The Educational Crisis at Home

By Bennett, Barry | The Humanist, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Educational Crisis at Home


Bennett, Barry, The Humanist


Buried near the end of A Nation at Risk, the 1983 jeremiad against the schools that launched our national obsession with educational reform, is a little noticed "Word to Parents":

   As surely as you are your child's first and most influential teacher, your
   child's ideas about education and its significance begin with you. You must
   be a living example of what you expect your children to honor and to
   emulate. Moreover, you bear a responsibility to participate actively in
   your child's education.... Above all, exhibit a commitment to continued
   learning in your own life.

Children spend more than 90 percent of the time between birth and age eighteen outside of school. Nevertheless, the educational reform movement has paid little heed to the dominant influence of the home. Instead we have ceaselessly reformed the educational system to little effect: charter schools, curriculum reform, higher standards, teacher certification--although all can claim sporadic successes, none has had a significant effect on overall student achievement.

After almost two decades of reform, only one-third of students are proficient readers, only one-fifth are proficient in math, while few have mastered the basic premises of American history and culture. Between 1963 and 1976, verbal scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) fell by fifty points and have yet to recover. Every attempt at improving the country's educational performance has failed.

Astonishingly, the response to this failure is yet more reform. Today's watchword is accountability: the educational establishment must be accountable to legislatures, to business, and, above all, to parents. Standardized testing is hailed as a means by which parents can judge the quality of their children's education, while "school choice" allows parents to abandon schools that do not perform. Yet two decades of failed reforms--and a historical record that is little better than today's--should give us pause. If so many reform efforts fail, something beyond the schoolhouse must be impeding them.

Parents are the most influential actors in their children's lives. An array of research across many disciplines demonstrates that children's interactions with their parents during the first few years, before they even enter school, largely determine their language ability, their interest in learning--even the structure of their brains. Nevertheless, the only people from whom we do not demand accountability are parents.

Children's earliest experiences are crucial to their later success. Once thought to be a static entity shaped only by genes, the brain is now known to develop through a child's interactions with the environment. Synapses, the crucial connections between brain cells that allow the transmission of nerve impulses between cells, are formed as a child's senses are stimulated--as parents talk to, read to, or play with the child. A neglected child may never develop the brain "wiring" necessary to cognitive health.

Children's emotional health, just as crucial to academic success, is also shaped during the first few years. According to a 1992 study by the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, success in school depends on emotional characteristics, such as curiosity and self-control, that are largely formed, or not formed, by age three. Children will develop these characteristics if their parents are attentive--if they offer comfort to their children, are patient with them, and engage them in imaginative play. Introducing the report, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton wrote that, by the time a child enters school, his or her family has "already prepared the child for success or failure."

An extended study of preschoolers by the Harvard Preschool Project, published in 1979 as The Origins of Human Competence, concludes that a "first-rate educational experience during the first three years," including substantial amounts of verbal interaction, is essential to the development of cognitive and social abilities. …

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