Debating the Meaning of ‘Parent Engagement’

By Michele Molnar — February 07, 2013 2 min read
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What besmirches the good name of “parent engagement” and “parent involvement” in a child’s education? That’s an issue being explored in the blogosphere, with thought-provoking questions.

In Psychology Today, Alfie Kohn raises the issue of contradictions and nuances in what people mean when they say “parental involvement":

  • Is it helping children gain critical thinking skills, or making sure their grades are great?
  • Is it advocating for choice in a consumer-based approach to education, or making sure a great education is equally available to all?
  • Should we gauge parent engagement based on how much educators want parents to be involved, or how much students want parental oversight and support?

“Exhortations for more ‘parental involvement’ remind me of calls to be ‘a good citizen': In the abstract, everyone is for it. But inspected closely, what’s most often meant by the term turns out to be considerably more complicated and even worthy of skepticism,” concludes Kohn, who has written books questioning America’s reliance on homework to reinforce learning, as well as the value of standardized testing.

When parents are engaged, it is with their children, and their children’s teachers. In her article for the New York Times, Sara Mosle likens the parent-teacher relationship to that of an “arranged marriage,” where both parties “share great responsibility for a child, which can lead to a deeply rewarding partnership or the kind of conflict found in some joint-custody arrangements.”

A 6th-grade teacher at St. Philips Academy in Newark, N.J., and a mother herself, Mosle understands the challenges on both sides of the relationship, and—in “The Dicey Parent-Teacher Duet”—comes up with an eight-point plan to help each partner in the “marriage” avoid divorce court. Her first tip: “Encourage children to take the lead.”

Walt Gardner in his Education Week Reality Check blog, suggests grading parents. That idea has been floated by legislators in Florida for the last two legislative sessions, and in Louisiana last year—but neither state passed it. In two struggling Tennessee schools, parents are invited to grade themselves, under legislation passed last year.

That leads to the question: If being graded means greater engagement, shouldn’t all students be highly engaged in school, since they are graded for their performance there?

I’m not sure grades are the answer.

What do you think the right kind of “parent engagement” or “parent involvement” is?

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.