Even the parched language of the No Child Left Behind Act can’t conceal the high hopes lodged in the parts of the federal law that deal with parents.
More testing and better teachers have drawn greater attention, but they are not the only means the 4½-year-old law envisions for bringing every child up to academic par by 2014. Involved, informed, and provided with choices, parents—especially poor parents—will help change schools for the better. Or so the law seems to assume.
Research backs the hopes—to a point. After three decades of studies, there’s broad agreement that parent involvement and student success generally go together. And most research has focused on pinpointing and overcoming the barriers that have kept many low-income and minority parents bit players in their children’s formal education.
Joyce Epstein, a leading researcher in the area of parent engagement, calls the parent-involvement part of the law “absolutely doable.”
While not perfect, the measure goes far in specifying many of the organizational practices that research and experience have shown build programs that will involve all families, no matter their backgrounds, according to Ms. Epstein, an education sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“For the vast majority of parents, [involvement will] happen through good communication and partnership work,” led by the school, she said.
But a dissenting view among researchers stresses the obstacles—that the work of getting parents into the loop as participants may be much harder than many educators and policymakers have reckoned. And that difficulty raises questions about the law’s mandates for plowing money and effort into parent involvement, some scholarship suggests.
“I am not that optimistic,” said Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Maryland College Park who has studied the way parents of different economic classes relate to schools, referring to the law’s potential to change prevailing patterns. “The barriers are enormous, and it’s not about parents not wanting to be helpful.”
Ms. Lareau said she worries about the energy being put into complying with what she views as “symbolic regulations” unlikely to make sense to most teachers or give parents the help they need.
The No Child Left Behind Act, the latest version of the main federal law for precollegiate education, requires districts to write parent-involvement policies and help schools with their work in that area.
Public schools receiving federal anti-poverty Title I money—roughly half of those nationwide—need to have such policies, developed jointly with parents, and spend a minimum of around 1 percent of their money on engaging families. Schools can use the federal aid, for example, to hire parent liaisons or hold workshops for teachers.
The law also mandates that parents with children in a Title I school be informed—in understandable language—about the school’s academic standards and tests, how their children are faring in their classes, and what parents themselves can do to help. Parents are also to be notified if their child has a teacher who does not meet the federal definition of “highly qualified.”
Finally, if a school has done badly, parents are to learn about that, too, with districts giving them options: transferring their child to a better-performing school the first year a school has been tagged “in need of improvement,” and free tutoring the following year.
It’s a mishmash that in part beefs up requirements for fostering parent involvement from earlier versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and in part significantly bolsters parents’ roles as consumers.
The idea has long been that a partnership between home and school will help students succeed. With the NCLB law, there’s a new emphasis on parents as agents of accountability. Armed with information and choices, the thinking goes, parents will force schools to improve.
Some Schools Point the Way
Among the work that suggests the No Child Left Behind law may be on the right track is a 2002 review of recent family-involvement research conducted by Anne T. Henderson, an independent consultant affiliated with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Karen L. Mapp, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They found “an ever-strengthening case” for working with parents.
Through 51 studies selected for their quality, the researchers documented the connection between parents’ efforts and students’ doing better and staying longer in school.
The link holds, they said, no matter the parents’ income or background. They acknowledged that white, middle-class families tend to be more involved than poorer and minority families, but they noted that studies also found families of all categories exerting a positive influence on their children’s learning.
“What some of the studies show, surprisingly, is how much some lower-income, less-well-educated families are trying to do with their kids at home,” said Ms. Henderson, who had written three earlier reviews on the same topic.
Further, the authors said, research shows that the right approach can make a significant difference in how much and how effectively parents participate.
Ms. Epstein and a group at Johns Hopkins have been honing approaches for more than 10 years through their National Network of Partnership Schools, which now includes more than 1,000 schools, as well as districts, states, and other organizations.
In a 2005 paper looking at reports from nearly 500 schools in the network, Steven B. Sheldon, the research director for the Johns Hopkins network, concluded that strong parent-school partnerships were linked to active committees at each school, supportive principals, and districts that made parent involvement a priority.
Compared with the previous version of the main federal K-12 law, the No Child Left Behind Act strengthens the requirements on schools and districts for engaging parents.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1994)
Required schools receiving Title I money to:
• Work with parents to write a parent-involvement policy,
• Hold an annual meeting to explain parents’ rights to be involved,
• Spell out how the school and parents will work together to support student learning,
• Use at least 1 percent of their money on parent involvement.
Required districts to:
• Develop a parent-involvement policy in consultation with parents.
No Child Left Behind Act (2002)
Requires all schools to:
• Tell parents of children whose first language is not English of their child’s placement in a language program and of their right to opt out,
• Make information on teachers’ credentials available to parents.
Requires schools receiving Title I money to:
• Have a written parent-involvement policy and publicize it; spell out how the school and parents can work together;
• Give parents detailed and understandable information on their children’s academic progress and explain the school’s academic standards.
• Use at least 1 percent of their money on parent involvement.
Requires Title I schools identified under the law as needing improvement, or their districts, to:
• Inform parents in an understandable way of the school’s status and their options for transfer or tutoring, if any.
• Explain how parents can be involved in addressing the schools’ academic problems.
• Write school-improvement plans that include strategies for parent involvement.
Requires districts and states to:
• Distribute an annual report card on the performance of schools.
• Tell parents of children attending Title I schools if their child does not have a “highly qualified” teacher; also tell them they may ask to see teachers’ qualifications.
• Spread information about effective parent-involvement practices and help schools with lagging parent-involvement programs.
SOURCES: Parent Leadership Associates, Education Trust, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory
“Most schools conduct at least a few activities to involve families in their children’s education,” Ms. Epstein writes in a recent journal article. “But most do not have the well-organized, goal-linked, and sustainable partnership programs” that roughly line up with the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandates.
The schools in the successful minority, however, point the way for all the others Ms. Epstein says.
The Parent Gap
Yet some researchers say policymakers must understand the difficulty of trying to close the parental-involvement gap.
The psychologists Kathleen V. Hoover-Dempsey and Howard M. Sandler of Vanderbilt University’s education school contend that parents get involved with schools only when their beliefs about parenting line up with the opportunities they get. Even then, they will act only if they believe their actions can make a difference.
If the school asks parents to read to their children, for instance, and a parent sees reading as what the school does, the demand is not likely to be honored. The result could be the same if a parent is not a confident reader.
The work of Ms. Lareau, the University of Maryland sociologist, echoes and expands on the psychologists’ concerns. After detailed case studies of about 18 students and their families, she contends that class differences between parents have not gotten their due in the federal law.
While the working-class parents she described in a 1987 book were just as concerned with their children’s welfare as their upper-middle-class counterparts, they brought different resources and views to their interactions with schools.
Much of middle-class life revolved around the elementary school, with mothers in particular taking a detailed interest and sharing information with other families. For them, there was no bright line between school and home. So they offered educational activities as part of family life and sought collaboration from the school on educational problems.
In contrast, Ms. Lareau found, the working-class parents tended to see school and home as distinct realms, with educators—the experts—in charge at school. It did not seem appropriate to make demands on the school or to engage in explicitly educational activities at home.
While teachers at the schools serving each group offered much the same opportunities for parents to get involved—parent-teacher conferences, information sent home—parents in the upper-middle-class school better leveraged those opportunities.
In a second award-winning book published in 2003, Ms. Lareau took a more ambitious look at families across race and class, finding that middle-class parents approach child rearing in a way that buttresses school success. In what she calls “concerted cultivation,” parents work to develop their child’s talents, a project in synch with the school’s goals. But working-class and poor parents think of their job as allowing children to “accomplish natural growth”—and are much more likely to be put off or fearful of school authorities.
“A clear theme emerged that school is not to be trusted,” Ms. Lareau said, pointing out that public schools are an arm of the state, which can remove children from a home. And trust, of course, is fundamental to a partnership.
Ms. Lareau added: “It’s hard to be against parent involvement. But I think [the federal law] is unlikely to play out in the way legislators intended.”
Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Views Differ Over NCLB Rules on Involving Parents