Plato said, "The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life." With so much at stake, it's no wonder that helping students succeed is a daunting task for all involved. Just in time for a new school year, several new books offer parents ideas for cultivating a prosperous environment that yields better results for their children.

School reform In Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need UCLA professor William Ouchi advocates bold, unconventional methods for turning around low-performing schools. Wondering, for example, how much your school district really spends on its students? Ouchi proposes attending a school board meeting to ask board members in public.

An intensive study of the management systems in six metropolitan areas, Making Schools Work examines an array of public and private schools. Through interviews with superintendents, principals and teachers, Ouchi gleans a complete picture of what works. He finds that the keys are an entrepreneurial spirit and parents who arm themselves with information.

"Once the principal and teachers in your school realize that you know what questions to ask . . . they'll come up with answers for you," Ouchi writes. "If you don't ask, though, they're likely to continue business as usual, with the same results as before." Ouchi concludes that bureaucratic, top-heavy school districts collapse under their own weight, while districts that allow all parties to participate in decision-making thrive.

Arriving on the heels of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a stringent federal education law that demands academic improvement, Making Schools Work is a pragmatic, meticulously researched and engaging glimpse at what happens and what should happen behind schoolhouse doors.

Conference time Harvard University professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot offers a fascinating meditation on the dynamics of an age-old school tradition, the parent-teacher conference, in The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other (Random House, $24.95, 288 pages, ISBN 037550527X).

The author contends that adults coming together to discuss a child's progress are accompanied by what she calls their own "autobiographical scripts." In other words, their exchanges are colored by their own experiences as students.

As a child in a rural New York school district, Lawrence-Lightfoot's teacher informed her crushed parents that she might not be college material. Years later, Lawrence-Lightfoot's mother still wished she had advocated harder on her child's behalf.

The Essential Conversation instructs parents and teachers alike how to do just that. At the start of most conferences, parents are terrified of negative feedback about their children, and teachers worry that they'll hit a nerve, causing parents to withdraw from the discussion. Instead of conversations that yield solutions, conferences can devolve into rigid, polite exchanges that are, ultimately, a waste of time.

"[We must] modify our portrayal of parent-teacher meetings as civilized, ritualized encounters devoid of passion and heat, and replace it with a much more realistic picture that admits the threats, the vulnerabilities, the wounds," says Lawrence-Lightfoot.

Lawrence-Lightfoot writes with great precision and compassion about this crucial but often-minimized component of the school experience. She offers specific and constructive ideas on how to transform an anxious, sometimes awkward interaction into the essential conversation that it should be.

Empowering parents Any parent who has ever done a slow burn trying to understand what really goes on in the classroom would do well to pick up A+ Teachers: How to Empower Your Child's Teacher, and Your Child, to Excellence (Andrews McMeel, $10.95, 224 pages, ISBN 0740735233). Author Erika Shearin Karres offers a straightforward manual that instructs parents on specific questions to ask that can contribute meaningfully to their child's education.

A+ Teachers is particularly enlightening when Shearin Karres delves into the myriad overlooked factors that affect a learning environment. She contends that teachers' personalities and attitudes, such as whether they treat their students with respect, can have an enormous impact on student progress.

"If kids notice constant grouchiness and feel dissed, they can't learn," she writes.

A former teacher, Shearin Karres is a frequent lecturer on education issues. Her breezy, tell-it-like-it-is prose makes reading A+ Teachers feel a lot like getting advice from a feisty friend. This book will be a welcome guide for parents trying to navigate the confusing maze of lesson plans, discipline and testing. Amy Scribner writes from Washington, D.C.

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