Saturday, April 9, 2011

What Research Says: Varieties of Parent Involvement in Schooling - Middle S

What Research Says | Apr 7th 2011
January 2008 • Volume 39 • Number 3 • Pages 58-64

Vincent A. Anfara, Jr., Editor

Varieties of Parent Involvement in Schooling

Vincent A. Anfara, Jr., & Steven B. Mertens

In an educational climate characterized by an enormous emphasis on accountability, our nation has been busy defining its educational goals to enable us to participate in a global economy. Even in this context, the concept of family and parent involvement in school has remained a top priority. Two examples illustrate this point. First, in 1994, Congress enacted the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. As stated in Goal Eight, "By the year 2000, every school will promote partnerships that will increase parent involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children" (Sec. 102, 8, A). Some of the objectives of this goal included the establishment of programs to increase parent involvement, engaging parents in the support of academic work of children at home, and shared decision making at school.

Second, parents are mentioned more than 300 times in various parts of the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), specifically in Section 1118, Title I. This section of the Act is devoted solely to parent involvement. More specifically, this section requires that school districts and schools receiving Title I dollars must have a written parent involvement policy and build school capacity to effectively implement the parent policy provisions. Additionally, this policy must be developed jointly with parents and the local community. For the first time in the history of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the law contains a definition of parent involvement:

The participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school related activities including ensuring—that parents play an integral role in assisting their child's learning; that parents are encouraged to be actively involved in their child's education at school; that parents are full partners in their child's education and are included, as appropriate, in decision-making and on advisory committees to assist in the education of their child; and that other activities are carried out, such as those described in section 1118 of the ESEA (Parent Involvement). [Section 9101(32).EA]

For the purpose of this column, we define parents as any family member, including a blended or extended family member (Shartrand, Weiss, Kreider, & Lopez, 1997), or other adult (e.g., grandparent, stepparent, or someone standing in loco parentis) who plays an important role in the child's life (National PTA, 2000) or contributes to the learning of the child and his or her improvement in school. Readers are provided with a brief historical overview of parent involvement in schooling, the positive effects of parent involvement on students, related research on the topic, the challenges to effectively involving parents, and, finally, some of the models of parent involvement that exist.

Historical perspective

Historically, we have witnessed major changes in patterns regarding the relationship between the school and the home. It has long been recognized that the parent is the child's first teacher and that the home serves as the first classroom (Berger, 1995). In the early 19th century, the community and the parents exerted considerable control over the decisions of the school. The church, home, and the community generally supported the same agenda for student learning and the students' evolution into the adult community (Prentice & Houston, 1975). Parents were directly involved in such decisions as hiring and firing teachers, determining the school calendar, and developing the school curriculum (Epstein, 1986).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, different structures in school and family relations developed. Separate tasks and responsibilities were delegated to the school and the home (Katz, 1971). The school began to distance itself from parents, with the notion that teachers had specialized knowledge and the belief that parents were not qualified to contribute to issues related to curriculum and instruction. In the 1920s, parent involvement entered what Henderson (1988) called the "bake sale" mode. Some authors (Bushweller, 1996; Elkind, 1994) noted that parents were actually "dumping" their parental responsibilities on the school and acknowledged that schools were assuming more and more functions traditionally within the parent domain. By the 1950s, teachers typically held the view that they should teach, and parents should simply be supportive of the teachers and the school (Berger, 1995). By the 1960s, though, we began to see federal legislation that mandated parent involvement in schools. Passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA, 1965) was one of the first legislative acts linking parent involvement to education. Title I, part of ESEA, required that parents serve on school advisory boards and participate in classroom activities.

Discussing the divide between parents and the school, Jacobson (2002) commented that, because parents lack the language or the educational background, some educators might view them as incapable of anything that would make a difference in their child's education. In short, the general acceptance of teaching as a profession began to change the face of parent involvement in schools (Berger, 1995; Epstein, 1996; Zellman & Waterman, 1998).

Discussing the issue of parent involvement as it relates to middle grades education, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989) wrote:

Despite the clearly documented benefits of parent involvement for students' achievement and attitudes toward school, parent involvement of all types declines progressively during the elementary school years. By middle grade school, the home-school connection has been significantly reduced, and in some cases is nonexistent. (p. 66)

A similar analysis of declining parent involvement during the middle grades years is offered by Gotts and Purnell (1987) and Epstein (1987).

As the history of parent involvement in schools moves into the 21st century, we can no longer regard parent involvement as simply including parents in fund-raising or attending an occasional student play, music performance, or sports event. Parent involvement, as mandated by No Child Left Behind, includes the concept of a meaningful partnership consisting of regular communication and parent participation in the development and implementation of a plan for school improvement (Cowan, 2003). Increasing parent involvement, according to Myers and Monson (1992), is a positive initiative because students learn more in schools where parents become involved and offer their support.

Positive effects of involving parents
No Child Left Behind has highlighted the importance of parent involvement, however, the effects of parent involvement on making schools better and improving student achievement has been recognized for decades. While research regarding parent involvement began in the mid-1960s, research pertaining to parent involvement in middle schools did not appear until the mid-1980s. We saw the advent of this research in the 1960s, with the focus on at-risk students, the need for early intervention programs (Bronfenbrenner, 1974), and initiatives designed by the federal government to mandate parent involvement as a primary means to improving student learning. Parents, too, were influenced by research in the late 1960s and early 1970s that suggested they should play a greater role in school governance because of the effects of school decisions on both children and their parents (Lightfoot, 1978; Sarason, 1971).

A review of the research on parent involvement reveals that parent involvement positively affects students' achievement (Epstein et al., 2002; Fan & Chen, 2001; Herman & Yeh, 1983; National Middle School Association, 2003), attendance (Epstein et al., 2002), self-esteem (Mapp, 1997), behavior (Fan & Chen, 2001; National Middle School Association, 2003), graduation (Lommerin, 1999), emotional well-being (Epstein, 2005), and life goals (Lommerin, 1999) (see also Becher, 1984; Burke, 2001; Epstein & Dauber, 1989; Merenbloom, 1988; Olmstead & Rubin, 1982; Truby, 1987). Not only has a compelling connection been found between student achievement and parent involvement, but it is also interesting to note that these benefits cross lines of family income and parent education level (Chavkin & Gonzales, 1995; Funkhouser, Gonzales, & Moles, 1998; Henderson, 1981; Henderson & Berla, 1994; Pepperl & Lezotte, 2001; Young & Westernoff, 1996).

Henderson and Mapp (2002) revealed in an analysis of 51 studies that students with above average parent involvement had academic achievement rates that were 30% higher than those students with below average parent involvement. Henderson and Berla (1994) found that the most accurate predictors of student success in school were the ability of the family (along with the help and support of school personnel) to (a) create a positive home learning environment, (b) communicate high but realistic expectations for their children's school performance and future careers, and (c) become involved in their children's schooling. As Henderson and Berla wrote in the opening statement of their book, A New Generation of Evidence: The Family Is Critical to Student Achievement, "The evidence is now beyond dispute. When schools work together with families to support learning, children tend to succeed not just in school, but throughout life" (p. 1).

Most studies show that the value of education is impressed upon students when they see their parents and other family members involved in the school program (Myers & Monson, 1992). Moreover, these studies attest to the benefits of successful parent involvement, including:

  1. higher achievement
  2. improved school attendance
  3. improved student sense of well-being
  4. improved student behavior
  5. better parent and student perceptions of classroom and school climate
  6. better readiness to complete homework
  7. higher educational aspirations among students and parents
  8. better student grades
  9. increased educational productivity of the time that parents and students spend together
  10. greater parent satisfaction with teachers (Myers & Monson, 1992, p. 14).

Other research related to parent involvement
In addition to the effects that parent involvement has on students, researchers have examined variables that have most frequently been associated with parent involvement in schools. Unfortunately, attempts to identify factors implicated in variations in parent involvement have produced few consistent results. The factor most examined is socioeconomic status (SES) (Corwin & Wagenaar, 1976; Herman & Yeh, 1983). This research concludes that family SES plays a role in parent-school relations, but the general direction of its influence is too difficult to determine.

Teacher characteristics, such as level of education and sense of efficacy, have also been studied. Higher levels of education have been associated with more positive attitudes toward parent involvement (Becker & Epstein, 1982), but also with fewer parent contacts and more disputes (Corwin & Wagenaar, 1976). Ashton, Webb, and Doda (1983) studied teacher efficacy and found that lower levels of efficacy seem to be related to reduced teacher-parent contacts. Grade level and class size have been studied as a variable in the research on parent involvement. Lower grade levels have been associated with teachers' use of more parent involvement strategies, and large class size has been associated with more teacher efforts to involve parents (Becker & Epstein, 1982). Additionally, Corwin and Wagenaar examined school formalization (i.e., rules and controls) and centralization (i.e., hierarchical structuring of the organization) and found that teachers in more formalized and centralized schools reported less parent involvement.

Challenges to parent involvement
Despite the positive effects of parent involvement on students' success in achievement, attendance, attitudes, behavior, graduation, and life goals, parent involvement must sometimes be urged, coaxed, supported by initiatives, legislated, or mandated (Kerbow & Bernhardt, 1993). The real barriers that negatively affect the engagement of parents and the mechanisms that encourage parents to become engaged in their children's education have not been clearly understood (Kerbow & Berhhardt). Moreover, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that parents and educators often have conflicting views of the roles for parents in schools (Abrams & Gibbs, 2000).

Many parents face obstacles in their attempts to become involved in schools. A few of the obstacles include (a) differing ideas among parents and teachers about what constitutes involvement, (b) a less than welcoming atmosphere toward parents in schools and classrooms, (c) minimal opportunities for involvement, (d) poor communication from schools, (e) lack of parent education and parenting skills, (f) time and job pressures, and (g) language barriers (Becker & Epstein, 1982; Hobbs et al., 1984; Lightfoot, 1978; Lortie, 1975; Moles, 1982). To this list, Plevyak (2003) added (a) cultural differences, (b) fear of authority-based institutions, (c) parent illiteracy, (d) family problems, (e) negative education experiences, (f) health, (g) living arrangements, and (h) lack of resources needed for participation to those factors that hinder parent involvement in schools.

From the viewpoint of teachers, research demonstrates that teachers may hesitate to involve parents because of the time investment required, the absence of external rewards for efforts to involve parents, and problems with low commitment or skills on the part of parents (Epstein & Becker, 1982; Moles, 1982). Additionally, teachers may actually fear parents questioning their professional competence (Epstein & Becker, 1982; Power, 1985) or blame them for children's problems (Vernberg & Medway, 1981).

In looking specifically at parent involvement in middle grades schools, research from the Center for Prevention Research and Development (CPRD) at the University of Illinois found that parents were generally not aware of established middle level practices such as interdisciplinary teaming, advisory programs, integrated lessons, heterogeneous grouping, exploratory activities, or cooperative learning practices (Mulhall, Mertens, & Flowers, 2001). In addition, disadvantaged families reported a greater lack of awareness about these practices. Parents reporting higher levels of familiarity with middle level practices were more likely to report positive attitudes and engagement at their child's school.

Models of parent involvement

The research is clear that children benefit when their parents participate in and are supportive of their schooling. The ways in which parents are, and should be, involved is less clear. In attempting to understand and describe parent involvement, researchers have categorized the forms and means through which parents participate. Models differ primarily in their philosophy and purpose for involving parents.

Chrispeels (1991) presented a framework for describing how the school, home, and community should work together. This model suggests that parent involvement has a hierarchical structure with co-communication being the basis for other types of involvement. Hence, more fundamental types of parent involvement occur that require less skill than more complex types. Her model includes the following components: (a) involving parents as partners in school governance, including shared decision making and advisory functions; (b) establishing effective two-way communication with all parents; (c) respecting the diversity and differing needs of families; (d) establishing strategies and programmatic structures at schools to enable parents to participate; (e) providing support and coordination for staff and parents to implement and sustain appropriate parent involvement from kindergarten through high school; and (f) using schools to connect students and families with community resources that provide educational enrichment and support (See pp. 369–369).

Epstein (1985, 1987, 1988, 1995) and colleagues (Epstein et al., 2002) developed a framework of six major types of parent involvement (see Figure 1) that is the result of many years of research in elementary, middle, and high schools. Her typology is the "primary framework to study parent involvement" (Chen & Chandler, 2001, p. 4), and was used by the National PTA to provide standards for parent/family involvement programs (National PTA, 1997).

Figure 1
Six types of parent involvement

Type 1:
Assist families with parenting skills, family support, understanding child and adolescent development, and setting home conditions to support learning at each age and grade level. Assist schools in understanding families' backgrounds, cultures, and goals for children.
Type 2:
Communicate with families about school programs and student progress. Create two-way communication between school and home.
Type 3:
Improve recruitment, training, activities, and schedules to involve families as volunteers and as audiences at the school. Enable educators to work with volunteers who support students and the school.
Type 4:
Learning at Home
Involve families with their children in academic learning at home, including homework, goal setting, and other curriculum-related activities. Encourage teachers to design homework that enables students to share and discuss interesting tasks with parents.
Type 5:
Decision Making
Include families as participants in school decisions, governance, and advocacy activities through school councils and improvement teams, committees, and parent organizations.
Type 6:
Collaborating with the Community
Coordinate resources and services for families, students, and the school with community groups, including businesses, agencies, cultural and civic organizations, and colleges and universities. Enable all to contribute service to the community.

Davies' (1985, 1987) model has four categories of parent involvement. These include: (a) co-production or partnerships, (b) decision making, (c) citizen advocacy, and (d) parent choice. While the first three elements in the model are similar to what Epstein and associates (2002) described, the fourth component, "parent choice," deals with issues related to tuition tax credits, open enrollment plans, alternative public schools, and the like. Other models have been developed by Berger (1991), Gordon (1979), Rutherford (1993), and Berla, Henderson, and Kerewsky (1989).


Much of the research conducted on parent involvement in schooling has focused on either elementary schools (e.g., Epstein, 1986) or a combination of elementary and middle schools (e.g., Epstein & Dauber, 1989). There is certainly no debate regarding the importance and

benefits of involving parents in the education of their children. A synthesis of the research on parent involvement in schooling reveals that the evidence is consistent, positive, and convincing: families have a major influence on their children's achievement in school and throughout life. When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more. (Henderson & Mapp, 2002, p. 7)

Despite the value and importance of parent involvement to schooling, research also documents the difficulty of achieving this goal. Cutright's (1984) study revealed support for parent involvement but also the realization that involvement was quite low. Greene and Tichenor (2003) reminded us that parents, too often, become and remain a forgotten treasure.

We call on middle school practitioners and researchers to look more carefully at the issues related to parent involvement in schooling during the middle grades years. As middle school teachers and administrators strive to involve parents in meaningful ways, we encourage them to conduct research (e.g., action research) at their schools and to share the results with the larger middle grades community. We also urge middle grades researchers to look more carefully at issues that are specifically related to the middle school context. The models for parent involvement discussed earlier would be appropriate to guide these research endeavors.

Epstein (1986) noted that there are two main theories of school and family relations. One perspective emphasizes the "incompatibility, competition, and conflict between families and schools and supports the separation of the two institutions" (p. 277). In short, the goals of the school and the family can be best achieved "when teachers maintain their professional, general standards and judgments about the children in their classrooms and when parents maintain their personal, particularistic standards and judgments about their children at home" (p. 277). The second theory emphasizes the "coordination, cooperation, and complementarity of schools and families and encourages communication and collaboration between the two institutions" (p. 277).

Schools must seek and find methods to increase the participation of parents in their children's education. We are keenly aware that this participation decreases as students enter middle schools, so the challenge is great for middle grades educators. There are those who would argue that schools will be successful only to the degree that they are successful in involving parents (Cotton & Mann, 1994). Without parent support and active participation, students do not achieve at acceptable levels (Walberg, 1984).

Myers and Monson (1992) offered a number of recommendations aimed at encouraging and nurturing parent involvement in middle schools. Their recommendations include (a) building a strong parent-school organization, (b) implementing an "open door" policy for parents, (c) involving parents in the orientation programs as students transition to middle school, (d) encouraging teachers to write personal notes to parents about students' accomplishments, (e) conducting special events during the school year that are geared toward parent participation, and (f) conducting surveys to affirm the importance of parents' opinions (pp. 20–24).

We should not forget that students are not the only beneficiaries of parent involvement. As parent involvement increases, teachers experience increased rates of return on homework and develop a greater sense of efficacy and higher morale. They report more success in their efforts to influence their students (Epstein, 2003). Parents, too, report greater satisfaction with teachers.


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