THOUGH many take issue with his singling out of Hispanics, U.S. Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos is right in saying that parents could be doing more for their children's education. While the problems facing our schools today are extremely complex, there are some very basic things that parents can do to help out. Most of these begin with a long look in a mirror.
A parent who is too busy to model the behavior of an educated person for his or her children is, in deed, "too busy." A number of "too busy" parents want the schools to compensate for their own deficiencies, and they criticize the schools for failing to make up for their own failures.
The most important contribution parents can make to the schools is to be good models of educated people for their children. Parents need to set good examples in their own learning, and it doesn't need to be on a grand scale. The following simple suggestions are a start:
* Read a book. Parents can demonstrate to their children that reading is something for everyone, not just for children in school.
* Parents who attend school themselves, often at night, and whose children see them doing their homework, are often surprised at the new study patterns their children begin to follow.
* Turn off the television. America has become a society of television addicts. Television asks only for our passive reaction; all we do is listen and look. Good education calls for our active involvement: reading, writing, thinking, experimenting, doing.
Parents can help their children make judgments about what they watch and when. Parents will also want to choose programs carefully for themselves. If the parents' world is filled only with soaps, sitcoms and ballgames, how can they expect their children to be interested in geometry, Shakespeare and government?
* Use the library. Children in school will be taught to read books. In high school they will be asked to use the library to research topics and write papers. If they have seen their parents in the library, reading and writing, these activities will seem normal to them. If not, they may seem to be strange activities which are limited to school.
By their own patterns, parents will communicate powerful messages to their children. These patterns will be more influential than any teacher's assignment to use the library.
* Visit a museum or art gallery, attend a concert or a play. Parents affirm what they value by how they spend their time. If their only visit to the school is for a football game, they are telling their children that football is what they value.
Visiting the local museum or art gallery with their children can provide new and exciting opportunities for learning. Taking the kids to a concert or play can be equally rewarding. When parents create such special events with their children, they are declaring what they value, and they open up new worlds for their children.
* Talk with your children. For many of us, ideas form best from the interactions and conversations with others. They come from questions and responses, from affirming principles and being challenged about them.
Parents who wish to help their children be ready for a rapidly changing world will affirm positions and be open to challenges about them. They will ask thoughtful questions of their children and encourage their own ideas to emerge. "What do you think of . . .?" is a much more helpful parental question than "What grade did you get?" or "Why didn't you get an A?"
If we want good teachers, we have to pay salaries that will attract and retain capable graduates. Worse yet, 20 years later their earnings fall even further below those of their friends who chose to go into business, law, engineering, medicine or most other professions. And the best of teachers still require basic supplies and equipment to make their classrooms the exciting and up-to-date places both we and they want them to be.
Good education is expensive. But it is not nearly as expensive as ignorance. The investment in education must be made both by individuals and by society because both individuals and the larger society benefit from well-educated people. And both are hurt by ignorance. Those who want to improve education will support its needs for funds.
Every interested parent is able to fulfill these simple steps. They are not reserved for the well-educated or sophisticated. A parent without a high school diploma can be actively involved in pursing an education and getting one. In doing so that parent may model the role of a learning person more effectively than someone with a master's degree who spends his or her time slouched before the TV.
When parents criticize the schools for failing to make up for their own deficiencies, they do little to help either the schools or their children. When they demonstrate the behaviors of educated people, they set positive patterns. They may be very surprised by the results.
Neal Malicky is president of Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.