Families & the Community

Scholars: Parent-School Ties Should Shift in Teen Years

By Debra Viadero — November 17, 2009 6 min read
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Many educators and parents would agree that it’s important for parents to spend time in their children’s classrooms, to closely monitor homework, or to read to children at home.

Try telling that, though, to a 13-year-old, argues Harvard University researcher Nancy E. Hill.

In a series of studies and a new book, Ms. Hill makes the case that both research and policy initiatives aimed at promoting parent involvement fail to take into account the distinct needs of adolescents, a group of students that seems biologically driven to break free of parental vigilance.

“Having your parents involved in a field trip is not wholly consistent with what an adolescent wants,” said Ms. Hill, an education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the university’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Moreover, studies are beginning to show that such activities may not be nearly as important for promoting educational success as other things parents might be doing at home at this stage in their children’s development.

“When you look at parent-adolescent relationships, you see kids pushing back on decisions they want to have control of,” Ms. Hill said, “and it’s much harder for parents to call schools and find out how kids are doing holistically, because they have so many teachers and their teachers see over 100 students a day. We’ve given [parents and teachers] an impossible task.”

“If we’re not going to change the middle school structure,” she added, “how do we help parents navigate it in ways that are consistent with where students are developmentally?”

The focus of the research is timely. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires most schools to enact policies on parent involvement, but it makes no mention of how those efforts in middle and high schools might differ from those in elementary schools, which have been the focus of most of the research on parent involvement until recently.

They should be saying, ‘Here are the courses you need to take, and if your child’s not ready for those courses, here is what you can do to get your child ready so the pathways lie open.’

For the new book, Families, Schools, and the Adolescent, which was published in August by Teachers College Press, Ms. Hill and her co-editor, Ruth K. Chao of the University of California, Riverside, recruited scholars from a variety of disciplines to share some newer findings on family-school partnerships at the secondary school level.

Before the book’s publication, Ms. Hill systematically analyzed 50 studies on parent involvement. The resulting paper was published last spring in the journal Developmental Psychology.

What Ms. Hill found, interestingly, was that some previous reviews of research on family-school partnerships, while pointing to overall academic benefits for students, had lumped together studies of elementary schools with those of middle and high schools.

“I think it may be because many of the analyses were done from an education perspective, and school districts make policy for grades K-12,” Ms. Hill surmised.

What Matters More

When disentangled, the studies geared to middle schools showed that, while parent involvement was still important to students’ learning, the kind of activity mattered. Helping with homework, for instance, did not have much of an impact at all in secondary school. Visiting the school, volunteering, and attending school events seemed to be just moderately related to student achievement.

Twice as effective as the things parents did at school were the efforts they made at home, apart from helping with homework, to support schooling. Those included communicating their expectations for their children’s achievement; discussing learning strategies; fostering career aspirations; linking what children were learning in school, or were interested in learning, to outside activities; and making plans for the future. Ms. Hill puts those activities under the category of “academic socialization.”

Studies in the book point in the same general direction.

Research by Belkis Suazo deCastro, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Sophia Catsambis, a sociology professor at City University of New York, drew on a national sample of 14,000 students who were surveyed in 8th grade in 1988 and again in 12th grade in 1992. Their analysis, for instance, shows that “parents who take an active part in their teens’ preparation for college ... have teens who are motivated to do well in school and thus have few incidents of attendance and disciplinary problems during their senior year.” Frequent parent-school contact, on the other hand, was found to be negatively linked to behavior, possibly because those parents were being called to school to talk about their children’s behavior problems.

Exacerbating Inequities?

That study also suggests, however, that parents’ at-home efforts to impress upon their children the importance of schooling don’t have the same effect on everyone. Minority students’ future outlook and college plans were not as strongly related to such parental actions as were those of their white counterparts.

Ms. Hill came to a similar conclusion in a 2004 study in which researchers followed 462 adolescents from 7th to 11th grade. It found that, for students whose parents had a college education, high levels of parent involvement in middle school were linked to better behavior, higher aspirations, and better achievement later on. That was not the case, though, for students whose parents had not gone to college. High levels of parent involvement for that group translated to high career goals, but not to a similarly high record of student achievement.

“You had kids aspiring to go to college, but they were unprepared,” said Ms. Hill. “Often, educators say parents are uninterested. Many are [interested], though, and they’re doing what we tell them to do, but it’s not working.”

That, Ms. Hill said, is where schools have a role to play. In addition to asking parents to volunteer and check their children’s homework, middle schools ought to be sketching out for parents—particularly those who have never been to college—the educational pathways that lead from middle school to high school to college.

“They should be saying, ‘Here are the courses you need to take, and if your child’s not ready for those courses, here is what you can do to get your child ready so the pathways lie open.’”

Robert Crosnoe, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, describes, in a separate chapter of the book, a study in which he attempted to test that idea.

He used a federal set of national data to determine whether better communication between families and schools about the transition from middle school to high school might be related to less “slippage” for beginning high school students. By slippage, Mr. Crosnoe means the disconnect that occurs when students are placed in high school courses that don’t match up with their previous academic accomplishments. He focused in particular on mathematics and science courses.

What he found was that such mismatches occurred less often when parents, middle schools, and high schools were all communicating with one another about the academic pathways leading from middle school to college—and that was especially true for Latino students, some of whom came from families with limited experiences with American schools.

“Where high school students start off their coursework is the best predictor of where they finish their coursework in high school, and where they finish their coursework is the best predictor for whether they go to college and whether they stay in college,” Mr. Crosnoe said. “Those are really discrete events that are easier for educators to target.”

And that’s the kind of effort where research suggests better family-school partnerships might yield the biggest payoff.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Researchers Explore Teens, Parents, Schools

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