Two recent studies reveal the complexity of parent involvement issues. Because of the positive correlation found between parent involvement in education and student achievement, educators are trying to increase both the number of parents involved and the level of their participation. The most powerful predictor of academic achievement, some researchers say, is the amount of time parents spend talking with their kids about school. But schools seem to have little or no effect on such family variables. And while some schools are able to increase parent participation in school events, other schools are not.
Abe Feuerstein, Bucknell University, explored several school variables thought to influence parents’ participation in their children’s education. Feuerstein found that many types of parent involvement, including monitoring homework, are not easily influenced by educators. However, he reports that parent volunteerism and participation in parent-teacher organizations can be increased when teachers make substantial efforts to contact parents.
In another study of an elementary school in Texas with predominantly Mexican-American parents, Delores C. Peña Texas Tech University, found that the school staff, despite significant efforts to include parents in school activities, failed to recognize many factors that discourage parent participation. Language, parent cliques, parents’ education, cultural influences, educators’ attitudes and family issues can have detrimental effects on parents’ efforts to become more involved in their children’s education.
Which factors make some schools more successful?
Feuerstein’s goal was to find out which factors make some schools more successful in promoting parent involvement. Previous studies revealed that schools communicate more effectively with parents when teachers and parents come from similar cultural backgrounds. When parents and teachers share similar beliefs, schools are more effective in promoting parent involvement. For example, when schools serving large African American populations have a significant number of African American teachers, they have higher levels of parent involvement than similar schools with primarily white teachers.
Feuerstein studied the eighth-grade data of 24,599 students, from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (1988). By controlling for family structure, race, urban/suburban/rural environment, and economic level, Feuerstein was able to measure the effect of school-related variables on parent involvement. School variables include student-teacher ratio, number of minority teachers, approach to discipline, teacher morale, academic focus, and number of parent contacts.
Feuerstein was looking for factors that improve levels of parent engagement. Unfortunately, he found that family and community factors play a greater role than school factors in determining the level of parents’ involvement. Feuerstein stresses, however, that while it is difficult for schools to stimulate parent involvement, it is not impossible. Increasing the number of times teachers contact parents stimulates volunteerism and PTO participation. It takes time to contact parents, but this contact pays off in more participation and better communication between parents and schools.
Advantages of connection between parents and school
Like many educators, Delores Peña believes that many advantages accrue from closer relationships between families and schools. The academic achievement of low-income students, in particular, seems to improve as parent involvement increases. Also, parents are a valuable source of volunteer help and political support for schools’ programs. Research has shown that increased parent involvement increases teacher efficacy.
Teachers and principals show more respect for families who participate in school activities. In addition, when low-income parents are trained to work in the schools, they become more actively involved in their children’s education and begin to seek additional education for themselves.
Involved parents develop higher academic aspirations for their children and parent-child communication improves. Still, Peña agrees with Feuerstein that despite all these benefits, schools have difficulty developing successful parent programs. Parents need information and guidance from schools, but teachers receive little help in developing the skills and knowledge for collaborating with parents or the time to pursue it. Successful parent programs often require considerable training for parents and teachers.
Peña recently studied three classrooms in one predominantly Mexican-American school for an entire year to determine which factors encouraged and which discouraged parent participation. This school is open year-round and has 31 multi-age classes from kindergarten to sixth grade. One of the school’s goals is for all children to become bilingual and biliterate. Of the 618 students in the school, 553 are economically disadvantaged. Data was collected through interviews and home visits and observations of classrooms, PTO meetings, committee meetings, parent conferences and open houses. The school made considerable efforts to increase parents’ participation, but Peña found a complex web of factors that discouraged such parent involvement.
Factors Discouraging Parent Involvement
First, many Mexican-American parents in Peña’s study believe that educating children is solely the responsibility of the school and do not think it is proper to intervene in a teacher’s professional duties. Despite a bilingual staff, language influenced how much parents participated in school activities. Despite the staff’s ability to speak to parents in their home language, some parents’ limited education created serious barriers to participation in many school activities.
The staff assumed that parents could read either Spanish or English information they sent home, but this was not true for all parents. Similar misunderstandings occurred when the staff presumed that parents understood school procedures and practices. Sometimes, unintentionally, the school placed parents in intimidating positions because of these erroneous assumptions. An inability to read either language created problems in filling out paperwork and in parent-training workshops.
Observations revealed that English was the preferred language at most meetings. Parent council meetings were held entirely in English, with the principal only occasionally translating for Spanish-speaking parents. Lack of translation kept many parents from participating in the PTO as well, for parents assumed their attendance was unnecessary at meetings that were conducted in English. School assemblies and conferences were conducted in both languages, as were parent-training workshops.
Parent cliques based on English- and Spanish-language dominance also had a powerful impact on participation. A small group of parents with good English skills made most of the decisions. The four PTO officers had a lot of decision-making power, determining which parents would be involved in the PTO and in which activities they could participate.
Peña also observed some negativity among teachers concerning parent involvement. Teachers expressed concern that increasing parent involvement was an extra burden on them. Teachers’ attendance at many after-school activities was minimal and they often did not take the opportunity to interact with parents, reducing the opportunities for parents to get to know teachers in social settings. Parents described feeling unwelcome in certain teachers’ rooms.
Home factors beyond education and language also influenced parents’ ability to be involved in school activities. One of the largest obstacles for parents was their work schedule. Many parents worked long hours or had two jobs. The availability of transportation and childcare also posed significant problems for many parents. In particular, the lack of childcare on Saturday mornings kept many parents from attending classes. Although parents were allowed to bring young children to the classes if they did not have childcare, this proved distracting for all. (The school remedied this during the second session of classes by providing childcare.)
Implications of Findings
These researchers found no existing school plan that was guaranteed to increase parents’ involvement in schools. Raising parents’ participation entails taking time to develop trusting relationships between parents and teachers. The Mexican-American parents in Peña’s study identified several factors that they believe would help increase participation. The most important thing, parents say, is to “make parents feel more welcome.” Parents know when teachers have ambivalent or negative feelings, no matter what the teachers actually say to them. It is important that teachers recognize the real advantages of working with parents so that they will truly welcome collaboration with their children’s parents. Ways must be found to enable teachers to value parents’ knowledge and contributions to educating children.
Teachers need time to plan parent activities
Time is a crucial factor for teachers as well as parents. Teachers need time to plan and organize parent activities. Although administrators may want to increase parents’ involvement, this is only possible if they provide teachers with the training and time to work with parents. Schools must consider the educational level, language, culture and home situations of their students’ parents.
The staff must communicate regularly with parents through various means. Providing written information in the parents’ native language is not enough – oral methods of communication must be available for parents who do not read well in any language. Peña recommends establishing telephone networks by which parents keep one another informed. Parents gain confidence to participate in school when they understand school practices and what is expected of them.
Most important, schools need to establish a welcoming climate and an open-door policy so that any parent who has questions can feel confident that she will be welcomed and given the help she needs. Because many Mexican-American parents do not feel it is their role to be directly involved in educational decision making, other forms of participation must be recognized and valued. For example, parents’ involvement in the social activities of the school must be honored as an important contribution. The interests and needs of the parents must be considered when planning activities. Alternative meeting times, daycare and transportation increase participation.
“School Characteristics and Parent Involvement: Influences on Participation in Children’s Schools” “Parent Involvement: Influencing Factors and Implications” The Journal of Educational Research Volume 94, Number 1, October 2000 Pp. 29-54.
Published in ERN November 2000 Volume 13 Number 8