Last week, Nancy Romanchek had a bad dream: She was in the seventh grade, and on the first day of school, she forgot her locker combination and lost her class schedule.
But she's not among those going back to school; Romanchek, 45, of Langhorne, Pa., is jittery about the new school year for her two sons, James, 11, and Todd, 7.James, who is entering the sixth grade, is to start middle school Thursday, and Romanchek is so concerned about how he'll adjust to being in school with 14- and 15-year-olds and the influence the older children will have on him that she is having anxiety dreams, she said.
Romanchek is also worried about Todd, who she feels has not yet been helped to achieve his potential, and whether this time he'll get a teacher who can help him blossom.
As happens every September as schools around the country open, anxious parents nationwide are voicing their fears and concerns about the next school year and how well their children will do.
But now, the first wave of completed research based on a continuing, comprehensive national survey of students and their parents, teachers and school principals over a decade, reveals that parents are justified in being concerned, since a great deal of the responsibility for children's school achievement falls on them.
Parents can no longer depend on schools to look out for their child's interests, said Chandra Muller, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin, who is one of more than 150 researchers now analyzing the data from the survey, the National Education Longitudinal Study.
"Parents have to be alert about what's going on; they have to take charge of their children's education and participate in an authoritative way," she said. That does not mean dictating to a child, she said, but talking with the child and reaching agreement on family rules.
The study, sponsored by the Education Department, includes information on 26,000 students who were eighth-graders in 1988, who were randomly selected from 1,057 public and private schools. Beginning in 1988, the students in the survey took specially designed standardized tests in math, reading, science and social studies and answered a broad range of questions about their lives. One or two of each student's teachers, a school principal and a parent were also interviewed about the students. The testing and interviews were repeated when students were in the 10th and 12th grades, and the interviews continued after graduation.
"This is one of the first studies ever to include so much contextual data, with the point of view of children, teachers, principals and parents," said Jeff Owings, the chief of the Longitudinal and Household Studies Branch in the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, who is monitoring the study's data. At least one more follow-up study is planned for 1998, he said.
Muller and other researchers have compiled some of the findings:
- Students do best in school when their parents "take a managerial role in relation to the school, viewing themselves as being in charge of their child's educational career," Muller said.
- Children whose parents talk to them about school events or what they learned in class do better on achievement tests, said Muller, whose most recent paper on the work will appear as a chapter in "Transforming Schools," a book to be published this fall by Garland Press. Thirty-seven percent of the eighth-graders said their parents spoke with them about school three or more times during the school year, Muller said. The other students said their parents discussed the issue only once or twice, or not at all, she said.
- Children whose parents restrict television during the week, provide music classes outside school and offer some form of adult supervision after school also do better on achievement tests, Muller found. About 16 percent of the eighth-graders said their parents "often" limit the time they spend watching television. In addition, children who spend less than three hours a day without adult supervision have higher test scores than those who are unsupervised more often, Muller said.
- Children whose teachers expects the class to achieve at a higher than average level do better on achievement tests in math and reading, said Shelley Drazen, another researcher.
- The more homework that teachers assign, Drazen said, the higher the students' achievement level. When possible, parents should request a teacher for their child who will "expect that the child can succeed and learn more than a minimum, and one who also assigns a fair amount of homework," she said.
Because Allegra Kaiser's third-grade class had three different teachers last year at Public School 41 in Greenwich Village, Augusta Kaiser, 45, felt she had to select the best teacher for her daughter this year.
"The teacher shapes the year from Day 1," said Augusta Kaiser, who enlisted the principal's assistance in choosing a teacher she hoped will be "understanding and sensitive to my daughter's needs."
- CONVEYING THAT "LEARNING IS EXCITING" - Whatever a child's age, parents should try to defuse natural anxiety about going back to school by projecting a sense of confidence about school. Convey that "learning is exciting and school is important," said Jane Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, Colo., and the author of "Your Child's Growing Mind" (Doubleday, 1994; $12.50). Following are further suggestions.
Don't expect a painless transition. "Up to a point, a child needs to struggle a little bit to grow into the responsibilities of a new year of school," Healy said. Unless a child is having prolonged academic difficulties, she added, "it's the child's job to make school work."
Anticipate mistakes. Help children buy school supplies, but remember that "it's their job to remember to take the books and pencils to school every day," Healy said. If your daughter gets a bad mark for forgetting a notebook, that's a mistake she can learn from. It's not your job "to pick up the pieces and keep her from ever making a mistake," she added.
Impose structure. Arrange the household so that there is a regular time for homework, when the television is off, Healy said, and send your children this message: "School is so important that we are willing to bend our lives out of shape to help you do well there."