This Sunday marks the anniversary of a significant event in the history of education: the founding of the PTA. On Feb. 17, 1897, a businesswoman named Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who was the mother of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, formed an association called the National Congress of Mothers, whose goal was to help parents improve the health, safety, welfare and education of children throughout the country. In 1924, this group changed its name to the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and over the past 94 years it has been responsible for the passage of child-labor and school-attendance laws, the creation of school-lunch programs and the funding for many school and library purchases.

In honor of this anniversary, Congress has designated the week of Feb. 17-23 as National Parents and Teachers Association Week, and so this may be an especially good time for all of us who are concerned about the state of public education to focus our attention on the role that parents do, and can, play in their children's learning.The call for increased parent involvement in education has become almost a cliche for teachers, administrators, legislators and school reformers over the past few years because the phrase can mean so many different things to different people. But there are some things about "parent involvement" that the research shows us are indisputable.

Families and homes have more influence on a child's success in school than do the schools themselves. And this statement is true for all families and for all homes, because it is not what the family IS (number of parents, number of children, race) or what the family HAS (income, education) that makes the difference. Rather, it is what the family DOES to encourage learning that leads to its children's academic success.

Parents need not be scholars themselves in order to help their children learn. In fact, parents - and teachers - who appear to know ALL the answers tend to stifle a child's curiosity and discourage that child from learning how to learn. How much better it would be for children to hear their parents and teachers reply on occasion: "I don't know; let's find out."

The National PTA has published a book that contains many suggestions about what parents can do to help their children succeed in school. "The National PTA Talks to Parents: How to Get the Best Education for Your Child" is published by Doubleday and can be purchased or ordered through local bookstores for $8.95 (paperbound).

We all should remember, though, that the goal of parent involvement, and the goal of these Family Learning columns as well, is not just the accumulating of facts in our children's heads or the mere increasing of their grade-point averages. Our concern should be focused less upon what our children will do in life and more upon who they will be.

As the British writer John Ruskin observed more than a century ago: "Education does not mean teaching the youth the shapes of letters and the tricks of numbers, and then leaving them to turn their arithmetic to robbery, and their literature to lust. It means, on the contrary, training them into the perfect exercise and kingly continence of their bodies and souls. It is a painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, by warning, by precept, and by praise, but above all - by example."