help mobilize the community for school improvement.
The authors provide details on how to go about starting an education foundation and tell the story of Herb Green, a parent from Plainfield, N.J., who has become a full-time education advocate. The appendixes at the back of the book include sample mission statements and bylaws for education foundations.
Hansen and Mackey also provide a "brief history of education" and a synopsis of current school-reform efforts. This primer is useful for anyone interested in learning more about the American education system, past and present.
In the back of the book, there is a glossary of education terms, a list of education organizations, and a reading list for further information about what is happening in schools today. This may be the most valuable part of the book for many readers.
PARENTS WHO LOVE READING, KIDS WHO DON'T: HOW IT HAPPENS AND WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT, by Mary Leonhardt (Crown Publishers, 238 pp., $20). Much of any parent's educational involvement takes place at home, and reading tops everybody's list of activities they can help encourage.
This book provides hope for the many parents whose children do not like reading. Leonhardt, a veteran English teacher, blames the schools - not parents - for children's poor reading habits. "Schools are so successful in presenting reading as a distasteful chore that even children raised to love reading will sometimes learn to hate the sight of books before they ever reach junior high," she writes.
Leonhardt's suggestion for cultivating a love of reading is to let students choose their own books. That means letting kids read "fairly junky subliterature" like comic books, romance novels, or whatever it takes to catch their interest and get them reading.
She recognizes that this notion is "hopelessly radical." But Leonhardt argues that any kind of reading will help increase a student's reading level, and kids will naturally graduate to more respectable material.
The book discusses seven typical "reading stages" for reluctant readers and gives practical tips for parents who want to create a "reading-friendly" home.
Leonhardt includes an extensive list of "kid-recommended" reading suggestions, including comments and direct quotes from student readers.
Many teachers would question how practical it is to devote hours of school time to free student reading, as Leonhardt proposes. But there's no question that her advice can help frustrated parents whose children don't share their love of books.