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Critical Issue: Supporting Ways Parents and Families Can Become Involved in Schools

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ISSUE: Increased involvement of parents and families often is cited as one of the most important ways to improve public schools. A variety of studies (Henderson & Berla, 1994) confirms that parent involvement makes an enormous impact on students' attitude, attendance, and academic achievement. Although some working and single parents may be unable to contribute to schools because of work commitments and time constraints, educators are discovering many additional ways that parents can help students and their schools. Some of these ways are dependent upon the school's desire to involve parents. To effect change, parents must find time to participate in their children's education while schools must provide the supports necessary for them to be involved. The resulting partnerships between parents and teachers will increase student achievement and promote better cooperation between home and school. Together these efforts will connect families and schools to help children succeed in school and in their future.

Photo of Joe D'amicoJoe D'Amico, co-host of NCREL's Rural Audio Journal, talks about the research correlating parent involvement with student achievement. [240k audio file] Excerpted from the Rural Audio Journal, volume 3, number 3, Families and Schools Together (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995). A text version is available. Families and Schools Together (FAST) is a prevention program developed by Dr. Lynn McDonald.

OVERVIEW: Traditionally, parent involvement in education has included home-based activities (such as helping with homework, encouraging children to read, and promoting school attendance) and school-based activities (such as attending PTA meetings, parent-teacher conferences, concerts, and other school events; helping to raise money for various school-improvement projects; and volunteering at school during the day).

Photo of Judson HixsonJudson Hixson, senior program consultant at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, discusses the need for parents to make a meaningful difference through school involvement. [240k audio file] Excerpted from the Rural Audio Journal, volume 3, number 3, Families and Schools Together (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995). A text version is available. Families and Schools Together (FAST) is a prevention program developed by Dr. Lynn McDonald.

Epstein (1995) expands upon the traditional kinds of involvement by identifying six types of parent involvement in schools: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community. Each type of involvement is valuable, and each has an impact on students, teachers, and the parents themselves.

Photo of Joyce L. EpsteinJoyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, talks about a framework of six types of parent involvement. [543k audio file] Excerpted from "School/Family/Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share," by J.L. Epstein, 1995, Phi Delta Kappan, 76 (9), p. 705-707. A text version is available.

Some parents readily volunteer their time for the schools. Other parents are reluctant or unable to participate. Although getting parents involved in their children's schools is a great challenge for educators, research shows that educators can do a great deal to promote greater parent involvement. The Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning (1994) indicates that parents who receive frequent and positive messages from teachers tend to become more involved in their children's education than do other parents. Dauber and Epstein (1993) found that many parents respond to encouragement from educators. In their national study of 2,317 inner-city elementary and middle school students, the best predictor of parent involvement was what the school did to promote it. School attitudes and actions were more important than the parents' income, educational level, race, or previous school-volunteering experience in predicting whether the parent would be involved in the school. Davies (1991) suggests three ways that schools can promote parent involvement: establishment of a parent center, a home visitor program, and action research teams.

School attitudes and actions toward parent involvement are largely influenced by administrators and teachers. Because leadership is critical, administrators may need special training to help them develop the skills needed to promote family-school partnerships. Don Davies, former U.S. Commissioner of Education and former president of the Institute for Responsive Education, states, "In any school...leadership is essential if a school staff is to choose the partnership approach to school reform.... In most cases, the leadership to reach out to the community will have to come from the principal" (Davies, 1991, p. 382).

Photo of Joyce L. EpsteinJoyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, talks about the need to help school faculty increase their knowledge about involving parents in the school. [250k audio file] Excerpted from "School/Family/Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share," by J.L. Epstein, 1995, Phi Delta Kappan, 76 (9), p. 703. A text version is available.

Professional development and training in parent involvement could play an important role in helping all educators connect with parents. Nathan and Radcliffe (1994) asked what educators want to learn and what scholars think educators should know about working with families. Generally the educators and scholars agreed on the necessary skills for working effectively with parents and families, but scholars also stressed the importance of teachers involving parents in the curriculum.

Research has yielded considerable information regarding the sustained commitment and effort that make parent involvement successful. The research review of Henderson and Berla (1994) identifies qualities of effective school efforts to involve parents as well as specific actions that parents can take to help their children succeed in school. Other research (Swick, 1992) provides insight on teacher attributes and parent attributes that lead to successful teacher-parent partnerships. Not surprisingly, teachers and parents work together most effectively when both exhibit warmth, sensitivity, and a feeling of competence. In studies reported by Comer and Haynes (1992), positive benefits for students in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Prince George's County, Maryland, and New Haven, Connecticut, were associated with schools that follow five guiding principles for involving parents in schools. In those schools, measurable gains were noted in the academic performance of students as well as in their behavior and self-concept.

Teacher-parent partnerships foster mutual support for teacher and parent roles, increase parent involvement in various school activities and improvement projects, and lead to positive growth for students (Swick, 1991). To promote such partnerships, the Family Involvement Partnership for Learning suggests that members of the school community develop a family-school compact for learning. Such a compact can capture the sustained effort required for successful partnerships.





Employers of Working Parents:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: For working parents, time constraints often prevent school involvement. Sixty-six percent of working parents indicate that they do not have enough time for their children (Families and Work Institute, 1994). Educators should make every attempt to plan school meetings, activities, and conferences at times when parents are available to attend. Employers need to be flexible with the work schedules of working parents and supportive of their efforts to be involved in their children's schools.

Some parents may have other reasons for not being involved with their children's schools:

The language barrier may be a problem for parents who do not speak English. One solution is to have a resource person--either a teacher or another parent--who can communicate with the parents in their first language (Ballen & Moles, 1994). Another possible solution is to have children accompany their parents and act as translators at conferences and meetings.

Some parents lack the ability to read or are embarrassed about their lack of schooling. Educators should realize that not all parents are able to read newsletters, field trip forms, or homework assignments. They must not depend on the written word as the only form of communication with the home. Home visits, phone calls, one-on-one meetings, and other personalized contacts with parents are important.

Teachers who feel overburdened with their teaching load may not have the time to reach out to parents. They need to be given the necessary time to contact and meet with parents. To coordinate parent-teacher meetings and develop parent-involvement programs, the school may designate a parent liaison or home-school coordinator (Ballen & Moles, 1994).

Sometimes parents are frustrated because schools do not seem to know much about their children. Boyer (1995) notes, "The harsh truth is...that car mechanics often know more about the automobiles entering their shops than educators know about children who enroll in school" (p. 61-62).

It is important for schools to offer different forms of parent involvement; no one form of involvement is necessarily right for every family. Educators and parents should aim to increase the percentage of parents involved in at least some ways. Every school has at least some parents who are deeply involved; the key is to steadily increase this number.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Although most educators and parents say they support parent involvement in schools, many parents appear to support a wider range of involvement opportunities than do educators. Various studies show that parents want to be more involved, and in a broader variety of ways (Williams & Stallworth, 1984; Elam 1990). Educators sometimes are reluctant to have parents involved in decision-making roles with the school.

A recent Gallup poll (Elam, 1990) asked parents if they were satisfied with the amount of participation they had in their school. Fifty-nine percent said they wanted a greater voice in the way school funds were allocated, 53 percent said they wanted more say in what courses were offered, and 46 percent said they wanted more say in hiring administrators (versus 37 percent who said they had the right amount of say in hiring administrators).

Some universities appear to believe that training teachers and administrators how to work with parents is not especially important. Most states do not require prospective teachers or administrators or most teachers to take coursework or training in working with parents (Radcliffe & Nathan, 1994).


Comprehensive educational programs with professional development and training components for educators

Parent training programs

Examples of schools that involve parents


Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships
(formerly Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning)
Johns Hopkins University
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(410) 516-8800; fax (410) 516-8890
Contact: Joyce Epstein, Director

The Education Alliance
810 Serrano Drive
Corona, CA 91720
(909) 734-3497; fax (909) 735-7576
Contact: Herb Thompson, Director of Research and Evaluation

Home and School Institute
MegaSkills Education Center
1500 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 466-3633; fax (202) 833-1400
Contact: Sandra Getner, Outreach Coordinator

Institute for Responsive Education
605 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, MA 02215
(617) 353-3309; fax (617) 353-8444
Contact: Scott Thompson, Director of Dissemination and Project Development

National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education
Box 39, 1201 16th St., N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 822-8405 ext. 53; fax (202) 872-4050
Contact: Sue Ferguson

National Parent Information Network
ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education
University of Illinois
805 W. Pennsylvania Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801-4897
(217) 333-3767 (800) 583-4135; fax 217-333-3767
Contact: Anne R. Robertson/Research Associate

Parents as Teachers National Center
2228 Ball Drive
St. Louis, MO 63146
(314) 432-4330; fax (314) 432-8963
Contact: Sue Stepleton, President

Partnership for Family Involvement in Education
(formerly Family Involvement Partnership for Learning)
600 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20202-8173
(800) USA-LEARN or (202) 401-0091; fax (202) 205-9133

School Development Program
47 College St., Suite 212
New Haven, CT 06520
(203) 737-1020; fax (203) 737-1023
Contact: Edward T. Johner, Acting Director

Success for All
Center for Research on THe Education of Students Placed At Risk
John Hopkins University
3505 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
(800) 548-4998
Contact: Robert Slavin or Nancy Madden


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He directs the Institute's Center for School Change.

Development and production of this Critical Issue was a collaborative effort of the Appalachia Educational Laboratory and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Date posted: 1996
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