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Parent Involvement

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Parental involvement in education and, its related term, family school relationships, have been conceptualized through multiple disciplinary lenses and through educational agency, as well as from local, state, and federal policy perspectives. Parental involvement in education and family school relations are terms that have been used interchangeably. However, there are subtle distinctions. Family-school relations are often conceptualized as the interactions, especially the communication, between families and schools pertaining to academic progress of students, academic or behavioral problems, and expectations for home engagement. This is the type of involvement that is often included in school policies pertaining to involvement. It is also evident in federal policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act, which defines parental involvement in education as “the participation of parents in regular, two-way and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities” (107th Congress, 2002).

More broadly, parental involvement in education has been defined as “parents' interactions with schools and with their children to promote academic success” (Hill et al., 2004). Such interactions extend beyond the engagement with schools, to the home life and the expectations and values for education that are communicated directly and indirectly to children. These conceptualizations focus on individual students and their families. Other disciplines, such as economics, have defined it in a way that gives parental involvement a different focus or level of analysis.

Within the field of economics, parental involvement in education is often defined collectively across parents within schools and across schools within districts, rather than at the individual or family level. Parental involvement has been conceptualized as “collective parental pressure” on schools or the impact of collective utilization of school policies such as school choice, exiting public schools and district assignments in favor of private, charter, and magnet schools (Epple & Romano, 1998; McMillan, 2000). Collective parental pressure can also occur through organized parent-teacher associations or simply through concerned parents monitoring the schools. It can impact school quality and climate and, in turn, school performance. In addition, economic conceptualizations include parental influence by voting for (or against) school board members, school district budgets (e.g., levies, bonds), and involvement in school governance and administration. These, in turn, impact school processes and learning outcomes (Jimenez & Sawada, 1999; Nechyba, McEwan, & Older-Aguilar, 1999). In addition to focusing on collective influence of parents, the outcomes of interest often are focused at the collective performance of schools or school districts, rather than individual students' academic progress. The involvement of just a few parents may influence the quality of instruction in a classroom or a school and, thereby, influence the academic development of many students (McMillan, 2000).

There are at least three theories that have guided research and practice (Comer, 1995; Epstein, 1987; Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994). Each of these theories conceptualize parental involvement in education as a multi-dimensional construct that includes communication between families and schools, parental involvement in education at school (e.g., volunteering at school) and parental involvement at home (e.g., helping with homework; providing educational experiences outside of school). Whereas these theories were based on elementary school contexts, additional research identifies appropriate types of involvement for middle and high school. For example, some theories distinguish involvement that reflects “academic socialization” such as communicating the importance or value of education and linking school-work to students' interests or goals (Hill & Tyson, 2007) and “structural involvement,” which includes providing students with the space, materials and expectations for achievement that is especially important for adolescents (Chao, 2000).

Assessments of parental involvement vary widely across studies and typically reflect assessments from parent, teachers, and students' perspectives. As research shows that these reports are often only moderately correlated with one another, their often unique relation with academic outcomes supports the premise that each reporter has a unique and important perspective (Reynolds, 1991). There are few “gold standard” measures of parental involvement and family school relations. However, most measures attempt to account for frequency of involvement, especially frequency of communication and parental visits to the school. Longer and more detailed measures attempt to account for who initiated contact. Initiation is important because parents and teachers tend to initiate contact for different reasons (Epstein, 1996). Teachers tend to initiate contact, beyond the regulated parent-teacher conferences, in the context of academic or behavioral problems. Parents, in contrast, tend to initiate contact for more proactive reasons and their initiated contact is positively associated with achievement.

DEVELOPMENTAL TRENDS

Beyond the variations in assessments of parental involvement, there are some consistent developmental trends in the normative levels of parental involvement in education. In general, parents tend to be more involved in their children's education when the children are younger, especially in elementary school, than they are in middle and high school (Eccles & Harold, 1996; Stevenson & Baker, 1987). School transitions (i.e., school entry; middle school and high school transitions) mark times when parental involvement changes in amount or type. Schools may be more or less welcoming; parents may feel more or less efficacious about being involved. Despite lower mean levels of involvement in middle and high school, parental involvement in education remains positively associated with academic outcomes (Hill et al., 2004). However, the types of involvement that are most influential for adolescents are not accounted for in extant theories and measures of involvement and, thus, one can conclude that parental involvement does not decline during middle and high school but changes form and shape (Hill & Taylor, 2004).

DEMOGRAPHIC FACTORS

In addition to changes across developmental stages, demographic factors shape the type, amount, and influence of parental involvement. The most notable are socioeconomic and ethnic/cultural factors. Motivations for parental involvement are based in parents' perceived role in their children's academic lives, a role which is culturally derived. Further, families' experiences with and perceptions of their ethnic minority status vis-à-vis the school culture and population influence their engagement with their children's schooling. Extant literature suggests that there are socio-economic and ethnic differences in levels of involvement and its influence on achievement. For example, being college educated and from higher income levels is associated with higher levels of involvement in children's schooling (Kohl, Lengua, McMahon, & Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2000; Moles, 1993; Reynolds, Mav-rogenes, Bezruczko, & Hagemann, 1996).

However, the research on ethnic differences is less conclusive. Some find that African Americans and Latinos are involved less than Euro Americans (Moles, 1993; Reynolds, Mavrogenes, Bezruczko, & Hagemann, 1996), others find no differences (Harris, Kagey, & Ross, 1987; Hill & Craft, 2003) and still others find that African Americans and Latinos have high expectations and involvement in their children's education (Chavkin & Williams, 1989; Lopez, Sanchez, & Hamilton, 2000). In contrast, Asian American families have been found to have the lowest levels of involvement in their children's education, especially when involvement is defined by interactions with the school (Kao, 1995; Sui-Chi & Willms, 1996). Variations across studies may be due to types of measurement and potential confounds between ethnicity and other demographic factors such as socio-economic status and community resources. For example, the extent to which Latino families were the numerical minority within their communities and their children were numerical minorities among the school population influenced the amount and effectiveness of parental involvement in education (Rodriguez, 2002).

Beyond mean level differences, ethnic and socioeco-nomic differences have been documented in the goals for involvement and in the associations with academic outcomes. African American and Latino families often report that one of the reasons for being involved at school is to demonstrate to their children's teachers that they are committed to their children's education (Gutman & McLoyd, 2002). This is a goal that is often necessary because of biases teachers often hold about the academic potential of African American and Latino children and the value their parents place on education (Ferguson, 1998; Hill, 2001; Lareau, 1987). This goal is unnecessary for Euro American and Asian American families, who often benefit from positive stereotypes held by teachers and other school personnel. Further, there is evidence that processes by which involvement influences vary by ethnicity and socio-economic status. Hill and Craft (2003) found that parental involvement was associated with academic outcomes because it increased academic skills for African Americans. In contrast, for Euro Americans, it improved social and emotional competence in children (Hill & Craft, 2003). Similarly, parental involvement was differentially associated with achievement based on whether parents had college degrees (Hill et al., 2004).

Despite differences in the amount and types of involvement across demographic background, parental involvement and family school relations are positively associated with academic achievement and children's aspirations (Hill & Taylor, 2004). Two meta-analyses have been conducted on the extant literature that attest to its positive influence. Meta-analyses aggregate across empirical studies to ascertain a level of effect in a way that accounts for differences in sample size and quality of measurement. Looking at studies across developmental levels, the relation is positive and practically meaningful (Fan & Chen, 2001). The relation is strongest for parents' expectations and aspirations for their children. For studies focusing specifically on middle school age children, a developmental stage that is notable for its issues of adjustment, the relation is also positive (Hill & Tyson, 2007). The strongest positive influence was for involvement characterized as “academic socialization,” defined as communicating the importance or value of education and linking schoolwork to students' interests or goals. Interestingly, for middle school students, parental assistance with homework was negatively associated with achievement (Hill & Tyson, 2007).

Given the positive influence parents have on their children's academic development, many programs and policies look toward involving parents as a way to mitigate gaps in achievement and help children reach their potential. Among the barriers to parental involvement, the most significant ones include conflicting schedules (time), feeling unwelcomed and unappreciated, and feeling unheard. Creating ways for parents to interact with teachers and school personnel as their schedule permits will improve communication. This may include the use of technology, including e-mail, e-bulletin boards, and voice mail (Bouffard, 2006). Further, schools and families may differ in their implicit and explicit expectations for parental involvement. Communications between families and schools that affirm and celebrate differences, acknowledge and build upon strengths, and make explicit the goals and assumptions of involvement are essential in helping families feel welcomed and involved.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

107th Congress. (2002). Public Law 107-110, The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/107-110.pdf.

Bouffard, S. M. (2006). ‘Virtual’ parental involvement: The role of the Internet in parent-school communication. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Duke University, Durham, NC.

Chao, R. K. (2000). Cultural explanations for the role of parenting in the school success of Asian American children. In R. W. Taylor & M. C. Wang (Eds.), Resilience across contexts: Family, work, culture, and community (pp. 333–363). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Comer, J. P. (1995). School Power: Implications of an intervention project. New York: Free Press.

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