Fathers Play Unique Role in Schooling, Study Finds

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Children do better academically when their fathers are actively involved in their schools, concludes a recent U.S. Department of Education study.

Research on the role that parents play in their children's schooling has traditionally focused on mothers or on both parents. The few studies that have concentrated on fathers have tended to dwell on the effect on children of having no father, or of having an absent one.

The Education Department's study, published last month, is among the first to put a microscope on the part that fathers play in their children's schools and educational development.

High Involvement

It is based on a nationwide survey, conducted in the1995-96 school year, of the parents of 17,000 children in kindergarten through 12th grade. The researchers gauged the level of involvement by asking parents whether they had volunteered at their children's schools, attended a parent-teacher conference, gone to a school or class event, or attended a general school meeting since the beginning of the school year. Parents who took part in three or more of the activities were considered to be highly involved. Parents with low involvement participated in none or one of the activities.

For More Information:

"Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools'' is available for free from the National Library of Education; (800) 424-1616. The report is also posted on the Internet at www.nces.ed.gov/pubs98/fathers/index.html.

The bottom line, the researchers found, was that fathers' involvement in their children's schools was uniquely important, regardless of whether they lived with their children.

In traditional, two-parent families, having a father who was notably active in his children's schools increased the odds that the offspring earned mostly A's, that they enjoyed school, and that they participated in extracurricular activities---even after the researchers took into account mothers' level of involvement in those families. Children in those families were also less likely to have had to repeat a grade when their fathers were highly committed to their school life.

In single-parent families headed by a father, having an exceedingly active father increased the likelihood that the children got mostly A's and reduced the likelihood that the students had ever been suspended or expelled.

Even when the father lived outside the children's home, his involvement in school cut the chances that the children had been suspended, expelled, or held back.

"But on the bad-news side is the fact that there are large numbers of fathers who are not involved or who have low-level involvement," added Jerry West, the early-childhood longitudinal study project officer with the department's National Center for Education Statistics. He is one of the three co-authors of the study.

Only 27 percent of the fathers in two-parent families, for example, were deeply involved in their children's schools, compared with 56 percent of the mothers in those families. Single fathers tended to be more active, with 46 percent of that group deemed to be highly engaged in the schools.

Targeting Fathers

The researchers said the low participation of fathers in two-parent families offers an opportunity for schools to better direct their parent-involvement efforts.

"By targeting fathers, schools may be able to make greater gains in parental involvement than by targeting mothers or parents in general," they write.

The researchers also found that:

  • Mothers and fathers were more likely to be highly immersed in their children's schools if the schools welcomed parents and made involvement easy.
  • The likelihood of fathers' participating actively in their children's schools was higher in two-parent families where mothers were also very active in their children's schools.
  • Children who spent time with their nonresident fathers, but whose fathers did not share in any of their school activities, did no better academically than children who had not had contact with their fathers in more than a year or who had never had contact with their fathers.

The researchers cautioned, however, against drawing too strong a conclusion from their findings.

"Fathers," they write, "may be more likely to be highly involved because their children are doing well, or their children may be doing better because their fathers are highly involved."

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