As a parent, it’s hard to know how best to support your child’s education. While Oprah shares tips for getting involved in the classroom on her website, a host of other commentators send competing messages to parents who want to ensure their child’s academic success.
Indeed, sociologists Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris recently have argued that parents can actually harm their child’s academic achievement by being involved in the wrong ways. Their arguments have prompted heated discussion about whether we’d be better off if parents stopped helping their children with their homework, attended fewer school events and so forth.
Unfortunately, this argument oversimplifies the story. It confuses causality with correlation and focuses on an outmoded approach to parent involvement. That’s not only poor social science, it can have negative consequences for children and families if policymakers reduce investments in parent engagement.
Robinson and Harris imply parent involvement causes academic achievement. We know shoe size and measures of intelligence are positively related to each other — but it makes no sense to argue that larger feet cause greater intelligence (hint: age has more to do with it!). In the context of parent engagement, jumping to causality would mean parent help with homework harms academic achievement. Some scholars suggest parents step up their homework involvement when children are struggling — so poor achievement might cause homework involvement.
Beyond methodological considerations, there is another way to view Robinson and Harris’ findings.
Decades of research have identified a positive relationship between a range of parent involvement efforts and academic success, but recently, researchers have unveiled a “fix-the-parent” approach. That is, when a child struggles, the presumption is often that their parents must be doing something wrong.
The conventional avenues for involvement — parent-teacher conferences, bake sale fundraisers, PTA participation — direct parents toward a narrow band of passive behaviors that aim to “fix” them to better support the school’s pre-set agenda.
These efforts don’t recognize the racial, cultural, linguistic and power imbalances that shape many parents’ interactions with schools, particularly in our region. In my research, parents feel that they are not welcome at school, that their concerns are dismissed, or that they are to blame when their children struggle.
Our team at the University of Washington’s College of Education examined the quantitative research on parent involvement, examining 64 studies from 1993-2013 using 90 measures. The existing measures in national datasets — like those used in Robinson and Harris’ study – define involvement largely in terms of participation in the traditional activities described above. In short, we’re measuring the wrong things.
That’s why we — along with the South King County Road Map Project — are developing new measures of what we call equitable family-school collaboration. Through our case studies and indicators, we are also contributing to a growing body of research on more transformative family engagement, such as Kent School District’s design process for their Parent Academy for Student Achievement (PASA).
Mohamed (not his real name), a father and PASA facilitator, illustrates parent engagement that contrasts dramatically with the passive approaches in much quantitative research. Mohamed reached out to his local Somali community and facilitated the first “parent academy” last year. He later created a Somali native-language class that reinforces first language skills for children, leverages families’ cultural expertise and catalyzes community commitment to children’s academic success.
He works with his children every day to ensure their success, while also advising the district on how to reach Somali families and sharing his expertise with professional educators. Mohamed’s efforts might not fit the old mold of “parent involvement,” but our research suggests he’s making a powerful difference for his children and community.
Ann M. Ishimaru is an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy and organizational studies at the College of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.