The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, May 01, 2006

The third rail

When we commit to fixing some aspect of public education, the solutions pour forth. Take literacy, for example: to enable every kid to read, we’re increasing funding, commissioning (and actually reading!) research, boosting classroom time, testing (and testing again), increasing professional development, installing scripted programs, bringing in tutors, holding rallies, and pushing formal schooling down to younger and younger children. (Have I missed anything? I’m sure I have.)

But there’s one component to the development of literacy that we dare not mention. It doesn’t show up in any policy discussions, nor do we talk about it (publicly, at least) as being a part of any of the solutions mentioned above. It is The Solution Whose Name We Dare Not Speak.

Parents. There, I’ve said it.

Research has clearly shown that parental involvement - parents seen reading in the home, parents reading to their children, parents ensuring that children have an array of reading materials available to them - is one of the most critical indicators of success in helping a child learn how to read.

And the education community treats this as an unmentionable secret.

Sure, we address it to an extent at the local level: schools send home tip sheets, bring parents in to sign reading compacts, and do their best to keep parents apprised of kids’ progress through updates and report cards. But we’re asking too late – so many of the building blocks of literacy happen before a child ever walks into a formal school – and I think we’re probably beating around the bush, hinting and cajoling without ever laying things out in black and white.

My jaw would drop – DROP – if I ever saw a public figure call us on this. Just imagine the following speech by a politician:

My fellow parents,

The ability to read is the single most important indicator of success in life. If your child does not learn to read and read well, his opportunities in life are so limited that you may as well buy him a mop and a bucket right now: he won’t get much further than minimum-wage manual labor for the rest of his life.

Despite what you hear from the talking heads in the news, our schools are perfectly capable of teaching a child to read. But we have to have children who are ready to learn, who have a supportive environment at home that reinforces what they’re doing at school.

From almost the time that they’re born, it is your responsibility – and only your responsibility - to prepare them to successfully learn how to read. Fortunately this is simple to do.

Read to them every day, preferably a few times a day. Let them see you reading. Make sure they have access to a wide variety of reading materials in the home.

That’s all it takes: do that, and they’ll be ready to learn how to read when they get to school. We’ll take it from there, although of course we’ll still expect you to do your part at home by continuing to read, continuing to emphasize the importance of reading, and holding yourselves and your child accountable when we send home work that reinforces what we’re doing in school.

And if you don’t? Shame on you. You’re failing your children, relegating them to a life filled with the frustration and despair that come with living on the fringes of society. They will always look longingly at the lives that others are able to build for themselves and knowing that success is permanently out of their grasp. It won’t be the fault of the schools, nor will it be the fault of “society.” It will be your fault, and yours alone.

So please: read to your children. Let them see you read. Give them access to books and other reading materials. And help them lay the groundwork for a life that can take them anywhere they decide they want to go.

Good night, and good reading.

Is it really such a political lighting rod to expect parents to be parents? Why aren’t we stating what is so obvious to so many: that parents have an essential role in the education of their children?

Now, I do realize that we’re not in the age of the stable, nuclear family – that some parents are trying to raise kids on their own, some are working two or more jobs, and some are struggling with things I can’t even imagine.

But the fact is, every kid has a limited window of opportunity here: if we miss it, their potential for literacy, and with it an education and a shot at a good life, shrinks dramatically. There are no do-overs – we get one shot, and that’s it.

It’s time for every parent to be reminded of their role in the education of their children - no sense keeping it a secret anymore.


  • Great thoughts! Now to get the ministers, coaches, other influential adults in the lives of kids to scream this from the pulpit, ball field, wherever and do something about it. Then we might start seeing a change.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:36 AM  

  • Thank you!! The other thing to remember is parents are the "customer" or "client" in education. If the product is good the parents will continue to support it. If the product is poor those that can will go elsewhere. Education will never be succussful unless all four legs of the stool are performing at a high level -- parents, students, teachers and administration.

    I love your blog --


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:31 AM  

  • Perfection on a stick. Thank you. I've never seen it said so well.

    By Blogger Mamacita (The REAL one), at 10:27 AM  

  • I responded to your post on our blog. I cite a public official--a former U.S. Secretary of Education who challenged parents to read to their children.

    It was the first of five challenges he cited in a speeci at a reading summit.

    Who was this public official? Well, it wasn't Rod Paige.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:28 AM  

  • I'd love to see a new approach to education that assumes more parental responsibility. I think it's possible to engage a greater percent of parents than at present. That said, as an engaged parent, I'd like more of a role in my childrens' education than the public school systems currently allow. I'd like the freedom to "shop" schools, or programs, or even just a particular class or service, wherever it takes me. I'd like the rules for becoming a teacher loosened up to allow for more choice in styles of teaching. I could go on and on. Give parents more of a role overall, and you may find they become engaged. For that subset of parents who will not become involved in their childrens' education, we still have the experts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:12 PM  

  • Well said!

    When I read to my newborn, my MIL ridiculed me.Unfortunately, many parents think, I'll read to them when they're older, and then all of a sudden they're older and they don't choose reading as an activity.

    Think, people.

    Every year, I end my classes with a pleas to my students that, when they are parents (or if they are already....) to read to their children. If only 10 of them a year remember my plea, it will be worth it.

    By Blogger "Ms. Cornelius", at 4:39 PM  

  • Amen! Some of my earliest memories are of crawling past shelves of books, and later of "playing" with a big old dictionary. I got through Harvard *despite* Learning Disabilities and other issues, and never mind the younger sister who left *me* eating her figurative dust!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:57 AM  

  • If parents are so critical to education what do we need teachers for?

    If parents are critical in their children's education why do we restrict their choice of publically funded schools to government run?


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:55 PM  

  • Actually I hear parents blamed all the time, but then I'm in politics and the issue is always on my radar screen.

    Inculcating a love of reading in the child is one thing, but hovering over a middle-school kid to help with his homework is something else again. The first is essential, the second should not be necessary.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:41 PM  

  • Amen and Hell Yeah! I'm linking and stealing and spreading the word that you are the man! Mamacita sent me.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12:05 PM  

  • Well said! I'd be more than happy if they would just respond to my notes, come to conferences, bring their kids to performances that we work really hard on in class, feed their children decently, buy them notebook paper and pencils, and bathe them. I had one parent last week check her 10 year old son out so he could go home to babysit a 9 month old baby. The student told me his mom wanted to hit the yard sales and not take the baby. Can you imagine? I've had at least 5 parents every year for the last 7 years tell me their child will not complete any homework because they don't have time to read with their child or help them with school work. That's my job as the teacher.

    By Blogger EHT, at 9:20 PM  

  • Great Post! This should be sent to every elected official that "represents" us. I found this via Coach Brown's blog.

    By Blogger Dan Edwards, at 12:17 AM  

  • If you don't teach the basics to the kids nothing the parents do will matter. Our daughter came from the home you describe. We're both college educated, we have plenty of books, we had a monthly book club just for her! In Kindergarten the teacher was not allowed to even try and teach any academics. She told us this and was unhappy about it. She thought our daughter might be able to use some more 'structured' methods. No! Then in 1st grade her teacher was into the 'whole word' let's make this exciting thing. Lots of fun and games, no real learning. My daughter did finally learn to read, after we got worried and started teaching her ourselves. She learned in the summer between 1st and 2nd grade. No thanks to the school. We couldn't put her in another school, we were overseas in a DOD school and had no other choice. Please, there is plenty of blame to go around with our public school problems, but the education establishment is the biggest part of the problem from this parent's point of view.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:25 AM  

  • So, if the parent can't read, or is a poor reader, tough luck? I don't think so.

    For generations, schools took kids of illiterate parents (or whose parents did not speak English) and taught them to read.

    I've talked to K-2 teachers, and it's amazing the amount of time they will spend on things not related to reading. So, assuming that the parents MAY not read themselves, what can they do?

    1) Teach the kid their colors.
    2) Teach them to count stuff to at least 20 - coins, buttons, spoons, whatever.
    3) Teach them directions - left/right, up/down, etc.
    4) Teach them to sit down and close their mouths when an adult is talking
    5) Do NOT teach them the language of the streets - curse words and the like
    6) Teach them that, in school, they may NOT hit or bite. Teach them to act with courtesy towards others.
    7) Teach them that, yes, they are wonderful, but, no, that doesn't entitle them to all the attention, all the time. Teach them that the world doesn't revolve around them. So, if someone is talking, don't interrupt. Don't stand up and dance, just because you're bored. Don't pound on the table. All of which I wish kids knew by high school. Which some don't.

    By Blogger Linda Fox, at 12:37 PM  

  • Liz here, from I Speak of Dreams.

    1. Turn off the TV -- no TV at all for the pre-school set, and that includes videos. If children are sitting and staring, they aren't doing all the things necessary to develop themselves mentally and physically.

    2. Talk to them, actual discursive conversations, not barking orders. Children of the code has an interview with Todd Risley, Meaning ful Differences in the Language Learning Environments of Young American Children

    Todd Risley's findings summarized:
    "The average baby hears about 1,500 words an hour, addressed to the baby, in the hours the baby is awake. But this is just "average". Taciturn parents are only using 600 words per hour, and the "talkative" parents are using 2,100 words per hour. And the amount of language the child hears is strongly correlated to later IQ tests.

    The other thing Risley found has to do with affect: the children of taciturn parents heard that the child was doing something wrong about 250,000 times, while hearing that they were doing the right thing, or were good, about 120,000. For every "good baby!", the child heard two "no!"s, so to speak. But the talkative parents gave out about six "good baby!" for every "no!" (750,000: 120,000)"

    2. What Linda said.

    3. What Moira said. Reading to the child is necessary, but not sufficient for successful reading mastery.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:32 PM  

  • It would certainly help a lot if more parents would help their kids learn to read, or at least help them understand that reading is important, and good propaganda in this direction-by politicians or others--should be applauded.


    There is zero probability that there will be a unanamous mass conversion of parents in this direction. Schools should not be let off the hook on these grounds. Surely you don't mean to suggest that--given a set of students with parents equally uninterested in reading--some teachers and some schools wouldn't do better than others.

    By analogy: "Despite what you hear from shareholders and analysts, our sales reps are perfectly capable getting people to buy our products. But we have to have prospects who are ready to buy, who are cabable of understanding the superiority of our products."

    By Blogger David Foster, at 4:43 PM  

  • I think most people have no idea what the home life of some kids is like. Curmudgeon came close when he said that some parents don't know how to read and are preoccupied with other things. I work in social services, and I see chaotic homes all the time. No one in these homes is thinking about reading or school or the child's future. They live in the moment--no planning, no goals, no idea that life can be different. It's the children from these homes who need good schools most, and are least likely to have them. I strongly believe that the focus for change has to be on the kids from these families, not the parents. The kids need all the structure, support, guidance, mentoring, engagement that the schools can possibly offer them. We can complain all we want about parents not doing their job, but if we really don't want the kids to pay for that, then we have to do that job ourselves.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:16 AM  

  • Now, see, I never even think of that as something has has to be told to parents. It seems like the natural thing to do. But I guess it doesn't seem quite so natural to plenty of others.

    Ironically, when I entered kindergarten (almost four decades ago) and was already reading at a level high enough to fully read (and mostly comprehend) stories in the newspaper, my school's principal chided my mom for having the gall (!!!) to teach me how to read. "That's the SCHOOL'S job!!" the principal admonished.

    By Blogger Mellie Helen, at 4:18 PM  

  • I'm unclear as to what exactly it is that you're proposing in your post. I think the reason that better parenting is not often a part of policy discussions is because it is not necessarily something policy has control over. We can't exactly make laws that require parents to love their children, provide them with 'print rich environments' to use the latest eduspeak, or read to them. Policy experts work with the variables they have control over- teacher training, learning standards, testing, school structure and funding, etc. I think everyone knows that there are countless studies indicating that parental involvement is a major indicator of student success- but it's not one we can easily control. What ideas do you have on this? More funding for programs like this one? ( That more schools begin to adopt parent involvement contracts like various charter schools (like KIPP - the Knowledge is Power Program) do? I'd like to hear more.

    By Blogger notawidget, at 5:28 PM  

  • To everyone who posted a comment here - I'm very sorry that your comments didn't show up sooner. It seems they were held up somehow in blogger - I don't need to approve new posts, yet somehow they were all held up until I checked in on things this morning. (And now, for some reason, the links that were showing up have now disappeared - ARGH.)

    I greatly appreciated all of the comments - some great thinking and opinion here. Just a few points in response:

    1. I'm certainly not advocating for a parents-only instructional approach - the idea was to instill the emergent literacy building blocks, not replace the teacher's role.

    2. I understan that not every kid is in a loving, stable home, and I hate that these kids end up with the short end of the stick here. As I understand it, educators can still teach kids to read if they come to school without those emergent skills in place - but it's a much longer road to walk.

    3. What am I proposing through this post? That educational stakeholders (parents are the focus of this post, but the lesson can be transferred to any stakeholder group) acknowledge and fulfill the critical role they play in public education. David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation has spoken about how education and the public have split, in large part because of the specialization and inferred authority of the education profession. But it's time for all of us - parents, community members, businesses, governments - to step back in as equal partners in the education of our children.

    Thanks again for your comments - sorry they didn't show up before now.

    By Blogger Brett Pawlowski, at 2:48 PM  

  • Since most of the non-reading parents are products of the public school system . . . well, what does that tell us about instilling a life-long interest in reading and learning?

    By Blogger Nance Confer, at 11:51 AM  

  • Nice.

    By Blogger Aashi, at 12:50 AM  

  • An eye-opener post for parents and teachers. Speech by a politician you shared here is really scary. The raw data also show patterns indicating a clear association between reading to children more frequently and higher cognitive skills at age 8-9. The study shows that there is an important role for parents in the development and educational performance of their children. Parental reading to children increases the child’s reading and other cognitive skills at least up to the age of 10–11. This is an early-life intervention that seems to be beneficial for the rest of their lives. Thanks for a good post.

    By Anonymous Rum Tan, at 9:28 AM  

  • Reading and storytelling with little children promotes brain development and imagination, develops language and emotions, and strengthens relationships. Sometimes parents can read, and sometimes they can look at picture books, sing songs or tell stories from their culture. Babies and young children often enjoy books, songs and stories with good rhyme, rhythm and repetition. parents amaze when they see kids learn many things effortlessly due to such small efforts. Yes, parents involvement is crucial for growth in kids but if little efforts schools do then it would be very helpful for the parents who are not able to devote time for the kids due to some odd circumstances. Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful post.

    By Anonymous Rum Tan, at 11:23 AM  

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