09/17/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

It Takes a Family to Raise Education Achievements

The key to fixing our broken educational system may live in your extra room or next door --grandparents.

As we celebrate Grandparents Day, to us it's no coincidence that it's the same time as the beginning of the school year. Grandparents are here to help us get the American education system back on track.

As more people retire and enter a new stage in life, they will have more time to devote to their families and communities. So here's an idea -- encourage grandparents to use that extra time to volunteer in schools and show young people that older people really do care about them, their education and their future.

That's what the older residents of a small town in Kansas decided to do. They wanted to encourage young people to love learning. Now, every Monday morning a group of older volunteers stand on the steps of the local grade school and greet students as they arrive. "Welcome! You're going to have a great day. Wonderful to see you back at school!" The volunteers report that often their messages are the first positive words of encouragement the children hear that day. According to the school administrators, the kids enjoy the attention and seem to behave better because of it. When they finish greeting all the children, the volunteers go into the cafeteria for coffee and conversation before continuing on with their day. So simple, so easy, so significant.

In another example, Westchester County New York's SMART (Students & Mature Adults Read Together) and Reading Buddies pair hundreds of older volunteer tutors with children and teens to help improve their reading and writing skills while enriching the lives of the elders. SMART started in 1997 and now operates in more than 20 schools. Over 90 percent of participating students saw significant increases in reading scores. In addition to achieving higher scores, a report issued by Yonkers Public Schools states the SMART students reported more positive attitudes towards reading.

Many other national opportunities exist to get involved in our schools. There are national programs, such as Senior Corps and AARP's Experience Corps, and dozens if not hundreds of other local programs to mentor or tutor students. There's no doubt that America can't waste such a precious resource -- the experience, wisdom and caring of grandparents and other older adults.

Our education system has been blatantly failing our young people for a long time now. And despite new standards, new approaches, and new resolve, the problem isn't going away. In fact, it's getting worse.

Each year, thousands of young people "graduate" from high school clutching diplomas that have absolutely no value. That's because, despite receiving passing grades, many of these young people have never learned to master the basics of the 3 Rs. In fact, too many of these "graduates" can't even read the words printed on their diplomas.

Instead of preparing these young people to successfully compete in life, our system rewards them for simply coming to class, whether or not they actually learn anything. After being passed from one grade to the next, they enter the real world unprepared and uneducated.

Last March, New York City media reported that, according to city officials, nearly 80 percent of city public-school graduates who had arrived at the City University of New York's two-year colleges had to take remedial classes in reading, writing, and math because they hadn't mastered those basics.

This past August, the Virginia Department of Education also noted a discouraging downward trend. It reported that reading scores for its Standards of Learning (SOL) test had dropped by double digits. The percentage of students passing the grade-level reading test in 2013 was 75 percent, 14 percentage points lower than the year before.

We believe that quality education is everyone's business. At the same time, we believe that empowering and supporting families must be at the heart of any solution to our current education dilemma. Families must drive the change, and our elders -- grandparents, great aunts and uncles -- should lead the way. We say this as both a grandfather and a great aunt.

Fortunately, the boomer generation is a rich, sustainable source of potential volunteers and can raise a strong voice on behalf of our youth. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, about one-fourth of adults 55 and older (18.7 million) now volunteer. That's not enough.

If you prefer to raise your voice on your own time, check out Generations United's Seniors4Kids a program that mobilizes older adults as advocates for investments in children and youth. In New York, seniors were an important voice in securing statewide support for QUALITYstarsNY and in Kentucky for protecting key state investments in early education.

If you're willing, you can find an opportunity to get involved. As we celebrate Grandparents Day let's work together to fix the problem now so our children and their children can succeed in an increasingly competitive world. Let's let them know we have their backs.

Juan Williams is a journalist, political analyst and author. He also serves as a strategic advisor to Generations United.