Parents As First Teachers: Increasing the Numbers and Quality
The research is clear: What a family does to encourage learning is more important to student success than family income or education. This is true whether the parents finished high school or not, or whether the child is in preschool or in the upper grades, according to studies of individual families.
In 1997, the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium reported that parents can exercise their authority best in three educational areas: absenteeism, variety of reading materials in the home, and excessive television watching. These three areas are responsible for nearly 90 percent of the difference in eighth-grade mathematics test scores across 37 states and the District of Columbia on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Reading is even more dependent on learning activities in the home than is math or science, according to The College Board. Indeed, the single most important activity for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children. Nonetheless, only half of parents with children under age 9 say they read to them every day.
If parents were more prepared to be their children's first teachers, the payoff would be both personal and economic. Family involvement could double the public investment in student learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education. If every parent of children aged 1 through 9 spent one hour reading or working on schoolwork with his or her child five days a week, that would be 8.7 billion hours. That number of hours, if spent by teachers in our children's schools, would cost American taxpayers at least $230 billion—about the same as what we pay yearly for K-12 public education in our country.
Why aren't more parents recognizing their role as their children's first teachers?
One reason is time poverty, caused by the rise in two-breadwinner families, one-parent families, and the need for family members to hold more than one job. Some recent research suggests that this may be more a perceptual time poverty, rather than real lack of family time. Nonetheless, 66 percent of employed parents say they do not have enough time for their children, according to The Families and Work Institute. Certainly, many children are left at home alone, unsupervised or watching television for hours a day.
An additional issue that has received relatively little note is the increase in poverty among traditional "Ozzie and Harriet" families. While the poverty rate among families headed by single mothers has increased nearly 50 percent during the past two decades, the increase of poverty among children from families with a father working and a mother at home has increased 136 percent, according to a new report by the National Center for Children and Poverty, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, connected to the Columbia University School of Public Health.
If the traditional family is something of an endangered species, so is Harriet's role as the primary parent-as-first-teacher. That trend raises an interesting question. Should Harriet (or Ozzie, if he stays home with the kids) be subsidized? Is their role as first-teacher valued enough to actively preserve?
That question may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. In 1997 Minnesota passed legislation to allow parents who stay home with their kids to have the option of using any state subsidies for child care for their own use as at-home parents. The other, more likely course of action is to dramatically increase the flexibility of the workplace—including flex-time, the working from home option, and part-time work—to allow working parents to spend more time with kids.
(For more detailed research, see The Children, Youth and Family Consortium Clearing House.)
Richard Louv is Senior Editor of Connect for Kids and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is also author of "101 Things You Can Do for Our Children's Future" (Anchor) and "The Web of Life" (Conari).