Everyone seems to agree: School kids learn better when their parents help.  In fact, “home-school partnership” is all the buzz.

But when you navigate today’s world of standards-based, high-stakes learning, things can get tricky.  Suppose, for example, your third grader needs an extra boost in math.  You’ve seen a few workbooks at the store.  But how can you know if they fit your child’s program?  What about state standards?  Can you help?  Should you?   The last thing you want is to get in the way.

Fortunately, with a little patience and tenacity, you can get to the bottom of all this. We turned to Amy James, award-winning author of the new “Knowledge Essentials” series (Jossey Bass, 2005), which now includes grade by grade manuals for parents from kindergarten to fourth grade.  Here’s what she suggests:

Start with state standards.   Find them on the website for your state’s Department of Education.  Some states may call these “guidelines,” or “essential skills,” but the purpose is the same: to list what kids need to know and be able to do at the end of every grade.  Don’t be put off by fancy terms; if you’re confused, ask your child’s teacher to explain.  According to James, every public school must align its curriculum to standards, or risk losing accreditation.  So teachers are well aware of the state standards—and they can help you make sense of them.

  • Ask your teacher for district or grade curriculum goals for your child’s class.  Don’t worry that this might be pushy, James says.  “It’s not unreasonable.  A teacher has to produce scope and sequence for professional needs anyway.”
  • Use extra books.  But check them against the standards.  Find your child’s areas of strength and weakness, and do what good teachers do: pick the subjects in which your child needs help.  With standards and course lists in hand, you can’t miss.  

Many parents feel frustrated when they find that workbooks are published nationally, but specific standards vary by state.    James has studied standards in all fifty states, and offers this reassuring advice: focus on the big picture.   Across the country, kids in each grade are in roughly the same developmental stage, and the standards reflect that.

So do James’s manuals, which guide elementary parents through all the basics most common to each early grade.  If poring through lists of standards is making you dizzy, the “Knowledge Essential” series, already calibrated to them, is a great resource.  The books move systematically through topics and skills, and offer kid-friendly activities and exercises.   

As standards become better known, you can expect even more books to choose from.  But however you do it and whatever materials you choose, don’t hold back on helping your kid learn.  Parent participation matters and it can have a huge impact on your child’s school success.  So take a deep breath and dig in!    You can make a difference, and you will.