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rod paigeThe importance of the home and community role in student learning has for years been shouted by a small but unwavering group of researchers and reform advocates.  But even so, the home and community role in student learning is still largely viewed as a marginal appendage to school-based education reform efforts, rather than a significant aspect of overall student learning.

In an email to Jim Windham, president of the Texas Institute for Education Reform, surgeon Dr. Eric Chang-Tung expressed a view of the significance of home and community’s role in student learning which may offer a new way of viewing its significance.

He wrote, “While successful education delivery is the goal, I personally believe that the substrate (individual student) is more of a problem than the delivery platform (teacher). I believe that a successful education requires both controlling the teaching platform but also addressing the substrate. There needs to be as much effort spent on the student substrate and environment as the teaching platform. This is missing from the current equation.”

While the term “substrate” is seldom found in education jargon, it is a fixture in the lexis of biochemistry, materials science and engineering, biology, chemistry, geology and other scientific fields. A search for definitions produces phrases such as “the surface or material on or from which an organism lives, grows, or obtains its nourishment,” or “the earthly material in which an organism lives, or the surface or medium on which an organism grows or is attached.”

From a biological point of view, we can easily see the relevance of the term. For instance, it is widely understood that the quality of plants grown in one’s garden is significantly affected by the quality of the garden’s soil — the plant’s substrate. A gardener knows well that plants grown in a poor environment with inadequate moisture, a deficiency of proper nutrients, and poorly cultivated soil, will not achieve the quality of production desired, no matter how carefully the gardener tends to the plants themselves.

For this reason, the gardener not only nurtures the plants by providing proper pruning, appropriate spacing, removal of weeds, and protection from pests, but also goes to great lengths to improve the soil in which the plants live, grow or obtain their nourishment. In other words, the gardener cares both for the plants and their substrate.

Similarly, providing a high quality education for students requires not only effective schools, great teaching and parental choice, but also attention to the substrate in which students live and grow and from which they obtain their nourishment. Achieving this nation’s public school education goals will require attention to students’ school environment, but to their home and community environments as well.

The education literature is brimming with research and expert opinions supporting the concept that students’ home and community play a major role in their academic learning. Research confirms that students are far more likely to be successful in school when their parents constantly express and exhibit the importance of education; check homework; have regular contact with teachers and school administration; attend school events; and have regular discussions with their children about school programs, activities and classes.

Students who are fortunate enough to live in a home and community environment that consistently supports their educational learning have a heightened potential for academic success because they are rooted in good soil. It is time to make a much more concerted effort to ensure that all children have the high-quality substrate they need to be successful.

Rod Paige served as U.S. secretary of education from 2001 through 2005.

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