No, Parental Involvement is Not ‘Overrated’

Anyone who follows education news and trends has come to expect that every few months a new research report or book will be released that dishes up a counter-narrative too irresistible for the media to pass up.  On April 14,  we had a whopper serving, courtesy of The New York Times (and probably an overzealous headline writer) On that day, the Times ran an op-ed by two sociologists, Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, with the headline … drum roll please … “Parental Involvement is Overrated.”

“Most people, asked whether parent involvement benefits children academically, would say ‘of course it does,’” Robinson and Harris wrote. “But evidence from our research suggests otherwise. In fact, most forms of parental involvement … do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they may actually hinder it.”  This finding was fairly consistent, they noted, regardless of race, ethnic background or socioeconomic status.

Their advice? “Set the stage” for your kids by impressing upon them the importance of education and then leave it.

In supporting their claims, Robinson and Harris trumpeted their analysis of numerous longitudinal surveys covering demographic and socioeconomic data on American families, information about various forms of parental engagement, and academic outcomes (translation: test scores) of elementary middle and high school students.

The Times is actually just the latest, although most visible, media property to spotlight Robinson’s and Harris’ findings. In March, Dana Goldstein  discussed their research in a widely-shared story for The Atlantic Monthly titled, referencing one of the parental involvement activities singled out in the research, “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework.”  And their book, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education was published by Harvard University Press in December 2013.

On one hand, it’s not surprising that an attempt to upend decades of research that demonstrate the value of parental involvement scored big in the media. Still, the general lack of skepticism – almost completely absent in Goldstein’s story in The Atlantic – is pretty discouraging. As developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell wrote in Psychology Today responding to Robinson and Harris, “when researchers use ‘big data’ to draw simple conclusions, it can potentially harm children.”

Anne T. Henderson, a senior consultant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a leading expert on the relationship between families and schools, agrees and says Robinson and Harris draw upon a limited body of federal survey data to cobble together some rather expansive and faulty conclusions.

While she sees some value in pointing out some of the drawbacks of “garden variety” forms of parental engagement, Henderson cites numerous weaknesses in Robinson’s and Harris’ work, including the absence of any new data collected by the authors, the lack of proper context to a lot of the data (especially around the information provided by parents about their school-related activities) and the obviously flawed use of student test scores as the only measure of success.

Henderson also points out that much of Robinson’s and Harris’ works fails to take into account that correlation does not equal causation.

“What very well may be happening is that parents of kids who are struggling are the parents who are trying to help their kids with homework,” Henderson explains. “So it’s not necessarily the case that the parents’ help is causing the kids to do worse, it’s the fact that the kids are doing poorly that has triggered the parents to help.”

Furthermore, while Henderson and other experts acknowledge that sitting down and helping students complete homework assignments can be problematic- especially if the parent doesn’t really understand what is being taught in class – strategies exist that are more useful.

“We do know from a wide body of research that if schools use, for example, interactive homework assignments, their classroom will have higher student performance on a variety of measures, including test scores, on the subjects the assignments cover.” Henderson says. “The Robinson/Harris study didn’t consider that body of research.”

As with many of the other parent involvement practices the researchers cover, help with homework generally falls into that category of conventional practices that have already been recognized as being potentially ineffective. There really isn’t anything “groundbreaking” about this conclusion, which is why Henderson wrote a book in 2007 called Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships.

In fact, the very use of the term “parental involvement” reflects a somewhat stale approach to a dynamic and complex issue.

“The field has moved on to advocate for much higher impact strategies that use a broader and more inclusive definition of family engagement rather than just ‘parent involvement,’” explains Henderson. One of the priorities of a new professional association she is co-founding, the National Partnership for Family, School, and Community Engagement, will be to push the federal government to ask  better questions and collect data about school strategies that really engage families, not just ask superficial questions about commonplace practices like helping with homework or attending a back-to-school night.

“There is a large body of reliable research that shows well-designed family engagement practices are associated with higher grades, higher test scores, better attendance, more motivation, and the move to post-secondary education,” Henderson says.

“The last thing parents should do is get off the stage.”

Related Post:
Should Schools Be Done With Homework?
Top Five Myths and Lies About Teachers and Their Profession
Survey: Most Teachers Want Involved Parents But Don’t Have Them

For more information on family-school partnerships, visit nea.org/parents

  • Candice Hanson

    I REALLY think that the parents have been left out of the common core. I feel that if the “math” textbooks explained why a certain method of teaching is used, more parents would be able to help their students in the elementary setting. Face it, textbooks are NOT parent friendly.

    • TheFantasticMrsFarts

      common core is about standards, not about methods.

  • LiveFeedUSA

    Candice, you are right. Parents are separated from children and look “stupid” when it comes “mom, can you help me with math?” and mom looks at the problem and exclaims in her head “what the hell is this?!” This sounds VERY familiar because I grew up in mid 70-80 in communist country where my 1st grade started with a “new math method”, when I needed help, my father was shaking his head. “Why are you scratching your right ear with left hand?” Do you get the picture? This was a deliberate dumbing down the MAJORITY of students, unless parents were intelligent enough to realised that what their children are learning is a hog-wash! Yes, indeed a soviet methods have been introduced to this country USA in early 70s and look what intelligent bunch of minds it produced (in public aka government schools)

    • TheFantasticMrsFarts

      what are you even trying to say? you make no sense.

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  • Kreg Kephart

    Parental involvement is the single most important element related to a child’s success in school. While it is not a pancea (some student’s still fail despite the best efforts of their parents) parent involvement is critical. While there are varying degrees of involvement, the most important role for a parent, is not as a helper, but more as a guide, director and enforcer. Someone who facilitates organization and prioritization. A parent needs to set, enforce and maintain structure. Attendance must be monitored. Homework must be completed. Grades and performance in class must be tracked. Many students do not yet possess the organizational and time management skills necessary to succeed on their own. The role of the parent is to provide that sturcture and set limits and consequences.

  • Barbara Givens

    I disagree with Common Core. As an elementary principal for 18 years, the Indiana Standards were excellent and accompanied with teaching strategies. My school was an “at-risk” school, and while the teachers worked diligently for every student, they could not overcome the lack of parent involvement which included getting their kids to school, too many drugs, and a lack of caring if their child achieved.

  • Deanna

    I am glad the author highlighted that parental involvement is not simply homework help and a family night. Parental involvement helps schools in ways that help students succeed in areas that are not easily measured with a test score. Things like confidence, pride and social capital that students whose parents are not able to be involved may not have. It is easy to compare a school of working class or socioeconomic struggling families and families where there are an abundance of stay at home parent, PTA’s have more support, teachers have more support this, students have more support. Parental involvement is so much more than homework help.

  • Burnette Scarboro

    Parent involvement is not overrated. When I have the opportunity to speak with parents, I often say, “you will either be involved now or later in your child’s life. Choose now while you have the greatest impact.” Parent involvement is not just back-to-school nights or volunteering in the classroom. Administrators, researchers, teachers and consultants should focus on designing a tool that validates a parent’s involvement as Henderson says, “Beyond the Bake Sale.” Sending a child to school prepared to learn is noteworthy. Let’s not forget that having an organized and structured home environment is a plus. I am advocating that all school districts should have back to school night – Parts I, II and III!