Parents Express Scant Interest in Helping Govern Schools

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Neither parents nor teachers are very enthusiastic about parental involvement in school governance, a survey released last week suggests, despite policymakers' continuing interest in the idea.

Instead, parents and teachers are united in believing that the most important action parents can take is to raise respectful, disciplined children who arrive at school ready to learn, the poll found.

Public Agenda, a nonprofit, New York City-based opinion-research group, conducted the study with funding from Kraft Foods. The findings are contained in a report titled "Playing Their Parts: Parents and Teachers Talk About Parental Involvement in Public Schools."

Two nonprofit organizations that promote parent involvement and also receive financing from Kraft--the Washington-based Public Education Network and the National Association of Partners in Education, located in Alexandria, Va.--plan to use the findings in seminars and forums for their members throughout the country.

The push for parent involvement in school management, said Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director of Public Agenda, "misses the most bedeviling concerns teachers and parents face."

Parents responding to the survey expressed what Ms. Wadsworth called painful angst in wrestling with their conflicting desires to raise children who are both academically successful and happy and well-rounded.

"Parents are not blame-shifting," she said. "They are saying, 'We're not doing as well as we should, and we need help.' "

Parent respondents were most eager to take on such school tasks as chaperoning field trips, helping with events, and volunteering in after-school activities. They were far less interested in helping to plan the curriculum (only 25 percent said they would be "very comfortable" performing such a task) and proposing changes in teaching methods (27 percent would be very comfortable).

Curriculum Design Shunned

Teachers who were polled also rejected proposals to bring parents into the decisionmaking process at school. Just 2 percent of teachers said that helping to design curriculum was one of the most important duties parents could undertake. But 54 percent of teachers supported parents' involvement in decisions on spending school funds, and 49 percent were comfortable with their suggesting materials and topics to be taught.

The report summarizes findings from two surveys, both conducted last fall. The first was a telephone survey of 1,220 parents with children in public schools; the second was a mail survey of 1,000 K-12 public school teachers. Both were preceded by eight focus groups with teachers, parents, and teenagers. The margin of error for both samples is 3 percentage points.

While educators favor parent involvement throughout a child's education, parents took a different view. Nearly all parents interviewed, or 93 percent, said it was important for children to handle schoolwork on their own as they got older.

Parents also showed a "calm acceptance of limits on what their child can achieve," the survey found. Nine in 10 agreed that "children's academic success still has a lot to do with their natural abilities."

'A Thousand Cuts'

Teachers, for their part, did not report experiencing severe obstacles to doing their jobs. Rather, they face lesser impediments that are still cause for concern."Today's teachers, as a group, seem to be experiencing a metaphorical death of a thousand cuts," the report says, including incivility and laziness among students.

More than 80 percent of the teachers cited as a serious problem parents who refuse to hold their children accountable for behavior or academic performance. Similar proportions complained about parents who fail to set limits and create structure at home.

Daniel W. Merenda, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Partners in Education, called the study's results promising. His group, whose 7,000 members are educators and business people involved in promoting partnership and volunteer programs, advocates greater parental involvement in school governance.

The resistance among parents and teachers to such involvement, he said, could be overcome as both become more familiar with successful practices in some schools.

"Where teachers and parents don't know how it's done," Mr. Merenda said, "they're reluctant to do it."

Getting Involved
Parents were asked: How much do you favor or oppose each of these ideas for your school? The figures below show the degree of support for each idea.
Question Strongly Favor Somewhat Favor
Offering working parents school appointments in the early morning or evening so they can meet with teachers. 79% 18%
Giving parents advice on how to get kids excited about learning. 68% 28%
Giving parents more information about how their schools compare with other schools in the area. 63% 27%
Giving parents advice on how to supervise their children's schoolwork. 46% 43%
Giving parents more information on the qualifications of their children's teachers. 54% 33%
Requiring the parents of failing students to attend programs that teach them how to help their kids learn. 51% 30%
Requiring parents and teachers to sign contracts that spell out what each is expected to do to help students succeed. 38% 31%
Requiring teachers to visit the homes of children whose parents have never come to school. 24% 29%
"Playing Their Parts: Parents and Teachers Talk About Parental Involvement in Public Schools" is available for $12.50 from Public Agenda, 6 E. 69th St., New York, NY 10016; (212) 686-6610. Excerpts are also posted on the World Wide Web at

SOURCE: Public Agenda

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 5

Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Parents Express Scant Interest in Helping Govern Schools
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