Education Opinion

What About Parental Involvement in Parenting?

By Maurice J. Elias & Yoni Schwab — October 20, 2004 8 min read
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Parents spend less time than ever with their children. How much of that time should be focused on academics?

In April, the U.S. Department of Education released its long-awaited document describing how states, districts, and schools are supposed to carry out the parental-involvement provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. “Parental Involvement: Title I, Part A: Non-Regulatory Guidance” seems to place parents in the role of curriculum policymakers and consultants, co-teachers, and teachers’ aides. One might get the impression that their main purpose is to ensure their children’s optimal academic performance. Yet, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count surveys and related studies of child outcomes suggest, parents’ top priority should be attending to basic parenting responsibilities.

Parents spend less time than ever with their children. How much of that time should be focused on academics? And what exactly can parents do that would best support their children’s academic development? We propose this bold concept as a precondition for parental involvement in schools: parental involvement in parenting.

There are some necessary aspects of parenting that, if not done, will make the academic-support activities recommended by federal officials ineffective or unrealistic, especially for families in urban, high-risk communities. For parents with the least time, energy, and resources to parent effectively, schools should be a support in fulfilling their primary role, not the other way around.

We do not mean to imply that parents should be excluded from educational decisionmaking. On the contrary, we believe appropriate parental input (taking into account that parents are not experts and should leave room for educators to make pedagogic decisions) has myriad positive effects on schools and their students. But parents burdened with too many responsibilities and too little support should not be expected to become policy wonks and curriculum specialists, as the guidance document implies. And schools, so often challenged in direct proportion to the life difficulties their families face, should not be saddled with yet another time-consuming and nearly impossible task.

In fact, the very notion of partnership, as put forth in the department’s “guidance on parental involvement,” is flawed. Here, for example, are a few illustrative quotes from the document, with our comments:

Introduction and Purpose

    “When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.” (Guideline A-4)

“Studies have found that students with involved parents, no matter what their income or background, are more likely to earn high grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs; pass their classes, earn credits, and be promoted; attend school regularly; and graduate and go on to postsecondary education.” (A-5)

It is difficult to argue with these points; who could take a position against parental involvement or decry the potential benefits of it? However, the devil is in the details. What kind and extent of parental involvement is needed? A look at the guidance’s definition of parental involvement is illuminating.

Defining Parental Involvement

    “The statute defines parental involvement as the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities, including ensuring that parents play an integral role in assisting in their child’s learning; that parents are encouraged to be actively involved in their child’s education at school; [and] that parents are full partners in their child’s education and are included, as appropriate, in decisionmaking and on advisory committees to assist in the education of their child. …” (A-1)

“An LEA’s [local educational agency’s] written parental-involvement policy must establish the LEA’s expectations for parental involvement, and describe how the LEA will involve parents in jointly developing the LEA’s local plan; … build the schools’ and parents’ capacity for strong parental involvement; … [and] conduct, with the involvement of parents, an annual evaluation of the content and effectiveness of the parental-involvement policy in improving the academic quality of the schools. …” (C-3; only some of the requirements have been quoted here.)

It is hard to imagine poor, overworked single parents or nonparental caregivers going to steering-committee meetings month after month to decide how parents should be involved and then evaluate the school’s efforts.

Examples of Involving Parents

    “It is the responsibility of schools and LEAs to help parents understand topics that will help them become equal partners with educators in improving their children’s academic achievement. Schools and LEAs must help parents understand such things as the state’s academic-content standards and state student academic-achievement standards; state and local academic assessments, including alternative assessments; the parental-involvement requirements of section 1118; and how to monitor their child’s progress and work with educators to improve the achievement of their child.” (E-2)

What level of detail should parents be expected to know about these arcane topics? How are nonexpert parents supposed to evaluate all the information they will be receiving? The premise of parents as equal partners with educators is questionable with respect to understanding state policies and approaches, particularly around assessment. Is this really what we want our parental involvement to look like?

Like mom and apple pie, much of what is being asked of parents appears unassailable on the surface. The guidelines claim, ironically, that “although section 1118 is extensive in scope and has many requirements for LEAS and schools, the intent is not to be burdensome” (A-7). And what of the demand on parents? In the quotes above, which represent just a fraction of this 61-page document, readers can see that these requirements are both impractical and misdirected.

Parents burdened with too many responsibilities and too little support should not be expected to become policy wonks and curriculum specialists.

Two education professors— Diane Stephens of the University of South Carolina and Gail Boldt of the University of Iowa— suggest in the May 2004 Phi Delta Kappan a set of questions to gauge the adequacy of edu cational partnerships. Their questions provide us with a framework for judging these federal guidelines on parental partnerships and formulating recommendations:

1. Who will be partners?

The first challenge is that one school must partner with many “homes.” Though a school can operate as a unit (in theory), each home is unique and autonomous. How many “homes” must be involved, in which activities, and to what extent?

2. What does each partner receive, and what would have to happen for each partner to feel adequately compensated for its contribution?

In this partnership, burdens are added to both parents and educators. Schools must enable parents to become involved in the schools, in educational policy, and in the academic life of students; parents must absorb these teachings and add this participation to their already overburdened and hectic routines. This area is closely related to the next question.

3. What will each partner contribute?

Imagine, if you can, parents of power-plant workers coming in for a visit and saying to supervisors, “You know, you should turn that water up a little. I think it should be hotter.” Or parents of surgical patients coming in to advise doctors that they should snip a little more here or less there. The equivalent of this happens in education all the time, as parents come to school and make curriculum suggestions—if not demands—on teachers. It is not clear how, or why, parents should have a great deal to contribute to issues of educational pedagogy, policy, and practice.

In a similar way, teachers are supposed to be experts at educating children, not adults. The Education Department’s guidance actually calls upon both sets of partners to base their partnership on areas that are not their primary areas of expertise.

In essence, it is saying that parents’ most important job is to ensure the academic success of their children. While this is not stated in as many words, our reading of the guidance is that the role of parents as their children’s first teachers is narrowly interpreted to the three R’s, rather than as educating students for success in life, as well as school.

There is no mystery about what children need for social, emotional, and academic growth and the development of sound character. Fortunately, it is within the reach of the vast majority of parents to provide what is needed. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and the Laboratory for Student Success have taken a lead role in identifying these factors and are excellent resources for educators and parents.

Schools can offer workshops, parenting classes, and other support services to help parents promote the social and emotional development of their children. Schools can focus on fostering a sense of community by hosting schoolwide family activities, creating parenting-resource centers, and giving parents structured opportunities to volunteer in classrooms and at school events or trips. Parents should be encouraged to support their children’s education by creating daily routines that are predictable and structured, taking an active interest in school to convey the values of education and effort to their children, and making homework a priority by dealing with the problem of TV and other media distractions.

In sum, the guidance for parental involvement, as promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education, would be more valuable to educators, parents, and students (especially those who are most behind) if it focused on helping parents with their primary task, that of parenting. Parental involvement in parenting is the foundation of effective parental involvement in the schools—and of student success.


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