The federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 requires that schools have effective tactics for involving parents in their children’s education. But many teachers do not have the skills they need to work as partners with parents, experts said here last week at what was billed as the first-ever summit on making parent involvement a larger part of preservice and in-service training for teachers.
Sponsored by the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the National PTA, based in Chicago, the three-day meeting brought together policymakers, researchers, teachers, parents, and university deans and faculty members to discuss ways of strengthening that aspect of teacher education programs.
“You wouldn’t send a teacher into a school to teach reading and not give them training beforehand,” said Joyce Epstein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and one of the experts who spoke at the conference. “Yet every teacher, every day, meets up with family-involvement issues. We’ve got to do a better job of getting them trained. This is part of being a professional.”
Ana Maria Schuhmann, the dean of the college of education at Kean University in Union, N.J., said that while some teacher education programs—such as early-childhood education and special education—are doing a good job of emphasizing relationships with parents, programs for elementary and secondary educators have not made the topic as high a priority.
“In the last few years, we have overemphasized knowledge of subject-matter content,” Ms. Schuhmann argued.
As a result, she said, teachers and teacher education programs are not being held accountable for the “skills and dispositions” teachers need to be successful, such as an ability to work well with parents.
The No Child Left Behind Act says that parents should have “regular, two-way” communication with educators; that they “play an integral role in assisting their child’s learning"; and that they should be included in school advisory committees designed to improve education.
Speakers at the conference, which was held on the George Washington University campus, added that the federal Department of Education now has the opportunity to give the issue more attention, since the implementation of the new law is in its early stages.
One speaker, however, said she doesn’t think that is happening.
Elyse Wasch, a legislative assistant for Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said she believed parent involvement was only being emphasized in the federal law as it relates to school choice options.
Some Education Department officials disagreed.
Beth Ann Bryan, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said that department officials want parents also to understand such policies as how they can request supplementary services for their children if needed.
“This is our charge—to provide parents with the power of information,” Ms. Bryan said. “Parents can’t be passive participants. They need to be active advocates.”
Ms. Wasch noted that next year’s scheduled reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will provide another chance for policymakers to make parent involvement a stronger piece of the teacher education process.
The conference also featured projects that have received grants from AACTE’s Parental Engagement Institute, a program sponsored by the MetLife Foundation, based in New York City.
One such project is the Family as Faculty program at the University of North Florida, in which parents designed courses for teacher- education students on parent involvement.
“Infusing” knowledge and research about working with parents into existing courses is one way to give future teachers the information they need, Ms. Epstein of Johns Hopkins said.
But the “real ideal,” she suggested, would be to have a separate required course on the subject.
Kean University’s Ms. Schuhmann, who is also the chairwoman-elect of AACTE’S board of directors, added that ongoing staff development in parental involvement is necessary because many teachers are entering the classroom without having come through a traditional teacher education program.
While the gathering was small, with roughly 100 people in attendance, Ms. Epstein called it a good beginning toward bringing more attention to the issue.
But she added that AACTE’s goal should be to offer parent-involvement sessions at its annual meeting, which far more college deans and department heads attend.
A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Summit Connects Parents And Teacher Ed.