Father and daughter reading

Opinion

Education's Greatest and Most Underutilized Natural Resource

Alejandro Gac-Artigas

Parents’ love for their children is the single greatest and most underutilized natural resource in education. I see this in my work every day, but I learned it first as a son.

My dad is a playwright. In the 70s in his native Chile, he was jailed as a political prisoner. His crime? He directed a play in protest of Pinochet’s dictatorship. After years of torture, he made it out alive. He was luckier than many. Even luckier, he met my mother while living in exile in Paris.

They had two children, my sister and me. Though it meant giving up their own dreams, my parents made the decision to immigrate to the US so that we could have better educational opportunities. It’s the kind of sacrifice that only a parent would make.

Growing up in a household that was short on money but long on ambition taught me two things that remain at the heart of my work today: 1) A child’s education involves much more than just their schooling. 2) Parents’ love and advocacy for their kids is the single best predictor of children’s success. 

Summer Learning Loss: Symptoms of a Deeper Problem

After graduating from Harvard in 2009, I joined Teach For America and moved to Philly to teach first grade in Kensington, one of the city’s most impoverished barrios.

In my students, I saw myself, and in their parents, I saw my own.

Author with his parents
The author left, with his parents and his cousin.

The similarity was deeper than just our shared language and complexion. It was the timeless truth you see in the eyes of any parent: my students’ parents gazed at their children with the same unconditional love, unbridled optimism, and unwavering commitment with which my parents had gazed at me.

It wasn’t until November 28th—83 days in the school year—that my students’ reading levels finally caught up to where they had been before the summer. I asked other teachers, “What’s going on?” They shrugged, “That’s just the summer slide,” as if this were a law of nature: Grow up poor, and for every two steps you take forward during the school year, you’ll take a step back during the summer.

Then I dug into the research. It shows that across low-income communities, kids slide back three months in reading skills every summer. By high school, two-thirds of the achievement gap we see between low-income and middle-class kids stems from summer learning loss in elementary school.

What the research couldn’t answer for me, though, is why these losses are unique to low-income communities. Kids in the suburbs have every bit as long a summer break, but they don’t go backwards. What’s the difference?

Over time, I realized that summer learning loss is symptomatic of a deeper problem: Low-income parents have been left out of the process of educating their kids.

Children spend 75 percent of their waking hours outside of the classroom, yet our nation does shockingly little to capture educational value from this time for low-income kids. Too often we treat their families as liabilities, rather than assets.

How Springboard Creates Progress with Parents

Springboard Collaborative closes the literacy gap by closing the gap between home and school.

We offer summer and afterschool programs that combine daily reading instruction for pre-K through third-graders, weekly workshops training parents to teach reading at home, a rigorous coaching cycle for teachers, and an incentive structure that awards learning tools to families—from books to tablets—in proportion to their children’s reading progress.

Last summer, our scholars replaced what would have been a three-month reading loss with a 3.1-month reading gain. They returned to school in September having more than doubled their annual reading progress.

The author at a Springboard staff training.
The author at a Springboard staff training.

In schools with fewer than 20 percent of parents showing up for report card conferences, Springboard’s weekly family training workshops averaged 91 percent attendance.

 Low-income parents across the country are proving themselves enthusiastic and effective home literacy coaches, and districts are starting to take notice. District leaders first in Philadelphia and now in the Bay Area have asked Springboard to design their citywide blueprint for family engagement. We started with 40 families, and after five years we are now serving 4,000.

By training parents and teachers to collaborate, Springboard puts kids on a trajectory that closes the reading achievement gap by fourth grade. By catapulting students in low-income communities to and beyond grade-level expectations before this critical juncture, Springboard gives children the requisite literacy skills to access life opportunities and realize their full potential.

When My Son Sees a Caged Bird

In 2011, I was at a crossroads. I had just piloted Springboard Summer, and the problem finally felt solvable. On the other hand, I had a job offer at McKinsey.

I went to my father for advice, but he kept uncharacteristically quiet. Ultimately, I decided to turn down financial stability to pursue my dream.

Years later, my dad gave me a framed letter for my 25th birthday. It was a story he had written to announce my birth. In it, a Chilean man asks a wise countrywoman what he should wish for his newborn son. Eventually, he wishes: “When my son sees a caged bird, may he set it free. And may the example inspire others to follow.”

“I didn’t weigh in on your decision,” my dad explained, “because I wanted to see if my wish would come true.”

As I said—whether it’s something as tangible as fleeing a country or silent as an unspoken wish—parents’ love for their children is the single greatest and most underutilized natural resource in education.

Isn’t it time we change that?

This story is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.