Parent Involvement in Education: What Really Matters Most?

Would eating less margarine reduce the divorce rate in Maine? Could we increase the number of graduate engineering degrees by upping mozzarella consumption? Some correlations are ridiculous, which is exactly the point of the very clever web site “Spurious Correlations.”

In K-12 education, though, the link between parent involvement and student achievement makes intuitive sense, and it is backed by extensive research. According to Education Week, multiple studies have shown that “students with involved parents” get better grades and test scores and are more likely to go to college.

You don’t need to convince parents that what they do matters. Nearly 8 in 10 say that parents are more important than schools in determining whether children learn. Teachers are on board too. The vast majority say they’d rather work in a school with strong parent support and good student behavior than in one where they could earn more money.

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But there’s less clarity beneath the surface. One key issue: there’s a lot of haziness around what we mean by “parental involvement in education.” When surveys ask parents to describe parental involvement, they’re most likely to mention checking homework and going to meetings at school, at least at first. In longer interviews and focus groups with parents, many add in activities like volunteering at school or advocacy on behalf of local schools.

But in extended discussions, it doesn’t take long for parents to turn to concerns closer to home—being mothers and fathers who help their children develop the strong values and good behavior that will help them succeed in life and become honorable, effective adults. Many parents focus on the importance of teaching their children “respect.”

“My son knows he has to respect adults,” one father told us. “He knows the teachers—he could come home and give me an opinion if a teacher did this or that—but [if] the teacher tells you how to do your work…you have respect. Every teacher says he’s so respectful. Maybe I’m lucky. I think it all comes from my wife and me at home.”

A mother made a similar point: “All I can do is teach my boys, ‘Listen, you know that you need to be respectful and you’re going to hear things’ . . . They need to just understand that there’s a certain level of respect that you should know.”

Some parents mention the need for “structure” at home and why it’s crucial to “set limits” for children. Others talk about emphasizing perseverance and hard work. “For my kids?” a father said, “it’s my responsibility for everything . . . . [Too many] kids don’t know what hard work is. . . If it’s too easy at home, then that would be my fault because I made it too easy at home.”

Are parents ill-advised to think that emphasizing good attitudes and behavior is a key to helping their children succeed in school? Not according to teachers. Seven in 10 say that it is “absolutely essential” for parents to teach their children the importance of education and following school rules. Perhaps surprisingly, less than half of teachers say that checking on homework is equally important.

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Of course, just as there are different ways to think about parent involvement, there are also different ways to define student success and achievement. Researchers often focus on test scores because they are concrete and easily-handled in a research study. Unfortunately, this narrow definition—which most teachers and parents would either question or expand—sometimes leads to bewildering results.

Here are “findings” from a study of parental involvement and student success summarized in The New York Times earlier this year:

“Regularly discussing school experiences with your child seems to positively affect the reading and math test scores of Hispanic children, to negatively affect test scores in reading for black children, and to negatively affect test scores in both reading and math for white children (but only during elementary school).”

Huh? To be fair, the researchers here were probably just trying to be specific and transparent about their results—not suggesting that black and white parents avoid talking to their children about what happened at school. Still, “results” like these demonstrate the limits of this kind of research.

Looking at data and thinking about correlations can put good ideas on the table and help us all question our top-of-the-head reactions and assumptions. That’s extraordinarily useful. But we also need to listen to what parents, teachers, students, and others in the community have to say before we leap to conclusions. Without the human factor, the numbers don’t really mean that much.

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