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Education's key resource: parents

In our country, the right to a public education is guaranteed to all students. Strong relationships must be forged between families and schools to ensure the success of learning for all. These relationships do not occur by accident but are intentional. There is a great responsibility on schools to reach out to parents, welcome them and invite them to share critical information and opinions through meaningful discussion. There is also a great responsibility on parents to become fully engaged in their child's learning.

For parents of very young children, their first formal venture into the education system might occur when choosing a child care center. When they see bright, shiny colors, carpeting and new computers, they often feel the center must be a positive one for their child. What they rarely explore are the credentials of the teachers, the stability of the staff, and the quality of the curriculum being offered. New efforts are underway by some states to rate these early childhood facilities on those important components. Discerning parents must use this information to make a fully informed decision for the best placement for the child.

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From birth through age 18, we think that children spend the majority of their time in school. But the actual statistics are quite staggering. Allowing for the recommended average of nine hours of sleep per night for ages 5 to17 and allowing an average of 12 hours per day for birth to 4, most students spend 18.8 percent or more of their "awake" hours in school over a year. The remaining time is spent on other pursuits.

Obviously, how parents use time away from school is important in a child's development. At home, parents must be continuously emphasizing the importance of learning to their child's future and the value of it. This means asking children what they are doing in school, examining their work, extending the topics being discussed in school and serving as a continuing teacher, although in a different format. Parents have long been advised to expose children to reading materials and to read with them, or to them. But, many parents don't know the importance of conversing with their children; talking, interacting, including children in problem-solving and discussions about day-to-day decisions made in the family. Outside of the home, parents also have the responsibility to provide their children with time to explore hobbies, sports and other talents and interests. How fortunate we are that, in Maryland, parents have access to world class libraries and museums.

In addition, parents need to become sophisticated advocates and consumers of education. A nationwide Gallup poll found that fewer than a third of school superintendents surveyed believe that parents in their districts have a solid understanding of their school's academic model and curriculum. National surveys tell us that even when schools are performing very poorly, parents rate their child's school as satisfactory. Parents are often blinded to the reality of the effectiveness of their school. Parents need to build strong, meaningful relationships with the personnel in the schools their children attend. They should visit classrooms when appropriate, and keep in touch with the teachers on a regular basis. They should review the student's work and do their best to ensure the student's educational needs are being met. When there are new academic standards set, or new assessments administered, parents need to understand the purpose and the quality of those standards and assessments. They should not be satisfied to rely on the newest social media discussion, which can be superficial, flawed or politicalized. They should learn the perspectives of the administration and teachers in their child's school instead.

We have heard incredible stories of parents, grandparents and other guardians, some with limited education themselves, who have supported and inspired their school-aged charges to work hard, persevere and excel academically. They had high expectations for the students and made those expectations clear. Those students have gone on to be incredibly successful members of society, some of them despite difficult challenges and impossible odds. These are the most palpable examples of the positive influence parents can have on student success — and the responsibility they have in determining the child's future. What kind of country would we have if every student had a similar advocate?

Nancy S. Grasmick is a presidential scholar at Towson University and a former Maryland superintendent of schools. Her email is ngrasmick@towson.edu.

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