03/01/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

When It Comes to Education, Parents Matter

Much has been written lately about the achievement gap, which is the difference in school performance between one group of students and another, be that based on gender, race or socioeconomic status. The gap can be measured in a variety of ways, including standardized test scores, dropout rates and college-enrollment and completion rates.

The most recent reference to the achievement gap was in a series of recently-released reports indicating that while the educational achievement gap between black and white students has measurably decreased over the last few decades, it has during the same time increased between rich and poor students. In other words, how a child performs in school seems to be less correlated to skin color, and more correlated to the income of the family into which he or she is born. Sounds like a "good news/bad news" story to me, with the bad being really bad. I say that because I have always thought of the American education system as the great leveler, in that it didn't matter what a student's household income was once they walked through the schoolhouse doors on the first day of kindergarten. From that point on, every child had a shot at creating a decent and productive life for him or herself, if only they applied themselves. This was certainly true for my family. My father grew up in the Great Depression, his father passed away suddenly when my dad was only eight years old, leaving my grandmother with five small children to care for. They struggled, but all of them made it through school and went on to very successful careers in a variety of fields. That was likely due to a number of things, including my grandmother's ingenuity, strong work ethic, and faith in God, but I have to believe the American education system was central to this outcome as well.

So why are things heading in the right direction in terms of race and the achievement gap, but in the wrong direction in terms of family income? Reading various commentaries about the reports, many theories abound, but the one that struck me as most valid was from a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago. According to The New York Times, "Heckman...argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child's cognitive ability and personality...."

I agree, and reading this reminded me of a different but related report which came out last November, published by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which according to its website, is "an international study which began in the year 2000. It aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries/economies." The United States is one of the 70 countries participating.

In its November report, PISA's main findings were that students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school showed markedly higher scores at age 15 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all, and this is regardless of the family's socio-economic background. (emphasis mine) Further down in the report, it is stated, "The good news coming from analyses of PISA data is that it does not require a PhD or unlimited hours for parents to make a difference. In fact, many child-parent activities that are associated with better reading performance among students involve relatively little time and no specialized knowledge. What these activities do demand, though, is genuine interest and active engagement."

This tells me that while we are and should be spending a great deal of time, money and energy figuring out how to improve American schools and hire great teachers, a major part of the problem is not being addressed, i.e. asking that parents step up to the plate and do their part in their child's education. In fact, more than one veteran teacher has told me that there is a definite trend of requiring schools to take on things that were traditionally the responsibility of the family. It was funny but sad when one teacher stated, "I feel like the next thing we will be asked to do is formally adopt each student..."

The report's last paragraph concludes, "The score point difference in reading that is associated with parental involvement is largest when parents read a book with their child, when they talk about things they have done during the day, and when they tell stories to their children." If more parents do that, and put limits on access to X-Box, Wii, television, and Facebook, I am certain that the educational achievement gap as it pertains to socioeconomics will start heading in the right direction, and we will have the best of all worlds: success in school won't be related to your skin color, and it won't be related to household income. It will be related to how much work a student puts in, and to how much their parents care about them to do the same.