Education Commentary

Putting Parents in Their Place

By Holly Holland — September 22, 1999 9 min read
The unspoken rule is that educators control all the decisions.

Jackie Allen has a simple request. She wants parents to be uniformly welcomed into her local public schools. Annual parent-teacher conferences would be nice. Active PTAs in every school would be an encouraging sign. Respectful answers to parents’ questions would be a good change. But to start, Ms. Allen would settle for one week during the year when every school in her rural, south-central Kentucky school district would open its doors and let the public come in.

For many months, this active and informed middle school parent has been trying to promote an “educational awareness week” as part of her work with the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, an entity sponsored by Kentucky’s Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonpartisan citizens’ advocacy group based in Lexington. Her goal is to give parents and educators some positive encounters that might lead to mutual respect, trust, and sharing. From there--who knows?--the two groups of adults might be willing to collaborate on some worthwhile experiences for kids.

“All of them are good about giving lip service to parent involvement,” Ms. Allen says, but she adds that the years of educational estrangement in her community have exacted a heavy price on parent participation. “We have so many parents that just don’t feel comfortable in school. It’s really hard to get them to come in for anything.”

Unfortunately, Jackie Allen’s experiences are not unique. In many schools and districts across Kentucky--indeed, throughout the nation--the unspoken rule is that educators control all the decisions; parents should be seen but not heard. Although some educators bemoan the lack of support from families these days, they fail to understand how rude office staff, controlled access to classrooms, and infrequent communications about school policies contribute to the alienation. Some educators make grand gestures about welcoming parents to school, yet limit their choices to helping with fund-raisers and field trips. They balk when parents seek their legal right and responsibility to participate in meaningful ways. Although there are some wonderful exceptions to these practices, the prevailing mood remains mutually suspicious.

It’s a disturbing trend for several reasons. One is that studies have overwhelmingly shown that involved and informed parents are one of the major determinants of children’s progress in school.

“Over 30 years’ research has proven beyond dispute the positive connection between parent involvement and student success,” the National PTA concluded in its “National Standards for Parent/Family Involvement Programs.”

“Effectively engaging parents and families in the education of their children,” it said, “has the potential to be far more transformational than any other type of education reform.”

In analyzing the research, the National PTA found that “when parents are involved, students achieve more, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial background, or the parents’ education level.” But here’s the most important piece: “In programs that are designed to involve parents in full partnerships, student achievement for disadvantaged children not only improves, it can reach levels that are standard for middle-class children. In addition, the children who are farthest behind make the greatest gains.”

Anne T. Henderson and Nancy Berla provided more evidence of the importance of home-school connections in their 1996 book, A New Generation of Evidence: The Family Is Critical to Student Achievement. In reviewing 66 relevant studies, they found that family involvement, not income or social status, is the most accurate predictor of student success. The children of involved parents go to better schools, stay in school longer, and earn better grades and test scores. Moreover, Ms. Henderson and Ms. Berla wrote, “when parents are involved in different roles throughout the school, the performance of all children in the school tends to improve, not just the children of those who are actively involved.”

The reverse is also true, the authors noted: “If schools disparage parents, or treat them as negative influences, or cut them out of their children’s education, they promote attitudes in the family that inhibit achievement at school.”

Another reason the trend of parent alienation is so disturbing is that Kentucky’s landmark school reform law requires public schools to form partnerships with parents. In at least six specific instances, the law says parents must be allowed to contribute, from serving on school councils to selecting new superintendents.

It’s true that schools struggle to find parents who are willing to accept the burdens of educational leadership. For example, many Kentucky schools have had a hard time filling the council slots set aside for parents. Some parents still prefer the traditional support roles of fund-raisers and chaperones, and others simply choose not to get involved.

There’s also the danger that small groups of parents with single-issue agendas will dominate discussions and tie school decisionmaking in knots. Trite as it might sound, however, that’s just one of the dilemmas of democracy. Striking a balance between activism and anarchy is a challenge we must accept as a society, not hide from because of the potential for harm. And the reality is that by law, educators still have the upper hand in schools. With majority positions on Kentucky’s school councils, they maintain control. That’s as it should be. The professionals are better prepared to call the shots. The difference today is that they can no longer do so without consulting and communicating with parents.

F or nearly two years, I have observed the efforts of one group that is trying to prepare parents for their new roles in public schools. The Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership seeks to train 700 school leaders like Jackie Allen by the end of 2000. In turn, these parents and grandparents are expected to use their new skills to reach others, particularly people who have lost touch with public schools--or who were never invited to the table in the first place.

Commonwealth Institute fellows volunteer to attend 60 hours of training over a three- month period, then agree to create projects designed to boost parent involvement in their local schools. The numbers they generate are important, but the real standard of success is this: Did the project have a lasting impact on student achievement?

So far, 289 parents have completed the training, and most of them have implemented or are in the process of implementing their projects. Another 200 parents began training in August. Although the results are not yet conclusive, the parents’ experiences to date are worth sharing.

Consider the work of Maynard Thomas, a retired engineer from Catlettsburg, Ky. His four children are grown, but Mr. Thomas still cares about the public schools. His project focuses on a national program, Achievement Via Individual Determination, known as AVID, which prepares average high school students for college through a daily elective class that gives them the tools and the motivation to reach higher. Participating students agree to complete more-challenging assignments, and their parents agree to sign their homework and communicate with their teachers. Participating schools pay the salary of an AVID- trained teacher and provide tutors and other resources the students might need.

Maynard Thomas contacted every superintendent in the 22 districts in northeastern Kentucky and invited them or their representatives to attend AVID training sessions he set up with help from state officials. He received 100 percent participation from districts in his area, but only partial support from outlying counties.

“It’s not easy to be involved” with public schools, Mr. Thomas acknowledges, but the initial results of his project have been promising enough to keep trying. “Its an uphill battle. You take three steps forward and two back.”

At one school in western Kentucky, no parents showed up for a sponsored workshop.

Susan Murray and Pam Shepherd, whose children attend middle school in Owensboro, Ky., are trying to counteract the decline in parent involvement that typically occurs after children leave elementary school. They conducted a series of workshops designed to get parents and teachers talking together. To make sure they reached underinvolved parents, Ms. Murray and Ms. Shepherd worked with their school’s Youth Services Center to provide free transportation and child care for those who needed it. With support from the school’s principal, the faculty also changed some policies and practices that tended to alienate parents. One result was the re-establishment of regular parent-teacher conferences. Another was the teachers’ decision to visit the homes of all students sometime during the school year.

“The parents I have talked to who have had a home visit said that it was kind of surprising, but they enjoyed it,” Ms. Murray says.

In Piner, a small northern Kentucky community, new elementary teacher Kathy Schierer says she is thrilled with the help she gets from parents, whose activities have multiplied partly because of the work of Commonwealth Institute fellow Maria Kenner, now a regional coordinator for the program. Ms. Schierer says several parents volunteer in her class each week and stay busy reading to students, helping them learn new words by sight, and “sometimes just doing teacher stuff.”

“The parents really help,” she adds. “Because they’re here, I have time to give appropriate attention to several groups of students at once.”

In other parts of Kentucky, fellows have established targeted reading programs; written a 24-page middle school handbook for incoming 6th graders; sponsored workshops about children’s different learning styles; added parent- involvement projects to the coursework required of student-teachers; and used videoconferences to bring virtual field trips to schools that have little money to spend on travel.

Other stories are less inspiring. At one school in western Kentucky, no parents showed up for a sponsored workshop. A few of the institute’s fellows dropped out after completing the training--but without completing their projects. And some fellows have encountered outright hostility from school board members, principals, and teachers. Yet most of these parents remain optimistic about their ability to influence educational policy and student learning over time.

“The thing I learned the most is that parents have a right to be in the school and a right to say something,” says Kim Kafoglis, a fellow from Bowling Green, Ky. “I learned that I can go into the school and I have a right to be there without feeling like I’m bothering the school or the teacher. I can have a say in what goes on in that school.”

Jay Joines, a fellow from Russellville, Ky., advises parents he works with that they shouldn’t let early setbacks dissuade them from seeking what is their right and responsibility: more active roles in the schools. He reminds the parents--and all of us--that “just because it doesn’t happen now doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

Holly Holland, a writer, editor, and public school parent in Louisville, Ky., is the author of Making Change: Three Educators Join the Battle for Better Schools (Heinemann).


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