Parents as Partners
Ask educators who has the most influence in determining whether a child succeeds academically, and they will almost always answer "parents."
Schoolpeople understand that parents are their children's first and primary teachers, that they are the only ones who follow a child's progress from year to year and during nonschool hours.
"Trying to educate children without the involvement of their family is like trying to play a basketball game without all of the players on the court," argues Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a staunch advocate of family-school collaboration.
But while educators acknowledge parents' importance in theory, they fall short of acting on their beliefs in practice. True, there are schools here and there that reach out to parents and treat them as equal partners in the education of their children.
But far more schools bar parents from observing classes, schedule meetings during the day when working parents cannot attend, and in countless other ways send the message that parents are unimportant and unwelcome.
"Surprisingly large numbers of parents are excluded from even the most common communications with schools," notes Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Effective Middle Schools Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Surveys she has conducted of teachers, principals, parents, and students in 600 Maryland elementary schools found that more than a third of parents had no conference with a teacher during the school year. About 60 percent had never talked with a teacher by phone. And most had never been involved in deep or frequent discussions with teachers about their children's progress.
As the two major forces entrusted with educating and socializing children in society, parents and teachers should be natural allies. But far too often, they find themselves on opposite sides of an exceedingly high fence.
Some of the blame rests with educators, who fear parents' looking over their shoulders or interfering in their classrooms.
But part of the fault also lies with parents. According to the 1987 Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher, a majority of both parents and teachers agreed that many or most parents leave their children alone too much after school, fail to discipline them, fail to motivate them to learn, take too little interest in their children's education in general, and neglect to see that their children's homework gets done.
It is a "great irony," writes Sara Lawrence Lightfoot in her now-classic study, Worlds Apart: Relationships Between Families and Schools, that "families and schools are engaged in a complementary sociocultural task and yet they find themselves in great conflict with one another."
A Distrust That Remains'Smoldering and Silent'
Until recently, lack of attention to the role of families in education has amounted to a "parent gap" in school reform, according to Dorothy Rich, founder of the Home and School Institute Inc.
A Nation at Risk, the most famous of the reform reports, addressed parents only in a postscript: "As surely as you are your children's most important teachers, your children's ideas about education and its significance begin with you."
The document urged parents to participate actively in their children's schooling, but remained silent about what schools should do to help.
Now, that is changing.
"People are recognizing that the notion the school can be hermetically sealed and can do it without the parents is an illusion," says Henry M. Levin, professor of education and economics at Stanford University.
Measured by rhetoric, at least, parent involvement has never fared better.
In his State of the Union Message in January, for example, President Bush said: "We've got to take the time after a busy day to sit down and read with our kids, help them with their homework, pass along the values we learned as children. And that's how we sustain the6'state of the union."'
Nearly every major report on schooling released in the past year has emphasized the role of parents in making education work.
"Families and middle-grade schools must be allied through trust and respect if young adolescents are to succeed in school," argues Turning Points, the 1989 report of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.
"If our nation is to progress toward a goal of a 100 percent graduation rate by the year 2000," states the Council of Chief State School Officers in a report released last month, "we must take every possible step to strengthen the resources of the family and connect them to the schools."
Beyond the Rhetoric
Scattered across the country are places where action is following words, where pieces of the home-school relationship are being nurtured and developed.
States such as Arkansas and Missouri have created programs to help parents prepare youngsters for learning before they reach school age. Others, including South Carolina and California, have adopted policies for reaching out to parents once their children begin school.
A few states, such as Connecticut and New York, are experimenting with efforts to place comprehensive services for families within school buildings.
Similar changes can be found at the school and district levels. The most radical experiment is in Chicago. There, a parent-led council at each school has the power to hire and fire principals, develop a school-improvement plan, and eventually take control of much of the school's budget.
Numerous states and districts have also passed or are considering proposals that would give parents a choice about which school their child attends--one of the most direct ways for parents to influence their children's education, advocates argue.
And a few states, including Hawaii and Colorado, are trying to set an example for the business community by giving their employees paid time off to attend parent-teacher conferences and other school events.
Nonetheless, most parent-involvement efforts remain fragmented, narrow in scope, and sporadically funded.
Experts say the relationships between most schools and parents range from polite but not intimate to wary and distrusting.
The sheer size of many schools and districts makes it difficult for educators to know families individually.
Lay school boards--whose members are not necessarily parents--make many of the central decisions about learning. And a burgeoning bureaucracy has left both parents and teachers feeling isolated and bewildered.
Middle-class parents--and those who send their children to religious or private schools--have probably suffered least from such dislocations. But in urban areas, where a growing proportion of poor and minority parents confront a predominantly white, well-educated teaching force, the relationship has become frayed indeed.
Part of the antagonism may be a natural byproduct of the different roles that parents and teachers play in children's lives.
Parents want what is best for their children, Ms. Lightfoot notes, while teachers search for standards of "fair that apply to all the youngsters in their classroom.
When parents sense that the particular needs of their children are being slighted, it can even lead to the kinds of adversarial advocacy that have characterized litigation over special education during the 1970's and 80's.
As parents and teachers argue about who should control a child's life in school, Ms. Lightfoot contends, conflict is inevitable.
"The ambiguous, gray areas of authority and responsibility between parents and teachers exacerbate the distrust between them," Ms. Lightfoot writes. "The distrust is further complicated by the fact that it is rarely articulated, but usually remains smoldering and silent."
An 'Organically Related' Whole
Yet, the ties between parents and teachers have not always been so tenuous.
In 19th-century rural America, children acquired much of their moral, vocational, and academic learning from families and neighbors. Schools supplied only part of the education that a community provided.
"A child growing up in such a community," writes David B. Tyack in The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, "could see work-family-religion-recreation-school as an organically related system of human relationships."
Schools in such environments were often the focus of people's lives outside the home. "Most rural patrons had little doubt that the school was theirs to control," Mr. Tyack notes, "and not the property of the professional educator."
Indeed, teachers were often kith and kin to those they taught, or boarded in the homes of area families.
Such symbiotic relationships rarely characterized the connections of most black families to the schools, or the experience of other ethnic minorities. But they would persist in many rural areas until after World War II, when consolidation would speed the demise of the one-room schoolhouse.
By the beginning of the 1890's, however, a far different model was developing in large urban districts. There, reformers asserted that industrialization and a growing immigrant population required a new kind of schooling: one that was more standardized, more bureaucratic, and run by professionals.
As the organization of urban schools shifted, the locus of power moved with it: from the control of laymen--including parents--to that of professional educators.
"With the professionalization of teaching, and particularly of administration, in the 1920's, 30's, and 40's, the feeling developed that parents should be held at arm's length from the schools," says Lawrence A. Cremin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, "and that professionals should make the decisions about what education is best."
By the 1950's, Ms. Rich says, such attitudes had led to a widely accepted assumption that the "school could do it all," that parents and other community forces were no longer needed to educate students.
The 1960's brought a revival of parental advocacy both inside the system--through such federally mandated programs as Title I compensatory education--and outside, as in the "community control" movement.
But the civil-rights conflicts of the 60's also served to increase the distance between many schools and their surrounding communities.
In more recent years, efforts to shift key decisions about schooling to the state and district levels--and away from individual schoolhouses--have at6
tenuated that relationship still further.
The American Family:An 'Imperiled' Institution
Today, unprecedented stresses on the family and upheavals in the family structure itself are providing an impetus for reconsidering the ties between schools and communities.
"The longer it goes, the more I'm beginning to suspect that--in America today--the family is a much more imperiled institution than the school," said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in a speech to the National Governors' Association last month.
The rapidly changing dynamics of American families are having reverberations throughout society. But nowhere have those changes hit harder than in the public school system, which is itself undergoing major upheavals.
As James S. Coleman, professor of education and sociology at the University of Chicago, phrases it: "School as we conceive of it implies family as we conceive of it. Yet, family as we conceive of it no longer corresponds to family as it now exists."
Sixty percent of today's students live in families where both parents--or the only parent--work. By 1995, two-thirds of all preschool children, and four out of five school-age youngsters, will have mothers in the labor force.
Demographers predict that half of all first marriages today will end in divorce. Already, two out of five children under age 18 live in stepfamilies or with a single parent.
One out of every five children lives in poverty, and the rate is twice as high among blacks and Hispanics.
During the past two decades, waves of immigrants--from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia--have filled the schools with children whose language and culture differs from that of most teachers.
As long as educators cling to the ideal middle-class image of the family, Ms. Lightfoot warns, they will not be able to search for constructive alliances with the majority of families who do not match that stereotype.
"Given increasing divorce rates, the growing numbers of single-parent families and families in which both parents work, and the general complexity of modern life, even children of well-educated, middle-class parents can come to school unprepared because of the stress their families are undergoing," asserts James P. Comer, Maurice Falk Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University.
Now that many teachers are also working divorced mothers, such circumstances no longer carry the stigma they once did. But schools have not adjusted well to the new family configurations.
"The changes in family structure that have been so pervasive make many of the mechanisms and ideas of the past for working with families apply only to a minority of parents," notes Sanford M. Dornbusch, director of the Center for the Study of Families, Children, and Youth at Stanford University.
"The afternoon pta meeting doesn't get any of the working parents," he says. "The evening meeting has difficulty attracting the single parents. The lack of norms for the behavior of stepparents means they're often not involved in parent-school activities."
"Traditionally," Mr. Coleman notes,6"the school has needed the support and sustenance provided by the family, in its task of educating children."
"Increasingly," he asserts, "the family itself needs support and sustenance from the school--and through the school, from the other families with children in the school--in its task of raising children."
To be effective, Mr. Coleman urges, schools must "change as families change, must be adjusted to the institution they complement."
The 'Difficult Part of Teaching'
Indeed, changing family circumstances are forcing many teachers to spend increasing amounts of time and energy on noninstructional demands. Broken homes, poverty, violence, and drug abuse are bringing thousands of children to school with needs well beyond the three "R's" of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
In a survey of 22,000 teachers, conducted by the Carnegie Foundation last year, 89 percent said "neglected children" were a problem, and about 40 percent reported "poor nutrition" among students.
"The difficult part of teaching is not the academics," one junior-high teacher told the Carnegie Foundation. "The difficult part is dealing with the great number of kids who come from socially stressed homes."
But schools and teachers have traditionally balked at the notion of becoming social workers, a role for which they are neither equipped nor trained.
Rather than building on parents' strengths to alleviate children's distress, many educators continue to characterize parents as part of the problem.
Often, teachers say they are being unfairly asked to take on roles that the parents have abdicated.
"What I get frustrated with is not the kids," says Madre Mack, a mathematics teacher at the Graham Park Middle School in Prince William County, Va. "It's the adults. I feel I have to take up where they leave off."
"There's not enough time spent with the children," she asserts. "There's not enough support. There's not enough communication."
In response to such concerns, states such as Arkansas have passed laws allowing parents to be fined when their children skip school. Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to reduce welfare benefits for families whose teenage children have unexcused absences from class.
At least five other states--Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, and North Carolina--have since linked public assistance to school attendance, and several others are considering such plans.
"I know how educators feel when they see kids come to school who haven't been fed or look like they've been neglected or abused," says Anne T. Henderson, an associate with the National Committee for Citizens in Education. "It just makes them sick. And I sympawith that. When you see a kid who's way behind in school, who has problems learning and so on, you just tend to blame it on the family. It's a natural thing to do."
"On the other hand," she cautions, "it's really a minority of kids."
Perceptions among parents and teachers of the other side as uncaring or irresponsible serve to heighten the distance between them. Such images can lead to an escalating cycle of mutual blame and recrimination that Ms. Henderson views as largely unproductive.
'Dreams for the Future'
Many teachers tend to write off poor and minority parents, in particular, assuming that they cannot or will not contribute to their children's education. But recent research rebuts such beliefs.
Studies of poor and minority parents in Maryland, New England, and the Southwest have found that they care deeply about their children's education, but may not know how to help.
"We poor parents have dreams for our children's future," says Susie Stith, a resident in a Chicago public-housing project. "Education is crucial to us; it is our kids' only legal ticket to a better life."
Yet, in a study of approximately 350 teachers and low-income parents in Boston and abroad, Don Davies, president of the Institute for Responsive Education, found that most poor parents had little or no contact with the schools, and what communication they did have was negative.
Mr. Davies speculates that few low-income parents come to school on their own, both because they are intimidated by teachers and administrators and because of their own negative experiences as students.
According to Ms. Epstein's research, teachers who do not work with parents typically claim that adults with less than a high-school degree lack the ability or willingness to help their children.
But teachers who frequently use home-learning activities are able to involve parents of all educational backgrounds and socioeconomic levels.
"If schools don't work to involve parents," Ms. Epstein asserts, "then parent education and family social class are very important for deciding who becomes involved."
"But if schools take parent involvement seriously, and work to involve all parents," she adds, "then social class and parents' level of education decrease or disappear as important factors."
Based on her research, Ms. Epstein speculates that a relatively small percentage of parents have personal problems so severe that they cannot work cooperatively with teachers, given the proper assistance.
Creating Solutions:Parents as Partners
For the vast majority of parents and teachers, the tattered relationship between families and schools can still be reel10lpaired. But it will require a fundamental reorientation on the part of educators.
"Unless we can create schools in which parents are considered to be an important resource," Mr. Levin cautions, "in which there are decisions that parents can make that have meaning for their children and their schools, I think that parental involvement must necessarily be limited."
While schools can reward, demand, and cajole children to learn, experts argue, parents provide the building blocks that make such learning possible.
The technical term they use is "social capital." But what it amounts to are the home and community resources available to help children gain the self-esteem, motivation, and discipline needed for education.
"Many kinds of development, in social, psychological, emotional, moral, linguistic, and cognitive areas, are critical to future academic learning," Dr. Comer of the Yale Child Study Center says. "The attitudes, values, and behavior of the family and its social network strongly affect such development."
When family and school act in tandem to support a child's education, he asserts, the transition from home life to school goes relatively smoothly. But when the two cultures clash, or do not reinforce each other's work, children's academic learning suffers.
The 'Greatest Lever' for Growth
The most striking illustration of that assertion stems from the research of Mr. Coleman at the University of Chicago. In a 1987 study, Mr. Coleman and his colleague, Thomas Hoffer, found that Catholic high schools in general do a better job of educating students and have lower dropout rates than do public schools or most non-Catholic private schools.
They speculated that the difference lies in the strongly supportive community built up between parents and teachers at Catholic schools, based on a shared set of beliefs and values.
Such cohesive communities of adults are almost totally absent from most public schools, Mr. Coleman asserts, which for the last century have viewed their primary mission to be freeing children from the constraints and backgrounds of their families.
If the public schools could somehow re-establish a "true partnership" with the families of their students, speculates Edward Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University, they could tap the "greatest lever" available for spurring children's growth and development.
Undergirding Mr. Zigler's contention are decades of research showing an overwhelmingly positive relationship between parents' involvement in education and student achievement.
In schools that value parents, findings include higher student grades and test scores, better long-term academic achievement, more positive attitudes and behaviors, and more effective programs.
But the research does not address which strategies are most effective for reaching out to which parents. (See story on pages 20-21.)
Reaching Children Early
In the absence of one particular recipe for success, an array of programs and practices have sprung up in an attempt to redefine the social contract between parents and schools.
Efforts to strengthen the learning environment of children under age 6, and to promote parental practices that would foster later success in school, constitute one of the most popular of the new approaches.
Such programs try to strengthen the family's capacity to raise its children by providing information about child development; offering advice on parenting; supplying guidance on child-rearing issues; and, when necessary, referring families to other community agencies.
To do so, they may rely on a combination of drop-in centers, home visits, developmental child care, parent-support groups, and parent education.
In 1984, Missouri became the first state to mandate that every district offer a program of parenting education to the families of infants and preschoolers. Since then, 32 states have launched similar efforts, primarily on a smaller scale.
A follow-up study found that at the end of 1st grade, children involved in Missouri's pilot project scored significantly higher on reading and math tests than a comparison group and had parents who were more involved in their education.
The cost-effective nature of such programs--and their emphasis on the primacy of the family--have earned them a growing cachet among policymakers, says Heather B. Weiss, director of the Harvard Family Research Project.
Just last month, the White House and all 50 governors announced as a goal that, by the year 2000, all parents will have access to the training and support they need to be their children's first teachers.
'Changing the Trajectory'
But efforts to reach out to families must not diminish once children reach school age, experts argue.
"The first five years of life are a very important period," Mr. Zigler acknowledges. "But it's become counterproductive in that it's become a magic period: If we just do everything we can during the preschool years, then everything is going to be wonderful during school."
"That's just not true," he adds. "Changing the trajectory of development of a child really calls for a lot of effort, and it has to be done year after year after year. That is why the family is so important, because the family is there year after year after year."
Yet, research indicates that teachers' efforts to work with families--and parents' attempts to remain involved in their children's education--drop off dramatically as children age. That decline is already evident as early as the 2nd or 3rd grade, and it continues to plummet throughout the middle- and high-school years.
"It's still not considered part of the professional portfolio of the educator to work with parents," Ms. Henderson of the ncce complains. "Efforts to involve parents are seen as something supplementary to the school--a sort of luxury that's nice if you have the time and staff to do it."
A study by Mr. Dornbusch of almost 300 high-school teachers in the San Francisco Bay area found that most expressed a general reluctance to spend the increased amount of time and energy that working with parents would require.
Rebuilding Ties With Parents Of School-Age Children
Despite such findings, there are a variety of ways in which educators can reach out to parents with school-age children.
They range from improving the communications between home and school, to creating more informal forums in which parents and teachers can meet, to helping parents work with their children at home, or welcoming them into the decisionmaking structure.
Communicating with parents about school practices and about their children's progress is one of the most obvious ways to work with families.
But the form, frequency, content, and timing of such communications can vary widely. In an effort to make such communications more effective and meaningful, schools have developed multilingual documents; parent-resource centers within schools; and home visits by teachers or parent coordinators, who are specially hired for that purpose.
According to Ms. Henderson, these regular activities and contacts between parand schools form the "core of the family-school relationship." But they have also been the least often noted and discussed by policymakers, in part because they appear so pedestrian.
Parents also can be involved at the school itself, by attending student performances, sports competitions, and workshops, or by serving as volunteers.
Mr. Comer asserts that the presence of parents and other community members in the schools may be particularly important for low-income children, because it heightens their sense of belonging and reduces the dissonance between home and school.
In addition, he notes, social events provide the one opportunity for parents and teachers to interact in relaxed and positive ways, "where the differences can be minimized and become unimportant."
Through such avenues, he says, schools can restore the trust and mutual respect that have been missing between teachers and parents since the early 1900's. Other studies suggest that if about one-third of parents in a school are reasonably active at the school itself, all children start doing better.
Unfortunately, a limited number of parents participate in such events.
A national survey released this month by Newsweek found that more than half of all parents said they had not attended a single back-to-school night since the school year began, while 54 percent had not gone to a single meeting of the pta or other parent organization. Parents cited lack of time and conflicting work schedules as the most frequent reasons for their low participation.
Ms. Epstein estimates that more than 70 percent of parents have never been involved in traditional volunteer activities.
David L. Williams Jr., a researcher at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, speculates that parents steer clear of such roles in part because they have so little say in shaping them.
Most parent participation at schools is limited to activities that the "school deems appropriate," Mr. Williams asserts. "Typically, parents don't have input into that kind of involvement, or they have a limited range of things to select from."
Another study, published this year by the National Research Council, found that public schools with high minority enrollments are less likely to use volunteers and attract fewer of them than suburban schools do. Volunteers are also more likely to be white, well-educated, and middle class.
Unless schools tackle such problems directly and use diverse strategies to reach out to all parents, Mr. Davies of the ire suggests, they could end up widening the gap between poor and nonpoor students.
The 'Meat and Potatoes'
Because so few families have the time or inclination to participate in traditional school-based activities, educators are beginning to look at avenues for involving parents beyond the schoolhouse door.
"I'd like to see more attention to the type of involvement parents want most," Ms. Epstein says, "how to work with their own children at home in ways that help the student succeed and that keep the parents as partners in their children's education across the grades."
According to Ms. Rich, involving parents in learning activities at home constitutes the "meat and potatoes" of parent involvement.
These activities range from requesting that parents read to their children on a regular basis, to asking them to supervise and assist children in their homework, to providing games and other exercises that build on but do not duplicate in-school learning. For example, MegaSkills, the program developed by Ms. Rich, emphasizes special "recipes" that parents can use at home that supplement, rather than replicate, formal classroom instruction.
According to Ms. Epstein, strengthening such home-learning activities has the potential to reach more parents than any other type of family-school relationship.
"Although only some parents are active at school," she notes, "more than 90 percent help their children with homework activities at least once in a while."
Parents as Decisionmakers
An increasingly vocal sector of the parent community, however, is not content to sit at home and leave decisionmaking to others.
Since the late 1800's, parents have formed advocacy groups external to the school system to try to influence school policies and practices. But now, some parents are fighting for a direct role in school governance. Efforts in this area range from advisory committees that are fairly limited in scope to parent-dominated councils that have a major say in school decisions.
In between those two extremes, school officials are beginning to consult with parents on a wide array of topics having to do with educational policies and practices.
As public agencies, Mr. Davies asserts, schools have an obligation to open up their decisionmaking process to the people most affected by them, "and parents are the most affected group." Others argue that because parents know their children best and have a vested interest in their welfare, they are most suited to speak on their behalf.
But those views are not shared by everyone. In a survey of parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school-board members in the Southwest, Mr. Williams found that parents and educators disagreed about the role of parents in running schools.
While parents were eager to engage in a variety of activities, ranging from tutoring their child to participating on school committees, principals and teachers favored limiting parents to more traditional avenues, such as attending class plays and holding bake sales. A substantial majority of teachers and principals did not view parents as having an appropriate or useful role in educational or personnel matters.
Dramatic reforms in Chicago could provide evidence of whether parent participation in school governance works. Under the Chicago reform law enacted by the state legislature in 1988, councils at each of the city's 570 schools will make major decisions about curriculum, budgets, and the hiring and firing of principals. Each council has 11 members: 2 teachers, 2 community representatives, the principal, and 6 parents.
The reforms could shed light on how much training parents need to be effective decisionmakers, whether those who serve on governance committees truly reflect the views of their surrounding community, and whether parent-dominated councils can focus on academic concerns and not become mired in politics.
"I think a lot of anxious eyes are on Chicago," Ms. Henderson says. "I'm worried that something awful will happen there and everybody will say: 'See, if you turn it over to the parents, it's a total disaster."'
She cautions that parent participation in school governance will probably always be limited to a self-selecting few.
"I don't think a lot of parents really want a big role in governance," Ms. Henderson asserts. "They just want to feel that they're consulted about things and that they could change something that they don't like. It's a rare parent who wants to be involved in day-to-day decisionmaking about the school."
Creating Multiple Options
According to Ms. Henderson, parents should have a variety of options for participating in their children's education, based on their individual needs and predilections. The exact nature of such participation is less important, she asserts, than the need to make it reasonably well-planned, comprehensive, and long-lasting.
But whatever form parent involvement takes, educators caution, it must connect with the deeper academic mission of the school.
"There's got to be some purpose to what you're doing with parents," Mr. Levin of Stanford University argues, "or it becomes just cosmetic. The focus has got to be on the child. That's what motivates parents."
Whatever the motivation for parents, the motivations for educators are becoming obvious.
As Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, notes, voucher proposals, state takeovers of academically bankrupt districts, and other radical measures indicate a deep and fundamental dissatisfaction with the nation's school system.
The coming decade could signal either a new vitality for public education in this country, he and others assert, or a mass exodus from the public schools by those who can afford to leave.
Unless educators break down the isolation between schools and communities, Mr. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation warns, the public could abandon public education in the next century.
Rebuilding ties with parents could represent the first step on the road back to recovery.
"Parents are part of the equation of human growth and development," Mr. Zigler says. "Home is important. School is important. If you could get both of them integrated, working toward the same goals, you'd have a very potent force."
This special series on parental involvement in education is being underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.