Does Parental Participation in Schools Help Kids?

By Ilsa Setziol 08/01/2014

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On a balmy Friday morning in June, fifth-graders at Marengo Elementary dance around maypoles festooned with a rainbow of ribbons. The South Pasadena public-school campus looks beautiful — there are refurbished benches, a new garden and a cooler, green playground surface replacing the old cracked asphalt. Milling about are a couple of dozen dads in bright orange shirts and caps, who have arranged their work schedules so they can be here at the spring dance event. The shirts identify the dads as DUDES, members of South Pasadena’s Dads Uniting Dads in Education and Service. They take special pride in the campus improvements, because they made them happen. Co-founder Ed Donnelly says the group focuses on “creating a great environment for the kids” and “setting a good example by being involved.”   


Since its founding two years ago, DUDES has undertaken several campus improvement projects and special events in South Pasadena’s elementary schools. There are now 130 dads at the ready with tools, paint, recording equipment and the willingness to M.C. or be dunked and doused — you name it. Educators say this kind of parental involvement in schools is important, perhaps essential, in this era of limited school funding. Some schools even rely on parents to teach curriculum casualties of budget cuts, such as art and music.


A recent study, however, questions the merits of all this parental effort. Sociologists Keith Robinson at the University of Texas, Austin, and Angel L. Harris of Duke University evaluated 63 different forms of parental involvement — volunteering in the classroom, contacting the school about a child’s behavior, helping decide on an older kid’s classes, etc. — and concluded that most did not improve student achievement. Help with homework? Not only not helpful, it could backfire, according to the researchers.

Educators, naturally, are skeptical. 


“I want my child’s teacher to see me as a partner in the education,” says Pasadena parent Hilda Ramirez Horvath, “because there are things I can do at home to support what’s going on in the classroom.” In addition to being a mom, Horvath works as a parental engagement coordinator for Pasadena Unified School District. Horvath and two community liaisons set up parent workshops and activities, facilitate parent-school dialogue and help parents navigate the school system. She points to a PUSD parent leadership class called Project to Inspire as especially useful for recent immigrants. “We had parents who didn’t know much about school beyond you have to get [the kids] there,” she explains. Among other things, parents were encouraged to question teachers and staff. “In fact, we expect it — we want it,” she adds.


Parents who’ve participated in these programs have in turn mentored other parents. Horvath says parental involvement on campus often becomes a springboard to broader participation, including strategic planning at the district level and political action on education issues. And next year, PUSD will focus on training teachers — improving their skills in working with parents and having faculty (in lieu of consultants) lead parent workshops.


American educators began encouraging parental involvement in the 1960s, according to Dr. Angela Hasan of USC’s Rossier School of Education’s Teacher Education Program. “In President Johnson’s era, parents were asked to come into schools because [schools serving low-income students] were so horrible [they] weren’t meeting the needs of those children.” 


Both President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Race to the Top promote parental involvement as one solution for the achievement gap between affluent white kids and children of lower socioeconomic status. Robinson and Harris say their study puts the lie to the idea that kids of color would do better if their parents were more involved. “Our research shows that these parents tried to help their children in school just as much as the parents [of white and high-performing Asian kids],” they wrote in an April 12 New York Times opinion piece. 


“You hear this grossly negligent stereotype that low-socioeconomic-status parents don’t care about their kids’ [education],” says Margo Pensavalle, Ph.D., who teaches diversity in the Rossier School’s master’s program. “That has never been my experience.” The main problem, as she sees it, is that schools and classroom materials still “mimic a white-middle-class experience,” and too often “teachers fail to teach in ways the kids can relate to.”


But Pensavalle says the study’s methodology couldn’t parse the complexity of the parental engagement issue. (The study compared the test scores and grades of kids whose parents reported being very involved with those whose parents said they were less involved.) “Whether parental help extends kids’ learning is a very difficult thing to measure,” she says. “There are loads of kids whose parents are involved and they do well,” she observes. But there are also “loads of kids who do really well and we might not consider their parents [to be] involved, but we don’t [really] know what they do at home.” For instance, these parents might be highly effective at boosting their kids’ confidence, or just be great role models. “The best predictor of when your kid will read,” says clinical psychologist Linda Bortell, “or what attitude your kid will have when reading, is seeing their parent read.”


The involvement study also didn’t factor in tutors, and it couldn’t measure intangibles such as creativity. 


Photographer Darcy Hemley of Eagle Rock is one of several parent volunteers who teach art at Odyssey Charter School in Altadena. She pitches in because she believes “it’s necessary and nice for kids to get some art on a weekly basis.” She also sees her involvement as providing emotional support for her 8-year-old daughter.


And DUDES co-founder Mark Deetjen says his members aren’t just building benches — they’re cobbling together social cohesion in a school district that is ethnically and economically diverse. “You give a sense of community to the kids,” he says, “so instead of having all the cliques, they see the dads all together.” 


According to USC’s Pensavalle, parents can also help teachers improve their cultural awareness and sensitivity. “We know that when kids can relate culturally to classrooms, they do better,” she says.


Having parents on campus also keeps schools accountable, says USC’s Hasan: “Parents need to be the audience; they’re the eyes that assess the school.” At a minimum, they can ensure the bathrooms are clean.


What’s more, parental involvement likely benefits all kids at a school, even if it can’t be shown to advance the academic achievement of a particular child. “I think if we raise the water,” says Horvath, “it lifts all boats.” 


Flintridge Preparatory School in La Cañada Flintridge, a prestigious private middle and high school, brims with capable kids. Co-Dean of Faculty Sarah Cooper says she hasn’t noticed a correlation between the highest achievers and any obvious, hands-on involvement of their parents.


Parental engagement in schools typically drops off in middle school. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Cooper. “We really see [it] as a transition from elementary school, where parents tend to check a lot of homework,” she says, “to a very independent way of learning.” Teens need to try work out their school issues on their own, if they can, she adds. “It develops, we think, resilience.”


This need to develop independence might explain why Robinson and Harris found that older children who received more frequent parental help with homework fared worse academically than those whose parents said they provide little to no assistance. Robinson posits that parents may not remember or understand the homework material themselves. Let’s also consider that kids with learning differences may need parental support to keep up.


Regardless, the mountains of homework most schools assign these days tempts some parents to swoop in to get it done. (Many educators question the value of all this homework, yet the problem persists.)


Hasan advises parents to pay attention to the quality and difficulty of what’s been assigned. “If you give homework that they have not mastered, you do more harm than good,” she says. Rather than fearing punishment, says Pensavalle, kids should be able to tell teachers, “‘I didn’t finish my homework, because I didn’t really understand it.’” 


So where does this leave concerned parents? Robinson and Harris did point to a few things they think generally work: requesting a specific teacher (though most schools frown on this), reading to young children, discussing the school day with your child and expecting him or her to go to college. They say that, rather than give a “blanket message” about appropriate involvement, schools should help parents find “creative ways to communicate the value of schooling.” 


And when they do that, they should be sensitive and alert to the needs of individual children. Parental expectations for some kids may be too low, for others, too high. Bortell, who counsels kids in her South Pasadena office, says some affluent parents are putting the screws on their kids over academics. She advises promoting a love of learning, “which is different from a love of performance and grades.”


Still, Robinson and Harris aren’t telling parents to put down the paintbrushes and tune out at homework time. In an interview with Larry Mantle on KPCC-FM, Robinson said educators should instead ask, “How do we make parents more effective?” 


It’s a question some have already embraced. In one project, Hasan and colleagues worked with parents in South Gate, Lynwood and Compton. After a year, the parents reported back on the skills or advice that helped most. Number one? Getting comfortable questioning their children. “It’s not about you having to know what geometry is,” she says. “It’s about asking and asking and the student having to tell you what it’s about.” 


Cooper, who teaches history, encourages middle school parents to foster curiosity about school subjects. “I love hearing, ‘I talked with my parents about affirmative action,’” she says, “or ‘I saw this article about Ukraine and we had a discussion about it.’”


So busy parents should take heart: Some true interest, some thoughtful time together, could be as effective (or more) than a more hands-on approach. Just make sure someone is there to set up the carnival, paint the benches, drive kids on the field trip….    


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