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Studies Link Parental Involvement, Higher Student Achievement

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Although research on parental involvement in education is fragmented and diffuse, evidence suggests that family-school collaboration works.

Studies have consistently linked parental involvement with higher student grades and test scores, more positive student attitudes and behaviors, and improved school climates.

"Basically, people are coming to understand that if you involve parents, kids do better," says Anne T. Henderson, an associate with the National Committee for Citizens in Education, "but also that if you don't involve parents, kids don't do well."

In her 1987 synthesis of research on the topic, The Evidence Continues to Grow: Parent Involvement Improves Student Achievement, Ms. Henderson cited 49 studies that she contends provide undisputed proof of the positive correlation between family-school collaboration and student gains. For example:

Students in schools that maintain frequent contact with their communities outperform those in other schools.

Children whose parents are in touch with the school score higher on standard6ized tests than do children of similar aptitude and family background whose parents are not involved.

Students who are failing in school improve dramatically when their parents are called in to help.

Parental Styles and Learning

Such findings should not be surprising, given a related body of research indicating the influence of parental attributes and behaviors on student learning.

In his explosive 1966 study, Equality of Educational Opportunity, James S. Coleman concluded that student achievement appeared to be more related to children's family backgrounds than to the material resources of the schools they attended.

According to Mr. Coleman, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Chicago, students' perceptions of themselves and their environment strongly influence academic success. And those perceptions are shaped largely at home.

A 1983 study by Reginald M. Clark, Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail, reiterated the influence of parental values and behaviors on student learning. In an in-depth study of 10 poor, black families in Chicago, Mr. Clark concludedthat the child-rearing style of parents--rather than their marital status, education, or income--determined a youngster's success in school.

In the homes of high achievers, parents communicated frequently with their offspring, provided strong encouragement of academic pursuits, set clear and consistent limits, monitored how children's time was spent, and offered a warm and nurturing environment.

A year later, Herbert J. Walberg, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, would describe a "curriculum of the home" related to high student achievement. Its characteristics include parents and children who converse about everyday events, parental encouragement and discussion of leisure-time reading, joint monitoring and analysis of television viewing, and parents expressing affection for their children and interest in their academic and personal growth.

A similar vein of research by Sanford M. Dornbusch, director of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Families, Children, and Youth, has documented a consistent relationship between how parents interact with and respond to their children and positive student performance.

In a survey of 8,000 San Francisco Bay-area high-school students, Mr. Dornbusch found that youngsters with "authoritative" parents tended to have better grades. Such parents set clear rules and standards for their teenagers, encouraged a verbal give-and-take, and recognized the rights of both adults and children.

Children of authoritative parents were deemed to be more socially responsible and more independent, and they exhibited more developed social and cognitive skills.

If schools could somehow influence or build on the relationship between parents and youngsters in their homes, such research suggests, they could provide a powerful spur for academic learning.

But parent involvement alone may not be able to overcome the effects of poverty.

In a study of the parents of 700 6th graders in Oakland, Calif., Charles S. Benson, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, concluded that parental participation helped students achieve more in school, regardel10lless of their family's income, but that it did not close the gap between poor and nonpoor children.

Widespread Effects

Involving parents in their children's schooling, however, has benefits beyond the rise and fall of test scores and student grades. It is also related to more positive attitudes toward teachers and schools, improved teacher morale, and enriched school climates.

Research by Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Effective Middle Schools Program at Johns Hopkins University, has found that parents in classrooms where teachers encourage parental involvement are more likely than other parents to recognize that the teacher worked hard to interest them; feel that they should help at home; understand what their child is being taught in school; have a more positive attitude about the teacher's interpersonal skills; and rate the teacher higher in overall teaching ability.

In a 1979 study, Ira Gordon, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, found that the more parents participated in multiple parent-involvement activities, the more the quality of the school environment improved.

Case studies by Don Davies, president of the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston, also indicate that staff morale is positively swayed by parent participation.

Other studies have demonstrated correlations between parent participation in schools and improved student attendance, a reduction in suspension rates for disciplinary reasons, and an improved attitude toward homework.

Benefits for Parents

Family-school collaboration can also benefit parents themselves.

During the 18 years that James P. Comer headed an experimental school-improvement program at Yale University's Child Study Center, many of the participating parents became so motivated that they eventually obtained General Educational Development diplomas. And seven parents went on to earn a college degree and enter a profession.

According to Dr. Comer, "the failure to bridge the social and cultural gap between home and school may lie at the root of the poor academic performance" of many low-income children.

Dr. Comer's model attempts to break down the barrier of distrust between home and school by involving parents in school decisionmaking and in activities that support the school program.

By bringing mental-health professionals, educators, parents, and others together to focus on children's academic, social, and emotional development, Dr. Comer and his colleagues were able to reduce parental apathy and improve student achievement and attendance at two predominantly low-income elementary schools in New Haven, Conn.

Unanswered Questions

Despite such positive findings across a wide array of studies, however, research on parent involvement remains problematic and sketchy.

Although the correlation between parent involvement in education and student achievement has been well documented, there is little evidence of any direct, causal link.

"For the most part," Sharon Lynn Kagan, associate director of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, writes in a review of the research, "correlation studies of school-based parent involvement and achievement are not sufficiently precise to determine the mechanism by which achievement is influenced."

Because the reasons for involving parents in schools vary widely and the approaches to working with families are so diverse, research on the topic has been similary diffuse.

"What we need is a more robust research base; we are just not looking at this broadly enough," Ms. Kagan argues. "While some organizations are doing wonderful work, one or two organizations will not be able to counter decades of malaise."

Where To Focus Resources?

Because the research does not pinpoint which kinds of parent-involvement activities are most effective under different circumstances, practitioners continue to argue about where to focus their resources.

For example, some practitioners want parents to work with their children at home, based on research that indicates this helps individual children succeed.6Others advocate bringing parents into the school, because that may have a carryover effect on the school climate as a whole and on average student performance.

A study by Ms. Epstein suggests that the two approaches may complement each other.

She found that having some parents active at the school itself encouraged teachers to request other parents to work with their youngsters at home.

Mr. Gordon's 1979 review of the research concluded that parent-involvement programs that are comprehensive and long-lasting--and that enable parents to assume various roles in schools--have the most effect on both students and school performance.

But until researchers can ferret out which kinds of parent-school partnerships are most effective in achieving which aims, such debates will probably continue.

Inside the 'Black Box'

"There is a recognition now that parental involvement is just plain common sense," says Mr. Davies of the ire "But what we need now is to look inside that 'black box' between parental involvement and student achievement to discover what works."

Today, a "second generation" of research may yield some clues in that direction, according to Ms. Epstein.

"It just isn't possible at this point to say that we have any real knowledge about what schools might do to work with families," she notes. "Now we are being forced to say, 'If families are important, what are we going to do about it?"'

In the next few months, Ms. Epstein is expected to release a long-awaited report that evaluates parent-involvement efforts in Baltimore.

In June, the ire is expected to release the results of a two-year project, "Schools Reaching Out," designed to test new ways in which schools and parents in low-income communities can work together. Two urban schools--one in Boston, the other in New York City--have served as laboratories for the project's work, which will be analyzed and evaluated by a national commission of scholars and practitioners.

Last month, the institute built on that project by creating a "League of Schools Reaching Out." The 24 schools in the network will share information about parent-involvement practices, promote successful programs, and provide for a stronger scientific foundation to support family-school collaboration.

In addition, the Rockefeller Foundation in January launched a $15-million, five-year effort to replicate Dr. Comer's school-improvement model nationwide. It is currently used in about 100 schools across the country.

And the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement has announced plans to establish a research and development center on families and schools.

Indeed, growing interest in and attention to the topic of parent involvement in education has made many researchers hopeful about the future. But they remain cautious about whether such rhetoric will result in widespread change.

"It may be very fashionable now," Mr. Davies says, "but that doesn't mean there will be that much difference in practice."

"Where we can go from here," he cautions, "we'll have to wait and see."


Information for this article was also gathered by Senior Editor Lynn Olson.

Continued from Preceding Page


root of the poor academic performance" of many low-income children.

Dr. Comer's model attempts to break down the barrier of distrust between home and school by involving parents in school decisionmaking and in activities that support the school program.

By bringing mental-health professionals, educators, parents, and others together to focus on children's academic, social, and emotional development, Dr. Comer and his colleagues were able to reduce parental apathy and improve student achievement and attendance at two predominantly low-income elementary schools in New Haven, Conn.

Unanswered Questions

Despite such positive findings across a wide array of studies, however, research on parent involvement remains problematic and sketchy.

Although the correlation between parent involvement in education and student achievement has been well documented, there is little evidence of any direct, causal link.

"For the most part," Sharon Lynn Kagan, associate director of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, writes in a review of the research, "correlation studies of school-based parent involvement and achievement are not sufficiently precise to determine the mechanism by which achievement is influenced."

Because the reasons for involving parents in schools vary widely and the approaches to working with families are so diverse, research on the topic has been similary diffuse.

"What we need is a more robust research base; we are just not looking at this broadly enough," Ms. Kagan argues. "While some organizations are doing wonderful work, one or two organizations will not be able to counter decades of malaise."

Where To Focus Resources?

Because the research does not pinpoint which kinds of parent-involvement activities are most effective under different circumstances, practitioners continue to argue about where to focus their resources.

For example, some practitioners want parents to work with their children at home, based on research that indicates this helps individual children succeed.6Others advocate bringing parents into the school, because that may have a carryover effect on the school climate as a whole and on average student performance.

A study by Ms. Epstein suggests that the two approaches may complement each other.

She found that having some parents active at the school itself encouraged teachers to request other parents to work with their youngsters at home.

Mr. Gordon's 1979 review of the research concluded that parent-involvement programs that are comprehensive and long-lasting--and that enable parents to assume various roles in schools--have the most effect on both students and school performance.

But until researchers can ferret out which kinds of parent-school partnerships are most effective in achieving which aims, such debates will probably continue.

Inside the 'Black Box'

"There is a recognition now that parental involvement is just plain common sense," says Mr. Davies of the ire "But what we need now is to look inside that 'black box' between parental involvement and student achievement to discover what works."

Today, a "second generation" of research may yield some clues in that direction, according to Ms. Epstein.

"It just isn't possible at this point to say that we have any real knowledge about what schools might do to work with families," she notes. "Now we are being forced to say, 'If families are important, what are we going to do about it?"'

In the next few months, Ms. Epstein is expected to release a long-awaited report that evaluates parent-involvement efforts in Baltimore.

In June, the ire is expected to release the results of a two-year project, "Schools Reaching Out," designed to test new ways in which schools and parents in low-income communities can work together. Two urban schools--one in Boston, the other in New York City--have served as laboratories for the project's work, which will be analyzed and evaluated by a national commission of scholars and practitioners.

Last month, the institute built on that project by creating a "League of Schools Reaching Out." The 24 schools in the network will share information about parent-involvement practices, promote successful programs, and provide for a stronger scientific foundation to support family-school collaboration.

In addition, the Rockefeller Foundation in January launched a $15-million, five-year effort to replicate Dr. Comer's school-improvement model nationwide. It is currently used in about 100 schools across the country.

And the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement has announced plans to establish a research and development center on families and schools.

Indeed, growing interest in and attention to the topic of parent involvement in education has made many researchers hopeful about the future. But they remain cautious about whether such rhetoric will result in widespread change.

"It may be very fashionable now," Mr. Davies says, "but that doesn't mean there will be that much difference in practice."

"Where we can go from here," he cautions, "we'll have to wait and see."


Information for this article was also gathered by Senior Editor Lynn Olson.

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