What schools need to do to get low-income parents involved in children’s education

iStock_000008693718XSmallContrary to prevailing myth, parents of low socioeconomic status (SES) want to be involved in their high school students’ educations just as much as parents with higher incomes and more education, according to a national study of 1,006 parents funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“What parents need is an access point–a way into the schools–so they can become partners in helping students learn and achieve,” according to One Dream, Two Realities, which examined the attitudes towards involvement in schools of parents with children in schools that were rated high-performing, moderate-performing and low-performing.

Parents of all backgrounds and with children in both high-performing and low-performing schools had remarkably similar views about what schools could do to help them more effectively support the education of their children.

Some of their recommendations include:

  • Prompt notification of academic or other problems such as skipping school or cutting classes;
  • earlier contact in 8th or 9th grades to ensure parents know what their child needs to be successful as the student transitions to high school;
  • more information about requirements for  graduation and college admission; and
  • single point of contact (teacher, advisor   or advocate), homework hotlines and flexible conferences.

“They (teachers) know firsthand what the kids are doing. The first signs of downfall begin at school, and we are not there in class, we need an early reaction from the teacher about what is happening,” one Los Angeles parent noted.

The study was conducted from June 21 to July 8, 2007. The sample’s racial breakdown is 12% African American, 13% Hispanic and 70% white. Half of the parents had children in high school at the time of the survey and the other half were parents of children who had been enrolled in high school in the past five years.

The survey showed that, regardless of SES, parents understand the importance of a good education and the importance of their involvement in their children’s educations.

Some of the findings were:

  • Hispanic and African-American parents were more likely to consider going to college very important, compared to white parents: 90% of Hispanic parents and 92% of African-American parents consider going to college very important compared to 78% of white parents.
  • Parents with high school degrees are more likely to believe that what children have to learn today to compete in the workforce is much different than it was 20 years ago when they were students than better educated parents: 70% of parents with a high school degree believe this is true, compared with 52% of parents with a college degree and 49% with a graduate degree.
  • 85% of parents at low-performing schools think it is important for parents of high school students to be involved as advocates for their children compared to 78% of parents of students in high-performing schools.

Barriers to involvement

If parents know their involvement is so important, why aren’t they more involved? Not surprisingly, for 2/3s of parents who believe they should be more involved it’s lack of time:  38% identified work or a full-time job as a major obstacle and 26% said other demands on their time and scheduling conflicts interfered with their involvement.

Of greater interest to educators are the reasons cited by the remaining 1/3 who do not attribute their lack of involvement to time:

  • 12% cite a lack of information, communi  cation and knowledge of what is going on;
  • 6% say they would like to have more contact from the school;
  • only 5% cite their own lack of education and knowledge about what is being taught  in school as barriers;
  • 37% of parents of children in low-performing schools list one of those 4 reasons for lower levels of involvement   while only 21% of high-performing school parents do; and
  • only 42% of parents at the low-performing schools feel they are as involved  as they should be.

“High performing schools do a better job of communicating with parents,”  the study reports. Almost twice as many parents in high- performing schools said their schools were doing a very good or fairly good job communicating with them about their child’s academic performance as parents with children in low-performing schools(83% vs. 43%).

” I think the bottom line is the teachers should monitor the progress of your kid academically and have some kind of agreement, maybe even before school starts, between the parent and teachers involved. Then you have collaboration between the two before school starts. if there’s any sort of difficulty, you have that. the schools should offer a working relationship with the parent,” said a Cincinnati parent.

The survey is a call for new, effective strategies for improved parent engagement, the researchers say. Among their recommendations:

  • Each teacher should incorporate homework assignments that involve families  in every course
  • A meeting should be arranged during the student’s first year of high school between the parents, the school contact person, and the student.
  • Schools should make strong efforts to accommodate the varying needs of parents, whether they involve translating the student handbook, offering bus service or incorporating home visits.
  • Parents should be recruited to serve as liaisons between the school and other
  • Schools should look for ways to offer stipends or other benefits to teachers who  spend time after hours working with parents.

Beyond these recommendations, study authors recommend that schools consider partnering with community organizations to offer classes for parents about how to become engaged in their children’s education. The classes should be offered at times most convenient for parents, with child care provided so that single parents can attend.

One of the more surprising findings, according to the study authors, was that “parents’ satisfaction with their child’s school is more dependent on the quality of the school the child attends than it is on the grades their child receives.

“Schools, by and large, do not need to embark on a campaign to persuade parents that their children’s education matters or that they as parents need to understand the importance of their role,” the researchers write.

The study authors call on schools “to find new, practical and systematic ways to encourage parental involvement and create new types of opportunities so that that parents will be able to act more effectively on the knowledge and concern they already have.”

Schools should avoid waiting until there is a disciplinary problem to contact parents and should give parents opportunities for involvement early in the high school process so that the first call they receive is not one telling them their child is in trouble.

“One Dream, Two Realities,” John Bridgeland et al, Civic Enterprises, October 2008.

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