THE phrase ``school dropout'' usually describes teenagers, not their parents. But in a new twist, the term is also being applied to mothers and fathers who fail to stay involved in their children's education.
Three-quarters of parents in the United States are at least moderately involved in school activities when their children are in elementary school, according to a study by Child Trends, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C. But that involvement drops sharply when students reach middle school or junior high. It declines further by high school.
By then, nearly half of all students have parents who do not attend PTA meetings, back-to-school nights, science fairs, or school plays, and do not serve on school committees. Yet studies over the years consistently show that students whose parents remain involved in school activities tend to do better academically.
Underscoring the importance of solid family-school connections, Education Secretary Richard Riley last week urged families to become more involved in education. Calling parents ``the true owners of the school,'' he outlined a multipronged effort to forge better links between the classroom and the home. His report, ``Strong Families, Strong Schools,'' calls on employers to allow more-flexible schedules. A rigid 9-to-5 work day gives parents little opportunity during a 9-to-3 school day to attend teacher conferences or other activities.
Then there is that other essential - involvement at home. Mr. Riley exhorts parents to limit the time children spend watching TV. Parents, he says, must read to their children and spend more time with them.
Finally, schools themselves must take more initiative in communicating with parents.
One innovative solution in Valparaiso, Ind., a ``Homework Hotline,'' allows parents of middle-school students to keep track of homework assignments by dialing a special number and punching in a code assigned to each teacher. The hot line also gives brief updates on what the class is studying.
Simply dialing ``H'' for homework and creating other links between parents and schools will not solve all the problems American educators face. But keeping parents from dropping out of their children's educational lives is an ideal that deserves an ``A'' - plus all the concrete support businesses, communities, schools, and families can give.