August 30, 2008

Family Must Be a Part of the Solution in Closing the Achievement Gap

By Darling, Sharon

As American students began a new school year, the debate continued about how to close the achievement gap and what effect the summer break has on learning. Some believe creating more school programs that separate low-income children from their parents (having school year-round) will solve many of the problems these students have, but studies show this approach is neither a short- term nor a longterm remedy. Paul von Hippel (2007), author of an Ohio State study released recently and research statistician in sociology, found students in year-round schools do not learn more than their peers in traditional nine-month schools. Students in year- round schools learn more during the summer, when others are on vacation, but they seem to learn less than other children during the rest of the year. The effective and lasting solution is promoting intergenerational learning that builds a partnership between parents and educators. For the past twenty years, I have been carrying in my briefcase a study by noted economist Andrew Sum and urban poverty expert Gordon Berlin. In their 1988 study, "Toward a More Perfect Union: Basic Skills, Poor Families and our Economic Future," they outlined two underlying causes for the achievement gap-summer vacation and a mother's education. In their study, which included findings from other research, they found that

[w]hen school is in session, advantaged and disadvantaged children learn at about the same rate. But during the summer months when schools are closed, home and peer influences reassert themselves. At the end of the summer, advantaged children actually score higher on a standardized test than they did when the summer started while disadvantaged children fall further behind. (38)

In addition, Sum and Taggart (as ctd. in Berlin and Sum 1988, 36) reported "that an extra grade attainment for the mother . . . was associated with an extra half grade of achievement for her children." Even if she returned to school later in life, a mother's education gains resulted in measurable academic improvements for her children. Berlin and Sum concluded,

Because of this intergenerational effect of the parent's education on the child's, it is unlikely that we will be able to make a major difference for the child unless we place equal priority on education and academic remediation for the parent. (36)

More than twenty years have passed since "Toward a More Perfect Union" was written. And yet, the problems still exist. A new approach is needed-one that does not write off an entire generation and that recognizes learning must occur outside the classroom as well as within. We need practical solutions. There are promising indicators on family literacy program results worthy of a closer look.

Family Literacy Programs Create Success

A longstanding example of the effectiveness of family literacy is the Family and Child Education program, a partnership between the National Center for Family Literacy and the Bureau of Indian Education that has resulted in more than nine hundred Native Americans earning their high school diploma or GED (Yarnell, Lambson, and Pfannenstiel 2007) and a 50 percent decline in the need for special education services for children (Pfannenstiel, Yarnell, Seltzer 2006).

Based on a review of children's test scores in the Family and Child Education program from spring to fall, the majority did not decline during the summertime. Many scores rose after teachers diligently trained parents in effective reading strategies to use with their children. If these results can be achieved for families whose poverty rates are three times the national average, whose unemployment rates reach up to 80 percent, and whose dropout and suicide rates are higher than any other demographic, think of what can be accomplished in other settings.

Another example is a project the National Center for Family Literacy designed for Hispanic and other immigrant families called the Toyota Family Literacy Program (National Center for Family Literacy 2003-2006), which has successfully integrated those families into the education system. New research shows adult literacy levels among participants increased 21 percent, parental visits to schools rose 14.3 percent, and teachers rated participating children higher than their peers in nine categories, including overall achievement (National Center for Family Literacy).

Research demonstrates parental involvement has a positive impact on children's reading acquisition, regardless of their families' socioeconomic status. Some parents just need a few tools to help them maximize their children's education. Others, who struggle with literacy problems of their own, need more intensive services. It is time to stop bemoaning literacy problems and start treating their cause-with an intergenerational approach to learning.


Berlin, G., and A. Sum. 1988. Towards a more perfect union: Basic skills, poor families, and our economic future. [Occasional Paper No. 3]. Ford Foundation Project on Social Welfare and the American Future. New York: Ford Foundation. Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED297037.

National Center for Family Literacy. 2003-2006. Toyota family literacy program reports and surveys. Unpublished raw data.

Pfannenstiel, J., V. Yarnell, and D. Seltzer. 2006. Family and child education program (FACE): Impact study report. Overland Park, KS: Research and Training Associates.

von Hippel, P. 2007, August. What happens to summer learning in a year-round school? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York. http:// nonblind.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008).

Yarnell, V., T. Lambson, and J. Pfannenstiel. 2007. Executive summary: BIA family and child education program: 2006 study. Overland Park, KS: Research and Training Associates.

Sharon Darling, MA, is president and founder of the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville, KY, which has raised more than $100 million for literacy efforts since its founding in 1989. Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Jul/Aug 2008

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