Dorothy Rich

is founder of the Home and School Institute, MegaSkills Education Center in Washington

As the new year begins, all manner of lists get made. One of them, year after year, is the list of the most-needed top educational reforms. The usual suspects get rounded up: charter schools, more technology, vouchers, choice, new curricula, new tests, merit pay and so on.

There is one major educational reform that somehow gets omitted from the list - and it's the top educational reform of them all - the family.

A just-issued report, "The Family: American's Smallest School" from the Educational Testing Service, finds that development and cognitive gaps begin well before children go to school and persist when children go through school. While schools are doing their jobs, the differences that children bring with them from home continue.

Yet school policymakers keep up the drumbeat, saying that what needs to be changed in the school itself. It is not as if schools do not need improvement. But really, no matter what we do at school, if we don't focus on the home, then what is done at school is almost like changing the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I do not believe these findings about the importance of the home and family let the schools off the hook. Instead, they point to the extraordinary educational role and responsibilities of all families with children in their early years.

It is within the reach, within the power, of all families to make an extraordinary difference in their children's education - and their lives. It's true that families are under great stress today, and many parents are exhausted and unsure about how to help their children . . . or even if it matters.

It matters more than we may even know. It's time for resolutions: Let me propose just three that can make a major difference for children's achievement. They take place at home, in spare moments, and don't cost money. Meeting children's needs for sleep, food and love come first.

But, right along with them are my top three basic family education resolutions for the new year:

Look around you to find real-life education experiences: Extend and expand your child's curiosity. Ask questions like: What is the shape of that cloud? And keep going.

Listen and talk with your children about what you see and find together. Conversation and language-building are keys to school and life success. Talk about the time it takes water to boil . . . and keep going.

Provide for sensible routine and structure in your day. When do we read books? How long do we watch TV or use the computer? I was heartened to read that Bill Gates, the computer billionaire, limits his children's computer use to 45 minutes on school days and one hour on weekends. Gates is telling parents that what happens at home is important and that sitting in front of the computer for too long is not a good idea.

When I ask teachers about educational issues that come from home, they list: children's immaturity, need for a lot of attention, inability to concentrate, lack of motivation and respect for educators, impulsivity, lack of self-worth, and even poor health. It's tempting to say that teachers are making excuses for not being able to work effectively with these children - but teachers start where children are. Everyone makes progress when children come to school with these home basics for learning the school basics.

I have spent many decades discovering the secrets of really good education. The idea is to find education wherever you are.

The bottom line for this list of resolutions is that we can change education; we can change the world; and we do it, within our reach, in our own homes.