Yesterday, I reacted very strongly to an article about parental involvement in schools. Here’s why.
In grad school, I worked for many years at a policy institute that specialized in education policy and public administration. My boss (and my dissertation adviser) was one of the architects of the community control movement in New York City schools in the 1960s. She strongly believed that local communities should have a voice in their local schools. They would act as a check on the bureaucracy. Also, she believed that by giving parents involvement in their schools, it would lead to great empowerment and involvement in other aspects of politics. Schools were a stepping stone to greater political activity.
Community control over schools in New York City had a rocky history. In some communities, a handful of individuals took over the school boards and made some very self-serving decisions. Laws without a real tradition of parental involvement led to corruption, rather than empowerment.
Right now, I’m in a community with high levels of all the various forms of parental involvement. Parents volunteer to arrange for art shows, science shows, spelling bees, and even the traditional bake sales. They speak up at PTA meetings and tell school administrators that they like this policy and hate that policy. They vote in school board elections. They attend Back to School Nights. They vote to increase the school budgets. Administrators, in turn, try to make the parents happy. They send parents surveys. It’s fascinating to witness all this activity.
Does all that activity raise the educational achievement of the kids? Can we separate that activity from other variables? Is this activity more important than middle class culture or the wealth of the community? It’s probably impossible to separate parental involvement from wealth and culture. It all goes together. But instead of throwing out parental involvement as important factor in explaining academic achievement, I think we should encourage more of it. If it is an element of all successful school districts, then let’s assume that it matters.
And my former boss really drummed into me that notion that parental involvement in schools is the most basic of all political activities.
The authors of the crappy research paper conclude their crappy opinion piece, “Parental Involvement is Overrated,” with the following thoughts:
When the federal government issues mandates on the implementation of programs that increase parental involvement, schools often encourage parents to spend more time volunteering, to attend school events, to help their children with homework and so forth. There is a strong sentiment in this country that parents matter in every respect relating to their children’s academic success, but we need to let go of this sentiment and begin to pay attention to what the evidence is telling us.
Conventional wisdom holds that since there is no harm in having an involved parent, why shouldn’t we suggest as many ways as possible for parents to participate in school? This conventional wisdom is flawed. Schools should move away from giving the blanket message to parents that they need to be more involved and begin to focus instead on helping parents find specific, creative ways to communicate the value of schooling, tailored to a child’s age. Future research should investigate how parental involvement can be made more effective, but until then, parents who have been less involved or who feel uncertain about how they should be involved should not be stigmatized.
What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it.
Parents should get more involved. They should attend PTA meetings, they should volunteer, they should attend board of education meetings, they should vote for their representatives on the school board, they should tell administrators about both the good and bad practices at the school. Kids who live in communities with a high percentage of involved parents have higher test scores than communities with low parental involvement. (This fact is extremely well documented. I can dredge up the studies at some point.)
Parents shouldn’t be assholes. They should assume that the teacher is overwhelmed, underpaid, and mismanaged. They shouldn’t complain and never compliment or contribute. They should try to restrain themselves to one complaint per year. Your kid will suffer, if you complain too much. And if there’s that much to complain about, it is really better to move or supplement at home. One person can’t change the system.
Parents have the right to have access to their kids and their schools. Parents and other community members pay for the schools with their local tax money and have the right to see the results.
There is a limit to what schools can do. Public education, even in the fanciest towns, is not the same as a private school education. Keep one’s expectations low and educate your kids in all sorts of way that have nothing to do with the Common Core or SAT scores. Talk to them. Take them on hikes. Play trains with them. Visit places. Tell them stories about growing up in the big city or the little town. Read outloud to them for as long as you can. As they get older, coax them out of their bedrooms and find common interests.
Taking a deep breath. Gotta a major rant coming.
In the New York Times, the top most e-mailed article of the day is “Parental Involvement is Overrated” by Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris. Robinson and Harris did a quantitative study on various types of parental involvement in schools, including observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework. They found that these forms of parental involvement had no impact on a child’s grades or test scores. And, weirdly enough, in some cases, parental involvement was negatively correlated with grades and test scores.
Why is this article so popular? Well, some people have very little involvement in their kids’ education. Either their parenting mojo has burnt out by the time the kids get to school or they are simply working too hard to put in much time into their kids. The title of this article validates their behavior.
The study itself shows the limits of quantitative research. Many of their findings show very little understanding of the real interaction between schools and parents. Please, researchers, go into the schools and talk to people. It makes a huge difference. This study does real damage to our kids, and the researchers should be held responsible.
Parental involvement is a tricky variable. The researchers attempt to find methods of quantifying it, but I think they miss MASSIVE elements of parental involvement and its impact. Okay, let me back up and tell some stories.
I have been a parent with children in public schools for ten years. My children have been in three different school districts. My children have very different educational needs. Over this time, my kids have had good teachers and bad teachers. When they have good teachers, I write a letter to the superintendent that praises the teacher and gives very specific examples of how the teacher went beyond the call of duty. I hope that this letter will help a untenured teacher get tenure or grant an award to a tenured teacher.
When they have had bad teachers, I complain. Most times, my complaints go nowhere. There is no change in the teacher’s behavior, and there is no administrative solution to the problem. In fact, complaints are dangerous. It can piss off a teacher, who will take out his/her grievances on my kid. There may be some long term benefits for my particular kid. A principal might help by assigning my child to a better teacher the following year, but there is no certainty about this. Over the years, I have learned to complain very, very rarely.
In the previous school district, I was on the extreme end of the scale of parental involvement. As the lone complainer, my complaints were completely ignored. In this school district, I’m in the middle on the spectrum of parental involvement. There is a huge difference in how the administration reacts to parental complaints. I haven’t had to complain very often, because other parents do it for me. My kid benefits indirectly from other parents.
This fall, Jonah’s biology teacher went out on a maternity leave. A substitute stepped in for three months. It was a complete disaster. She had a thick accent, which the students couldn’t understand. She lashed out at students in bizarre ways. She refused to answer basic questions, like what’s the difference between atomic weight and the atomic number. When the main teacher came back, she showed up with a huge box of tests and labs that the substitute never bothered to grade. She lost some tests, and the poor kids had to retake them months later.
A month after the substitute took over, I called the chair of the science department to complain. This was the first time that I called to complain about a teacher in this new school district. After I was done ranting, the science department chair said that other parents had also called him, but his hands were tied. It’s apparently very difficult to find science substitutes. Nothing was done immediately. My kid’s grades suffered during those three months; I had to hire a tutor to prepare him for the midterm. But all those complaints may have long term implications. That substitute will never be hired by the district again. And the chair will hopefully do a better job hiring substitutes in the future. He doesn’t want to deal with angry parents.
So, parental involvement in this incident meant no immediately change in my particular kid’s grades or learning environment, but it had a long term, district-wide impact. The impact was magnified, because I wasn’t the only parent who complained.
Also, this example shows the limits of quantifying parental involvement. My involvement consisted of many components. I monitored Jonah’s grades by checking the electronic gradebook. I listened to his stories of the insanity in the classroom. I made phone calls to administration and the guidance office. I went to the school, when the substitute refused to answer the e-mails and confronted her in the hallway. I made her find a lab report that she lost. I hired a tutor to help Jonah, because the work was too difficult for me. All that work had a very small impact on Jonah himself. I think we moved his grade up only one notch during that time, but I think it made him feel less like a victim. All that — the various elements of involvement, the impact on the kid, the long-term impact — impossible to quantify.
Parental involvement has to be measured as a school district-wide phenomenon. There is NO QUESTION that districts that have highly involved parents have higher student achievement than districts with poorly involved parents. I’ll come back to this point in the next post.
Pulitzer Prize awards are out. Glen Greenwald got one.
We started fixing up a bathroom a month ago, back when there was still snow on the ground. I figured it was a week job — steaming off wallpaper, repair of sheet rock, replacing cabinetry, and swapping out light fixture. Seven days tops, I thought. HAHAHAHA. Not. We’re still working on it. And this job has collided with the yard clean up chores. We had rake out the leaves from the shrubbery this weekend. Our sloppy yard was making one of our neighbors itch. We have about 20 bags of leaves waiting for the garbagemen right now.
So, this weekend was nothing but chores. A long list of them. We need to finish them off pronto, because the weather is beautiful. We need to wander through Manhattan and roam around the parks in upstate New York and get out of the shrubbery and bathroom.
We slapped on a second coat of peach paint and mounted a cabinet on the wall.
The Apt. 11D family LOVES Sriracha sauce. And we’re very much disturbed by the on-going controversy. I think it may be time to order a case of the stuff and hoard it in the basement.
Daycare costs more than college in 31 states. More info and an interactive map at the Washington Post.