Families & the Community

Kentucky Trains Parents to Help Schools Bolster STEM Subjects

By Sean Cavanagh — September 08, 2008 7 min read
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Allison Mefford describes herself as a “recovering lawyer” who makes a living these days as a fitness instructor. But this school year, the parent from western Kentucky is stepping into another role—as an ambassador for math and science education.

Ms. Mefford is one of 32 mothers and fathers from around the state who are taking part in an unusual effort to encourage parents to take a more active role in promoting those topics in their local schools.

They’ve joined the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, which tries to help adults work with teachers and administrators, and muster support from other parents, to strengthen student achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM topics.

In reaching out to parents, the program is targeting a population that traditionally plays a crucial role in raising student interest and performance in those subjects. Yet, according to many educators and policymakers, parents are often ambivalent about the importance of that mission.

Parents' Impressions

Many parents express satisfaction with their children’s math and science education—even more so now—based on surveys taken in 2006 and 1994.

Most parents say their child takes enough math and science now.

Do you think that your child’s school should be teaching him/her a lot more math and science, less, or are things fine as they are?

BRIC ARCHIVE

Parents’ concerns about math and science education have fallen since the mid-1990s.

How serious a problem is each of these in your own community’s public schools ... kids are not taught enough math and science?

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Public Agenda

The institute is sponsored by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky.-based organization that seeks to improve schools and the public’s involvement in education. Since 1997, the organization has arranged institutes to promote parent involvement in other subjects, but it launched a program specifically focused on math and science this year in response to growing state and national interest in those topics, said Bob Sexton, the director of the Prichard Committee.

A few states have programs aimed at boosting parents’ involvement in STEM education, though those ventures are focused more on public outreach campaigns than targeting individual mothers and fathers, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research organization. Local attempts to encourage parents to become involved in those subjects, through activities such as parents’ math or science nights, are common, though such efforts are typically confined to a single school or district.

The goal of the Kentucky initiative is to help parents understand what it takes to raise students’ achievement in math and science, and to have them rally other parents to the cause, said Mr. Sexton, who is also a member of the board of trustees of Editorial Projects in Education, the corporate entity of Education Week.

“A lot of it is legwork,” he said of parents’ involvement. “It’s like organizing a [political] precinct, one vote at a time. It’s making sure that the school has programs in place that welcome parents—is the school open to them?”

See Also

Go to the Curriculum Matters blog for a wide-ranging discussion on school curriculum across the subject areas.

Ms. Mefford already tries to nurture a love of science in her son, Owen, a 1st grader at Cumberland Trace Elementary School in Bowling Green. She sat with him earlier this year to watch a replay of a space-shuttle launch, which feeds into his career ambition to become an astronaut. She talks with him about the behavior of the turkeys, deer, and other animals that live near their rural home.

But she wanted to become more involved in her son’s school, and so when she saw a notice about the STEM institute, she signed up. Ms. Mefford attended a two-day workshop, led by teachers and college faculty members from around the state, on Aug. 14-15, and she will go to four more days of training later this fall.

‘Everyday Life’ Connections

Parents who take part in the institute are taught strategies on leadership and working collaboratively with school officials and other parents. They are also given an overview of Kentucky’s state academic standards and lessons on how to examine student-achievement data at their schools, such as test scores in math and science.

Participants are expected to work with school officials to design STEM-related projects that focus on raising student and parent understanding and appreciation for STEM-related subjects.

Influencing parents’ perceptions of math is “huge,” Ms. Mefford said. “There are practical applications for math. It’s not just for people who want to be engineers. It’s for everyday things. It’s for balancing your checkbook. Math is part of everyday life.”

Ms. Mefford has met with the principal of her son’s school, Mary Evans, to hash out ideas for a project. One option is staging some sort of family “math celebration” after school hours, during which parents and their children could talk about and work on math activities. Another possibility is to include tips on how to expose children to everyday math—such as lessons about cars’ miles per gallon gas usage or prices at the grocery store—in the school’s weekly newsletter to parents, Friday Notes, the principal said.

The prospect of having a corps of mothers and fathers who have a strong interest in touting math and science is both appealing and highly unusual, Ms. Evans acknowledged. She says she has grown used to hearing parents recount their own struggles in math and science to their children, an admission that does little to inspire students.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my, that’s not what we want children to hear,’?” Ms. Evans said.

Research shows that parents can have a strong influence on whether their children develop an interest and confidence in math and science. One recent study showed that fathers, in particular, hold especially strong sway over their daughters’ interest in math and that they tend to encourage boys more than girls in that area. (“When It Comes to Math and Science, Mom and Dad Count,” Oct. 24, 2007.)

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group charged with studying effective classroom strategies in that subject, made a similar point in a report released this year. Children’s goals and beliefs about learning affect math performance, the authors noted, yet many parents cling to the “erroneous idea that success is largely a matter of inherent talent or ability, not effort.”

While raising student performance in math and science has emerged as a top priority among education policymakers in recent years, many parents do not appear to share this concern. A 2006 nationwide survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan New York City research organization, found that many parents were satisfied with the level of math and science at their children’s schools and that public concern about those subjects has actually fallen since the mid-1990s.

Although parents can have a well-documented influence on children’s interest and performance in math and science, the long-term impact of efforts like the Kentucky STEM institute are less clear, said Andrew W. Shouse, a senior program officer at the National Academies, a congressionally chartered research entity. School success will be tied much more strongly to other factors, such as curriculum and professional development, said Mr. Shouse, who is also the associate director of the newly created Institute for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

Cooperative Approach

Even so, the Kentucky program’s potential to cultivate a group of parents who doggedly press for better math and science education in their school should not be underestimated, Mr. Shouse said. “If you’ve got parents who show up and say, ‘We have strong expectations,’ it will have an effect,” he said.

To recruit parents to the institute, organizers sent out mailings to school districts inviting mothers and fathers to participate and advertised in newspapers and on radio, said Sheila Cruse Johnston, who helped with that undertaking as a community-support coordinator for the program. Fifty-eight parents applied to take part in the STEM institute, which plays out over six sessions this summer and fall; space was available for 32 participants. There is no cost.

In addition to looking at state and school learning goals, parents are being given suggestions on how to work cooperatively with school administrators and to offer themselves as a “resource” to teachers and administrators considering new approaches to math- and science-centered subjects.

“We encourage them not to go in as all-knowing,” Ms. Cruse Johnston said of the parents.

For one parent taking part, Glenn Edelen, the biggest challenge is finding math- and science-related activities that can be molded to the needs of his 8-year-old daughter’s school, Huntertown Elementary in Versailles. Mr. Edelen, an electrical engineer, says he would like to help the school devise projects on alternative energy, but is struggling to figure out how to make it fit Kentucky’s state science curriculum. He has begun discussing options with a teacher at his daughter’s school.

Another hurdle, he predicted, will be to foster a sustained interest among parents, so that if the school arranges out-of-school science activities, many mothers and fathers will take part. He makes his living in a science field, but he knows that many parents approach the subject more hesitantly.

“Having a lot of parents involved” is crucial, Mr. Edelen said. “It usually comes down to two or three parents, or two or three parents carry most of the load. There has to be broad support.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Kentucky Trains Parents to Help Schools Bolster STEM Subjects


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