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