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?

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.

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.

Parenting programs are cost-effective

Although it is not easy to alter the fatalism and lower expectations that often beset the educationally disadvantaged, it is possible. Martha Sellers of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has guided a promising pilot project of parental coaching for economically and educationally disadvantaged mothers of 2-year-olds who migrated to Boston from Central America.

Ms. Sellers has found that only 10 two-hour visits to these women's homes can lead to positive changes in the behaviors (those that affect early education, school preparedness, and intellectual growth) of at least one-third of the mothers and children. And these changes should help the child when it is time to enter school.

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The cost of this intervention is far less than the cost of special educational tutoring in the third or fourth grades, when teachers note that some children are unable to read at grade level. And with school dropouts eight times more likely to be incarcerated than students who complete their high school education, such targeted programs can be seen as even more cost-effective. Targeting parental behavior for preschool-age children costs far less than the burden of youth incarceration. The inability to read in the third grade is a better predictor of juvenile delinquency or adult criminality than any genetic factor.

Why the reluctance to empower families?

We must ask, therefore, why similar programs are not being implemented broadly in either advanced democracies or developing nations. One reason is a resistance to intruding into a family's privacy and trying to alter people's values. Sellers notes, however, that most of the parents in her program appreciated the visits and were eager to learn what strategies might help their child prepare for the demands of school.

Parents wanting to give their children a better shot at success reflects a universal value, not one tied to socioeconomic status or race.

A second reason such early intervention programs are not widespread stems from reluctance to imply that these parents are not socializing their children properly. Our egalitarian ethos mandates that we inhibit all temptations to "blame the victims" for their circumstances, and instead place the responsibility solely on outside forces over which a family has no control.

But such an attitude makes an even more patronizing assumption – that less-educated (often low-income and minority) parents aren't concerned with their children's academic achievement. These programs merely aim to give parents the right tools for helping their children be better students.

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These ethical considerations are inadequate excuses for failing to implement programs designed to help families caught in poverty – many of whom have lost faith in the national premise that all citizens are entitled to an equal opportunity for a satisfying life.

These programs can enhance the prospects of many children who otherwise might later require costly remediation programs that do not guarantee success because they intervene too late to offset the child's already entrenched educational disadvantage and discouragement. Such later interventions rarely mute a family's anger at a system that, by then, seems to be indifferent to their plight.

Programs that target early parental instruction don't just change students' lives, they have the potential to reform entire education systems.

Jerome Kagan is Daniel and Amy Starch professor emeritus of psychology at Harvard University and cofaculty at the New England Complex Systems Institute.

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