Families & the Community

Analysis Offers Insights Into Tapping Parent Power to Increase Achievement

By Holly Kurtz — May 26, 2014 5 min read
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Built into the body of No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is an assumption that increasing parental involvement will improve student achievement. For instance, when schools consistently fall short of making what the law calls “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) toward improving their test scores, they may be required to take steps like hiring a parent-involvement coordinator.

But does this sort of thing really work?

Until now, it has been difficult to answer that question because few studies have examined the relationship between parent involvement, as defined by NCLB, and student achievement, as defined by making AYP. But an article published in December in the peer-refereed journal School Effectiveness and School Improvement helps to fill that gap by exploring the connection between parent involvement and AYP in a nationally representative sample of 7,380 urban, suburban, and rural schools. The survey was designed by the U.S. Department of Education. The Census Bureau collected the data during the 2007-08 school year.

The research team consisted of professor Xin Ma of the University of Kentucky’s School of Education in Lexington, Jianping Shen, an education professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and Huilan Krenn, a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. Its members found that schools in which principals report higher rates of parent involvement are more likely to make AYP. They are also more likely to avoid falling into the category of low-performing schools that must make mandatory changes under the law.

But here’s the wrinkle: That finding only applies to a measure of involvement that considered parent-participation rates in activities such as conferences with back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences.

Researchers got very different results when they examined a different measure of involvement that asked principals to assess their schools’ efforts to reach out to families by pouring resources into such activities as providing a parent drop-in center or assigning a staff member to address parental involvement. Even after they accounted for potentially relevant factors such as poverty, researchers found that schools that made a bigger effort to increase parent involvement were more likely to be among the low-performing schools that face consequences under the law. Urban and suburban schools that made a bigger effort to reach out to parents were also more likely to miss making AYP. For rural schools, it made no difference.

Ma and his co-authors offered several possible explanations for this unexpected finding. One was that the schools that tried too hard discouraged parent involvement. Another was that the schools least likely to make AYP also happened to pour more resources into parent involvement. But the explanation that the researchers considered most convincing was something they called “the parent initiator hypothesis.”

“This hypothesis suggests that schools as initiators of parental involvement may not be as effective as parents as initiators of parental involvement,” they explained. “For example, if schools develop a structured (formal) support system for parental involvement, it may intimidate parents as it may imply bureaucracy, pressure, and accountability for parents to get involved.”

Results of past studies suggest that communication is an important aspect of parent involvement, the researchers found. So they also considered how often the websites were updated for the schools they studied. Schools that updated their websites on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis were 1.3 to 2.6 times more likely to make AYP than schools that made less than one update per month. Schools that updated their websites at least once a month were also 1.5 to 2 times more likely to avoid being classified among their state’s lowest-performing schools. But these findings only applied to websites in urban schools. The frequency of website updates made no difference in either rural or suburban areas.

The researchers also found that urban schools that updated their sites on a daily basis got much better outcomes than those that made weekly or monthly updates. Although they did not have information on web site content, they proposed that schools that updated more frequently might be communicating different information to parents than those that updated less than once per month.

“For example, what applies to a monthly update pertains likely to event calendar changes, the posting of a new cafeteria menu, or the announcement of important due dates for the following month,” they wrote. “These updates merely inform parents. In contrast, what applies to a daily update pertains likely to the blogging of teachers and administrators, the posting of daily homework assignments and helps online, or the distribution of supplementary learning materials. These updates primarily help parents (e.g., plan and monitor learning activities at home).”

The final parent-involvement indicator examined by the researchers was the availability of translators and translated materials for parents with limited English proficiency (LEP). This made a big difference for urban schools. They were twice as likely to make AYP if they offered translated materials. By contrast, translated materials did not seem to help rural or suburban schools make AYP. Nor did it help urban schools avoid the “lowest-performing schools” category.

“We refer to this proposition as the no worse hypothesis of parental involvement,” the researchers wrote. “This hypothesis suggests that provision of translated materials as a way to involve parents with LEP works to reward urban schools that pursue it but does not penalize urban schools that do not pursue it. When funds are limited to promote parental involvement with many competing options, priorities may be given to other initiatives over provisions of interpreters and translated materials to parents with LEP especially in suburban and rural schools.”

More generally, parent involvement measures made a bigger difference in urban than in rural or suburban schools.

“Common wisdom and empirical data indicate that urban schools tend to have lower school performance,” the researchers wrote. “We propose that low school performance of urban schools may well be the condition to activate the urban location hypothesis of parental involvement. This indicates to us that the importance of parental involvement has an upper limit. That is, parental involvement may cease to be important once school performance raises to a certain level. We refer to this proposition as the upper limit hypothesis of parental involvement.”

The researchers cautioned that their analysis faced three main limitations. One was that they did not have student-level data, so they were unable to explore variability that may have arisen as a result of differences among students within the same school. The second was that their measures of parental involvement were based on surveys of principals, not parents. Finally, they noted that different states have different criteria for determining whether schools have made AYP, which means it’s harder to make AYP in some states than in others.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.