Families & the Community

The Dark Side of Parent Involvement

By Debra Viadero — March 24, 2009 1 min read
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In education, encouraging parents to be involved in their children’s schooling is like motherhood and apple pie. Everyone likes it, and who would argue against it?

But a study published last month in the American Journal of Education suggests that parent involvement can have a downside, too.

Researchers Elizabeth McGhee Hassrick of the University of Chicago and Barbara Schneider of Michigan State University spent more than 200 hours observing classrooms and interviewing parents and teachers at an unnamed charter elementary school in a large city. The school’s 100 percent African-American enrollment included families from a range of income levels, from working poor to upper middle class.

According to the study, the middle-class parents essentially “surveilled” the teachers in the school. They kept close tabs on the goings-on by volunteering in their children’s classrooms during the school day, networking with other parents, and peppering teachers with questions during their free time.

The low-income parents, on the other hand, rarely engaged in such activities. They relied on their children to tell them what went on at school.

The teachers chafed under the scrutiny, but the constant presence of the middle-class parents did persuade educators to open up the proverbial closed-doors of their classrooms. The problem, though, was that the middle-class parents used the information they gathered to advance their own children’s education, which further disadvantaged the classmates from poorer families.

That’s food for thought.

I don’t know whether the scenario that the report lays out is typical, but I have met parents like those the authors describe. And I’ve not been above buttonholing other parents myself for intelligence on the best teachers and classes available at my local public schools. But where is the line between responsible and over-zealous parent involvement? And is it up to educators to let us know where that line ought to be?

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