The place for parents in education

For decades, much ado has been made over parental involvement in schools. Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), as part of the 2012 Cleveland Plan For Transforming Schools, requires by law that all parents meet with their child’s teacher by December of every school year. About 75 percent of elementary school and 60 percent of high school students had a parent meet with their child’s teacher this past school year, the first covered by the new law. District administrators call these numbers “pretty impressive” (at least at the elementary level), but the outcomes resulting from mandating parental involvement are unclear. For starters, it’s impossible to compare the totals to previous year’s totals or even to other districts’ totals, including those of suburban counterparts, since the state doesn’t require them to keep track of parent-teacher conference attendance. Despite the good intentions of the Cleveland mandate, a question remains: is there an academic benefit to this kind of parental involvement?

The answer is complicated. Some types of involvement, such as reading to elementary students at home, discussing school activities or college plans, and requesting a particular teacher, do yield positive results. But other common practices, like helping with homework, usually don’t alter a child’s academic experience or trajectory. That’s not to say that parents should be shut out of schools. Parents deserve to know what’s happening in their kids’ schools, and if they want to be involved, there should be opportunities to be productively engaged. But instead of blanket mandates for involvement, perhaps districts and policies should target the ways families want to be involved instead of telling them how to be involved. If involvement percentages are low and schools truly want engagement (not just an excuse to check off a box on a policy to-do list), then there are a few things that have to change.

First, districts have to stop thinking of parental involvement as parental involvement. Parents are important—but they aren’t the only important adults in kids’ lives. Some children are raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings—the list goes on. If schools want to leverage the meaningful relationships in a child’s life to motivate and ensure academic excellence, they must recognize that meaningful involvement extends beyond parents. They must welcome family and community engagement, not just parental involvement. While it may seem like semantics, it’s important not to exclude a big brother, aunt, pastor, or coach from attending school events that were meant for “parents.”

Second, schools should provide families and communities with numerous and various opportunities for engagement that actually benefit students. Despite its heavy emphasis on parents meeting teachers, Cleveland provides an excellent example of this. Consider, for instance, the work of Tracy Hill, the executive director of family and community engagement (note the title) for CMSD. Hill is credited with building an approach that includes programs such as a Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), which allows parents to have a voice in the district’s decisions, and Parent University, a series of sessions that provide parents with vital information they may not have otherwise. Parent University also offers free college bus tours that help parents understand admissions, financial aid, and enrollment questions. Ms. Hill’s program is a prime example of how districts can go beyond traditional views of involvement that focus only on parent-teacher conferences, open houses, and the PTA.

CMSD has added more parent-teacher days, on which students do not attend and parents are free to come in and speak with teachers, to the 2014–15 calendar. This is an interesting choice, given that CMSD’s policy and labor liaison has admitted that the day they set aside in 2013–14 did not actually raise percentages; the parents who attended were largely those who had already met teachers on another occasion. Instead of devoting entire days to opportunities that do not increase engagement, the district should be looking to invest in programs that, like Ms. Hill’s, target gaps in parent knowledge that could eventually hinder students. Furthermore, the district should create programs similar to Ms. Hill’s for elementary and middle school students and families. That would be a much more effective use of district money and families’ time than entire days without instruction.

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