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'We Must Move Beyond Finger-Pointing'

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The addition of Goal Eight to the recently passed Goals 2000: Educate America Act signals a welcome new round of attention to the role of parents in education. Research continues to underscore the importance of family attitudes, practices, and school involvement to student achievement. However, if this latest round is to be more successful than previous ones--when parent involvement was advocated, but not implemented, by schools--three things must change.

First, currently disconnected pieces of educational reform that have implications for parent participation must be integrated into a comprehensive and continuous plan for family, school, and community partnerships.

These pieces must reinforce a holistic, schoolwide approach to parent involvement. Among them are: site-based management; parent education and support; school-linked health, social, and other services; home-school communications strategies that enable parents to help students at home; and opportunities for parents to volunteer and help create a supportive school community.

Many of the current approaches are piecemeal. School-linked health and social-services programs often lack attention to strong home-school communications. Programs designed to enhance parent involvement in early childhood fail to follow up in K-12. Such disjointed efforts are unlikely to bring enduring gains in school achievement.

Second, research on effective parent-involvement initiatives suggests that we must move beyond finger-pointing--"it's the parent's job, teacher's job, or mental health's job, not ours." New partnerships must draw on new attitudes and assumptions that link children to a supportive school and community.

Among those assumptions are that:

  • Parents can and will help their children learn.
  • Schools can and will help them do so through a variety of parent-involvement and -support options grounded in two-way communications and mutual respect.
  • Schools can and will join with other agencies to remove non-academic barriers to family involvement and school success, and promote the collective community goal of nurturing healthy children who succeed in school.

Finally, if this new round of parent involvement is to be successful, the parent-involvement goal must be married to the other new education goal (Goal Seven): supporting teacher training and professional development. Teachers and administrators need concrete skills and knowledge to work effectively with parents.

The Harvard Family Research Project's recent research on teacher certification shows that less than half the states (22) mention any parent-involvement-training requirements. A survey of teacher training institutions in these states suggests that preparation for parent involvement is very limited and superficial. Information is typically transmitted through lectures and reading rather than through more interactive and effective approaches, such as observation, role-playing, case-study discussions, or field placement.

Mechanisms should be developed to share innovative pre- and in-service parent-involvement-training approaches more broadly to encourage the much-needed marriage of the two new education goals.

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