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The Parent Factor:

What It Means and How to Enhance It

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When the last day of school rolled around, I asked John what had happened. His mother had told me John was an intelligent student, but lacked self-discipline academically. In fact, he seemed to have self-identified as the teacher’s worst “class clown.”

To my question, John replied: “I don’t know. My mom used to ask me every day how school had gone. But she doesn’t ask anymore; she doesn’t seem to care. It’s hard for me to care when she doesn’t.”

I was tempted at first to dismiss his statement as a refusal to take responsibility. But remembering a recent study by Andrew J. Houtenville and Karen Smith Conway on the role of parent involvement in student achievement gave me pause.

The study, “Parental Effort, School Resources, and Student Achievement,” published in The Journal of Human Resources (Spring 2008), found that parental involvement is one key to student achievement, irrespective of factors such as race, income level, or other family-background characteristics. More striking, and ironic, was the study’s finding that parents tended to reduce their effort and involvement as school resources grew. That is, as schools did more, parents felt they could do less.

Houtenville and Smith Conway’s work has several implications for educators and schools. The researchers cite, for example, a 1996 study of 15 schools that received $300,000 each to improve student achievement. Only two of these schools were successful, however: the two that used the money to increase parent involvement.

But not all parent involvement is the same. Many schools have attempted to find ways for parents to plug into school management by establishing parent councils and opportunities for parents to volunteer. But, while these may be important for developing a sense of community and parental ownership of the school and its issues, such activities do not translate directly to student achievement.

Telling children that school is valuable is a lot less effective than showing them it is by being involved in what they are doing there.

Other ways for parents to be more active in their children’s education pay much higher dividends. Simply asking the question, “So, what did you do in school today?” can launch a discussion between parent and child about topics studied in class. Even talks at home about less classroom-specific topics that interest the student, or the courses he or she might be considering taking next semester, are shown to be important to raising student achievement.

The point seems to be that having a parent show interest in what happens at school serves as a model for the student’s relationship to learning. Without that example, students can forget the significance of academics in their lives. Telling children that school is valuable is a lot less effective than showing them it is by being involved in what they are doing there. That is certainly the message my student John was trying to convey.

For parents of teenagers, who are often reticent in adult conversation when it veers toward their personal lives, this routine may break down. John, for example, agreed that his mother may have stopped asking about school because his response became the typical teenager’s evasive one. He admitted to using the standard, “I don’t know. Nothin’ ” answer. Yet he also revealed how much he valued the fact that his mother would ask him the question.

How can schools be a catalyst for effective parental involvement in students’ academic lives? Bearing in mind the Houtenville-Smith Conway study’s finding that parental effort decreases as school resources increase, it makes sense for schools to rethink how they attack the problem of low student achievement. Throwing money at it not only will not solve it, but also could make it worse. A carefully considered approach is called for.

Among the factors shown to play a role in parental involvement are parent education, family income, and family size. While these may seem at first to be areas in which the school cannot have an impact, anecdotal evidence has shown me that certain adult education programs can help. Specifically helpful are those that offer the same subjects that a child is learning in school. At night, parents tackle the knowledge and skills their children are expected to learn during the day, and this helps them not only improve their own skills, but also gain the understanding they need to engage with their children at home.

Teachers also can provide students with interesting ideas for starting school-related conversations at home. When the stem-cell debate first hit the news in 2001, for example, I gave a homework assignment asking students to talk to a parent about that topic and then write a reflection on their conversation. When we talked about the issue in class the next day, it was an incredibly rich discussion. Students worked out their own ideas and also brought the views of their parents into the conversation. The feedback I got from both students and parents was extremely positive.

This sort of assignment may be just the thing that high school students need. Teenagers, ever an enigma, can have rich and interesting conversations with parents if prompted. As a conversation sparked by the student, it will be perceived as less of an intrusion upon the young person’s own thoughts and feelings. A similar assignment could be an interview of the parent, although the fact that the student’s own ideas are not engaged as much in this kind of activity would reduce the potential for deep interaction.

The school’s focus should be on how to enable parents and their children to have such meaningful conversations about the topics and ideas flowing from the classroom. If schools can define parental involvement in this way, instead of just looking to get parents more involved in school governance, then they can be a lot clearer about fostering the kind of parental role that really matters.

My reading of the Houtenville-Smith Conway study is that, to improve student achievement, schools need to rethink this important area and become more creative in involving their students’ parents in education. Increasing school resources may be important to learning, but schools need to use those resources carefully. Promoting parental involvement has to be done in a much more thoughtful way.

For schools struggling to find ways to get parents involved, starting a parent council may not be a top priority. Finding ways to facilitate direct parent participation in their children’s lives—at school and at home—will have a much greater impact.

Vol. 28, Issue 16

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