Families & the Community

Parents Show Strong Interest in School Involvement

By Catherine Gewertz — October 23, 2008 5 min read
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The vast majority of parents believe it is important for them to be involved in their teenagers’ high school educations, a study shows, but parents whose children attend low-performing schools say their schools do little to involve them.

The report, released last week by Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that studies public-policy issues, found that parents whose children attend high-performing schools said their schools do a far better job reaching out to them than did parents of children in low-performing schools.

Most parents cited lack of time as the biggest barrier to their involvement at school, the study notes. But it assigns primary responsibility for poor parent engagement to the schools.

“Parents at low-performing schools are clearly dissatisfied with the ways their children’s schools reach out to them,” the study says. “This failure on the part of schools leads parents to lower levels of involvement.”

The report is based on a nationally representative 2007 survey of 1,006 parents of current and recent high school students, and on focus groups conducted with parents in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Nashville, Tenn. Parents identified their schools as low-, moderate- or high-performing by estimating the portion of graduates who went on to college.

The study was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also underwrites Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report on high school completion.

John M. Bridgeland, Civic Enterprises’ president and chief executive officer, said he hopes the study can “debunk the myth that parents don’t care or want to be engaged in the academic development of their children. The evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.”

More than 90 percent of African-American and Hispanic parents surveyed said it is very important for their children to get an education that leads to college, compared with 78 percent of white parents. Parents of children in low-performing schools were more likely than those in better-performing schools to say it is important for them to be involved as advocates in their child’s high school: Eighty-five percent said so, compared with 78 percent of high-performing-school parents.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that presses for better schooling for disadvantaged children, said those findings help erode a stereotype that undermines good relationships between minority parents and their children’s schools.

“It’s a constant problem—the willingness of educators to assume that low-income parents, especially minority parents, don’t have the same aspirations for their children that wealthier parents have,” she said. “It’s not that they have different values. It’s that the quality of schools their children attend is different.”

Grading the High Schools

In a recent survey, parents of students in high- and low-performing high schools gave these responses when asked whether their children’s schools do a good job.


SOURCE: Civic Enterprises

Parents may share a belief in the value of academic success, but their experiences trying to support it are linked to the schools’ own performance, the study found.

Barely half of parents in low-performing schools reported that they have had good conversations with most of their children’s teachers, compared with 70 percent of parents in high-performing schools. Eight in 10 parents in high-performing schools said their schools do a good job of communicating with them about their children’s academic performance, but only four in 10 parents in low-performing schools thought so.

Struggling Schools Lag

Far fewer parents of children in low-performing schools thought the schools encouraged their involvement or informed them well about graduation and college-entrance requirements, the study found. Parents in high-performing schools also saw more opportunity for substantive involvement in their children’s academic work. More than two-thirds said schools give them the chance to participate in choosing their children’s courses, compared with only 30 percent of parents in low-performing schools.

Lower-performing schools score poorly not only in their dealings with parents, but in their work with students. Fifteen percent or fewer of parents in those schools felt the schools did a good job of challenging their children or keeping them engaged, compared with more than half the parents in high-performing schools. Only two in 10 parents in the struggling schools thought educators did well preparing their children for college, but two-thirds of parents in high-performing schools said they did.

A greater share of parents in low-performing schools, though, acknowledged they are not as involved in their children’s educations as they should be. Only four in 10 said they were sufficiently involved, compared with nearly seven in 10 of the parents in higher-flying schools. Most cited time and scheduling conflicts as the main barrier to greater involvement. But one-quarter cited lack of information, communication, and knowledge as stumbling blocks.

In the survey and focus groups, parents identified measures they thought would facilitate their involvement at school. They wanted schools to notify them early when problems take shape. They yearned for contact when children are in 8th or 9th grade to design a plan for their success. Many focus-group participants noted that they found the transition from middle to high school daunting and complicated, and needed support from educators, the study says.

Point of Contact Needed

Parents also said they want more information about graduation and college requirements, and wished for a single point of contact in high schools, such as advisers who are well versed on all aspects of their children’s progress.

Bob Wise, the former West Virginia governor who is now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that advocates reform of the nation’s high schools, said a single point of contact can open the “forbidding cave” of high school to parents, and build their understanding of what is necessary to their children’s success. That knowledge can translate into crucial support for schools as they try to improve, he said.

“That kind of will-building, understanding what it takes to turn around a low-performing school, depends a lot on the attitude and support of parents,” Mr. Wise said.

Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, said it is particularly tough for parents to be involved at the high school level, in part because adolescents don’t want their parents around, and typically don’t let them know what’s up at school. The large size of most schools makes close parent-school connections challenging as well, he said.

But he said his organization’s study of “breakthrough high schools”—high-minority, high-poverty schools with good college-going rates—shows that strong parent involvement is possible.

“What you need is principals and faculty who understand this,” Mr. Tirozzi said. “Where you find solid leadership, these things do happen.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Parents Show Strong Interest in School Involvement


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