A few years ago, an Ohio legislator introduced a bill requiring parents to “volunteer” in their children’s schools, with noncompliant parents facing a $100 fine. Although this heavy-handed proposal was swiftly batted down, it highlights both the recognition that volunteering may benefit students and parents as well as the difficulty of getting parents to volunteer.
Appeals to volunteer for various school activities flit through parents’ in-boxes almost weekly. And, as the new school year begins, principals and PTA presidents make their usual pitches for parent volunteering. At a time when education budgets are tight (and would be tighter still without the infusion of federal stimulus funding), schools need almost all the resources—human, as well as financial—that they can get.
Parent volunteering for field trips, fundraisers, classroom, and after-school activities has been associated with improvements in student grades and test scores, according to a 2005 analysis of 77 studies involving 300,000 K-6 students by William Jeynes, an education professor at Cal State-Long Beach. In middle school, students whose parents are involved in PTAs and fundraisers are more likely to go for more advanced academics in high school, another study found. Yet, it may be that students whose parents volunteer are those more likely to succeed anyway.
So, why do volunteer appeals so often fall on deaf ears? For most parents, school is about outsourcing their kids’ education, socialization, and daily care; through their taxes, they’re paying someone else to make schools benefit their children. For others, like those at fundraising dinners or campaign speeches, their civic adrenaline is pumped up and they think, “I want to do that; I want to make a difference,” only for these feelings to fall into the gaping hole of good intentions never acted upon.
Could this change if educators and volunteer mavens better emphasized the benefits for parents, as well as their children? Parent volunteers have better access to teachers, are more in the know about their kids’ education, make new friends, and signal to their children that they care. What’s more, volunteers could be offered incentives such as extra meetings with teachers; awards and small gifts for top volunteers based on parent, teacher, and student voting; or even the opportunity to trade significant volunteer work for an excused absence for their children? Wouldn’t this motivate kids to bug their parents to get off their duffs?
A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12, Parents & the Public blog.