Agenda involves parents in plan

A new, largely overlooked part of the Obama administration's education agenda is its pitch to get more parents involved with their children's schooling.

The parenting initiative, announced in May, hasn't received the same attention as the president's "Race to the Top" program, which offers states more money to improve their school standards. But like "Race to the Top," the administration wants to increase the amount of money states would receive for "parental engagement" programs. States would award that money to local districts to help get parents to engage their children academically.

This is basically a good idea, with one large caveat.

Let's deal first with why going after parents make sense.

A significant body of research shows students whose parents pay serious attention to their classwork end up with larger horizons than peers whose parents don't open the world to them. Students with engaged parents learn from an early age how a mastery of math or facility with a foreign language can lead them to bountiful fields of study.

There's also a societal benefit to parents widening horizons for their children. Their offspring will imagine the new frontiers of our economy and take us there.

Parental involvement matters at the neighborhood level, too.

By reading to young children each day, getting each child ready for school every morning and staying on top of their assignments, especially in middle school and high school, parents increase their children's chances of attending college or snagging a good job.

What's more, active parents will start pressing for quality teachers and demanding courses. That's certainly been part of the pattern in Dallas' more stable northern neighborhoods.

But here's the worry.

Our tax dollars could get burned up like dry timber if states don't approach each district's proposal with a healthy skepticism. Too many parental engagement programs sound good on paper but ultimately make little difference. They are like the kid who gets to the major leagues way too early. They might look the part but never perform.

Heather Weiss, who directs the Family Research Project at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, said during a recent telephone interview that four decades of research show us that "what families do is one of the strongest predictors of a child's success."

But, she emphasized, "the difficulty is how to translate that understanding into interventions that move the needle."

In announcing the administration's parenting initiative, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he wants to give grants to programs that "support, incentivize and help expand district-level, evidence-based parental involvement practices."

That's a heap of bureaucratic lingo, but he's on the mark to insist on "evidence-based." Districts could easily present fancy-looking initiatives that never come close to moving the needle.

But the ones that include the right fundamentals are part of what Weiss calls the new frontier in education.

Successful parenting programs matter to the student, a neighborhood and eventually the larger society.

Contact McKenzie at wmckenzie@dallasnews.com.