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Parent Involvement Drops Off After Early Grades

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Parents' involvement in their children's education drops off sharply after elementary school, but students' whose parents stay involved tend to fare better academically and socially, a study being released this week shows.

The study, which is based on data from the U.S. Education Department's 1993 National Household Education Survey, involved 12,236 parents of children from 3rd to 12th grade. It showed that the percentage of students whose parents were either highly or moderately involved in schools dropped from 73 percent for children ages 8 to 11 to 50 percent for those 16 and older.

About 42 percent of children in grades 3 to 5 had parents who were identified as highly involved--meaning they attended P.T.A. meetings, plays, sports, and other activities and volunteered at schools or served on school committees--compared with 24 percent of students from grades 6 to 12.

The 6th to 12th graders whose parents were highly involved were significantly less likely to repeat a grade or have behavior problems and more likely to take part in extracurricular activities.

While it is natural for parents to want children to become self-sufficient as they get older, the study shows that they should "balance the need for independence with a continuing need for involvement," said Christine Winquist Nord, a co-author of the report and a senior research associate at Westat, a Rockville, Md., consulting firm.

The report was prepared jointly by Westat and Child Trends, a Washington-based research company, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Nord Family Foundation.

The study showed that parents with children in private schools were more involved than those whose children attend public schools and that single-parent families and stepfamilies tended to be less involved than families with both birth parents living at home. Working mothers generally were as active in schools as full-time homemakers, although those who worked part time were more active than those who worked full time.

Based on a 1990-91 Education Department survey of teachers' perceptions, the study ranked states on parental involvement in schools. The best were Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, while those with the lowest marks were Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas.

Peer Problems

A big challenge for parents, the report says, is the negative influence of peers. A majority of the 6,504 high school students polled in the household survey said their school friends thought it was acceptable to smoke or drink. Large numbers said they had easy access to cigarettes and alcohol at school.

Only 38 percent of the students in grades 6 to 12 said their friends considered schoolwork very important, and 30 percent said their friends thought it was very important to behave properly in class.

Nicholas Zill, a vice president and study-area director of Westat and a co-author of the report, said schools should involve parents in fashioning discipline policies.

He also suggested that schools involve parents in developing counseling programs for noncollege-bound youths and advised restructuring large high schools so that teachers can get to know students and families.

The report also suggests that schools work harder to accommodate parents' schedules.

The report points out that stagnant wages, eroding job benefits, increases in unmarried childbearing, and high divorce rates are making it harder for families to meet children's basic needs, and it ranks the states and 135 cities on key indicators of family well-being.

Copies of "Running in Place: How American Families Are Faring in a Changing Economy and an Individualistic Society" are available for $15 each from Child Trends, 4301 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20008.

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