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An Investment in Human Capital…Are We Forgetting Something?

November 18, 2010


by Terri Lee Freeman, President, The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region

The school reform debate was front and center in this year’s mid-term elections nationally and, in particular, locally.  The prevailing school of thought is that, across the board, human capital has the most significant bearing on student outcomes.  The thinking is that investment in high- quality principals and effective teachers is what will get our public schools to move from a rating of D- to A+ over the next decade. 

While I would agree that the person standing at the front of the classroom has incredible influence on the quality of the learning experience, I can’t shake the fact that every child’s first teacher is a parent or guardian.  Should there be an investment in these “first teachers”?  Do they not merit some level of interest and focus to help leverage the investment made in classroom human capital?  It seems as though our conversation these days is very one-note – invest in personnel, provide autonomy to principals, pay for performance.  All of this is very important for our school systems to begin to see some forward movement.  And if Johnny, Tyrone and José were in school 24 hours a day, I’m sure these strategies would yield optimum output. 

But they aren’t.  Some of the most critical hours of their day are spent at home, often without adult supervision.  So where are the investment opportunities for the early morning hours, after-school and evening?  Is it worth our time to help parents be better parents and better first teachers?  My answer is unequivocably “Yes!”     

I’ve always thought it interesting how we need a license to drive, a license to fish, a certification to be a personal trainer and insurance coverage to teach a dance class, but if you birthed a child you get to take it home from the hospital with no instruction manual!  You see, the assumption is that being a parent is learned behavior that is passed down from generation to generation.  And that is an accurate assumption.  Unfortunately, some of the models of parent behavior are dysfunctional or neglectful.  And the impact of parental involvement on learning has been well documented.

A recent report, “A Call for Change,” released by the Council of the Great City Schools, identified an achievement gap that could not be attributed solely to poverty but begins to look at parenting as a contributing factor to poor academic outcomes.  The data reveals that only 12 percent of African American 4th-grade boys are proficient in reading, as compared with 38 percent of white boys, and only 12 percent of African American 8th-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.  Analysis of this report suggests that parenting styles in the early years can have an impact on these 4th– and 8th-grade academic outcomes.

In fact, research done at the University of New Hampshire in 2008 showed a direct correlation between the amount of conversation parents had with their children about school expectations and academic outcomes.  More specifically, the research found that parents in the study spent more time talking to their daughters about school work than their sons.

A recent Washington Post article chronicled the academic paths of the top two students of the 2006 class at Ballou High School.  Yes, I said Ballou High School, located in southeast Washington, DC.  The two African American friends and athletes’ paths were almost identical from middle school through college, both always finding themselves vying for who would be at the top of the class.  But what was most striking was that both were raised by single parents — fathers, that is.  And both attributed much of their success through high school and during their college years at the College at Holy Cross in Massachusetts to the expectations set for them by their fathers.

 The long and the short of it is this:  an investment in human capital should take place long before our kids reach the classroom — when a baby is in the womb. Being an informed and engaged parent is directly related to how well young people perform in school.  Parents as teachers, supporters and advocates of their children can have as much impact as investing in quality instructors.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Wayne White permalink
    November 25, 2010 1:27 pm

    I am the father of Wayne Nesbit, and this blog brought tears to my eyes you did a great job Mrs. Freeman. I would love to set down and talk to you. Happy Thanksgiving!!

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