School & District Management

Three Types of Parents Want to Help Schools, Study Finds

By Michele Molnar — April 18, 2013 3 min read
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An in-depth analysis released today of the Kansas City Public Schools’ parent community reveals that there are three types of parents who are ready to work for their children’s education: potential transformers, school helpers, and help seekers.

“Ready, Willing and Able? Kansas City Parents Talk About How to Improve Schools and What They Can Do to Help,” is the new report from New York City-based Public Agenda. Underwritten by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, it looks at how parents see their roles, and concludes that schools intent on boosting parental involvement will need to customize their approaches to match the differing views and concerns of parents.

The three distinct groups defined in the study are:

  • Potential Transformers, who the study’s authors say “are poised for deeper action on education policy, though still on the sidelines.” These parents—31 percent of those surveyed—say they would feel “very comfortable” serving on committees to decide school policies and advocating for school improvements by contacting public officials and the media. However, very few have been involved in these ways.
  • School Helpers—27 percent of those surveyed—are willing to get more involved in traditional ways. Less comfortable with advocacy roles, these parents indicate that they could be more involved helping out directly at their children’s schools. School helpers report feeling “very comfortable” participating in traditional involvement activities, including volunteering during school trips, bake sales or sporting events, or attending PTA meetings.
  • Help Seekers are concerned about their children’s learning and are primarily looking for more guidance from their schools. These parents—19 percent of the total—would make unlikely advocates. They are already doing as much as they possibly can at their children’s school, they say, yet all help seekers feel they have not yet succeeded in helping their children to do their best in school. At the same time, this group is more critical of their teachers and schools than other parents and more skeptical about most initiatives to improve parental involvement.

Education Week spoke with Carolin Hagelskamp, the director of research at Public Agenda, to find out how parent organizers could interpret her organization’s findings.

“Hopefully, they are already working with that frame of mind that parents are very different,” she said. “Not everybody will respond the same way to calls for action and strategies, but they are united in their interest of the best education for their children, and wanting their schools to do well. They may be activated in different ways.”

Using the typology, Hagelskamp said parent organizers could take a more careful approach in framing the conversation and reaching out to parents, “depending upon what those parents’ needs and capacities and willingness and capabilities are.”

Asked whether a parent’s “type” is likely to stay static over the years, she explained that they are not personality characteristics. “This captures where people are in a certain point in time, and where their children are,” she said. For instance, school helpers who are not comfortable talking at the district level or calling the newspaper say they are perfectly comfortable talking to the PTA. In the right situations in school, they could be more connected with transformers, using school events as a bridge to action.

“We were actually quite heartened—positively surprised—that two-thirds of parents believed that if they came together as an advocacy group they could make a difference in the district. A lot of parents we interviewed came from the urban Kansas City School District that has had a lot of trouble and a bad reputation.”

The Public Agenda group found many people who believe that parents can make a difference, and many parents expressing confidence in their ability to do so, Hagelskamp said. “But very few were saying they have done it in the past year, so they’re really an untapped resource,” she observed.

The full study is available here. Public Agenda found similarities between the Kansas City research and a previous study it conducted called “Parents Want to Be Involved in Children’s Education, Yet Don’t Understand Key Factors Affecting Public Education Quality.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.