Student Achievement

Effectiveness Measure for Mothers Highlights Demographic Gaps

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 09, 2013 5 min read
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With research and policy debates heating up over value-added measures of teachers and principals, it was only a matter of time before someone got around to creating a value-added-style measure of parents. A new parent-quality analysis released this afternoon by the Brookings Institution suggests that closing the “parenting gap” to make the least effective parents at least average could improve the nation’s high school graduation rate by 9 percentage points. Yet it provides little explanation of what differences in parenting styles or practices are better for children, or what role schools should play in teaching parents how to parent.

Authors Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard, of Brookings’ Center on Children and Families, based their assessment of parent quality on parents’ relative scores on the HOME interview and observation protocol, given to the mothers of nearly 5,800 children born in the late 1980s and 1990s, who were themselves participating in the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979. (You can read the full questionnaire here.) The questions range from specifics about home resources—how many stuffed toys or music albums a child has, for example—to academic support such as homework help, and whether the child reads stories or attends museums with parents; to interactions such as family meals and disciplinary practices.

In addition, a home observer also provides feedback on the parent-child interactions, such as whether the mother’s voice “conveys positive feeling” toward her child, and the child’s home environment, such as whether the home is light, not “perceptually monotonous,” and whether all visible rooms in the house are “reasonably clean” and “minimally cluttered.” (Note to all potential parenting researchers: You are not allowed in my house beyond the front hallway without 48 hours’ notice, and only then if my toddler has been away visiting grandparents for at least a week.)

The scale ultimately identified a little less than one in five parents as the “strongest” parents, and a little more than one in five as the “weakest.” More than 75 percent of children of parents who rated in the top 20 percent on the HOME scale graduated high school with at least a 2.5 GPA, no criminal record, and no child of their own, while 70 percent of children of the lowest-scoring fifth of parents did not make it through their adolescent years with a diploma and without a teen pregnancy or an arrest record.

The results are deeply disturbing, in large part because they rehash stereotypes about the quality of parenting being tied to demographic characteristics such as income and race:

The HOME survey has some pretty glaring holes—which the authors acknowledge, though primarily in footnotes. The first, and biggest, is that this, like most parenting studies, looks only at mothers. The fact that the researchers find higher rates of “best” parents among married mothers would suggest it might be helpful to observe the parenting practices of fathers (or, as the survey offers, “father figures”), too. Further, as the authors later note, 75 percent of the black mothers were surveyed and observed by a white interviewer, and a separate study found racial bias in white observers evaluating parents of another race or ethnicity.

The authors acknowledge that they found no causal connections among different types of parents and their children’s outcomes that couldn’t be accounted for by factors other than parenting styles. For example, while nearly 30 percent of single moms in the Murphy Brown-era survey were rated among the worst parents, that rate dropped to only 4 percent once other factors, such as income and education, were taken into account “suggesting that it is the circumstances and traits that are associated with being an unmarried mother that are important, rather than the fact of being unmarried itself,” the researchers note.

The authors argue for policymakers to better target support to effective parenting-education programs, and home-visiting programs in particular, to teach at-risk parents better ways to interact with their children. For example, it finds that the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters program, which directly teaches parents how to read to and play with their children, improved long-term academic outcomes for low-income students. It would be helpful to see more in-depth analysis of these interventions, how they relate to different parenting styles, and whether they are being targeted based on specific parenting behaviors, rather than income, race, or socially frowned upon family characteristics.

Most value-added measures of teachers or schools are based on benchmarks such as the child’s progress on standardized tests or, in later grades, high school graduation rates. There’s already plenty of debate over whether many of the value added measures work when it comes to evaluating teachers of different subjects, or untested grade levels, but at least there’s (mostly) agreement that teachers and principals within these systems are working towards those outcomes. Perhaps I’m putting on my own parent-hat here, but I think it would be helpful to see more study here of the outcomes parents want most for their children—not in vague abstract terms, but in goals that affect their immediate parenting behaviors. Will it change a mother’s behavior in different ways if she prioritizes building a close relationship with her child, or ensuring the child behaves in preschool, or something else entirely? Other studies have shown that parents’ beliefs and priorities can have a dramatic effect on how their child learns and relates in school, but not necessarily in simple good-or-bad ways.

What’s the outcome we’re looking for on a test of parenting? If a girl grows up to be a neurotic, heavily drinking lawyer at a top New York firm who votes in every election, how successful has her mother been as a parent? If a boy dropped out of college to start a bike-repair business and has been happily married for three years, should his parents feel disappointed or proud? If researchers and policymakers hope to influence parent behavior, they need to know what outcomes parents are looking for, too.

Chart Source: Brookings Institute Center on Children and Families.

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