Schooling low-income parents in helping students

For a succinct vision of the role parents can play in their children’s education, a useful starting point is a tale of three mothers and an eggplant, told by Phyllis Hunter, former director of reading for Houston’s public schools.

Hunter’s first mother wheels her shopping cart down the produce aisle of a supermarket, where her kindergartner spots an eggplant and asks what it is. The mother shushes her child, ignoring the question. The second mother, faced with the same question, responds curtly, “That’s an eggplant, but we don’t eat it.”

The third mother seizes the moment: “That’s an eggplant,” she says enthusiastically. “It’s one of the few purple vegetables.” She picks it up and encourages her child to put it on the scale. “Oh, look, it’s about two pounds!” she says. “And it costs $1.99 a pound. Let’s round it to $2. That would cost just about $4. That’s a bit pricey, but you like veal Parmesan, and eggplant Parmesan is delicious too. You’ll love it. Let’s buy one, take it home, cut it open. We’ll make a dish together.”

Hunter’s parable makes clear why an attentive, engaged parent is one of life’s greatest academic advantages. It also makes clear why educators have long believed that low-income students would soar if only they got more support at home. But what never has been clear, despite 40 years of voluminous research, is whether myriad strategies schools are now using to encourage low-income parents to engage in new ways with their children have actually worked.

Since the 1960s, the federal government has required schools serving poor children to involve parents in their education. Under a little-noticed section of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are instructed not only to educate students but also to help parents become more effective learning partners for their children. No longer is parent involvement defined as mothers or fathers volunteering in class. Now it is a two-way relationship, with schools expected to reach out to engage parents, including those who don’t come to them -- parents who work two or three jobs, parents who speak no English, parents whose own school experiences were not positive.


The law also requires districts receiving more than $500,000 a year in Title I funds -- which support the education of low-income children -- to spend 1% of those funds engaging parents. In 2009, with an infusion of money from the president’s economic stimulus package, that 1% could come close to $225 million nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Despite the emphasis on accountability that defines No Child Left Behind, the law requires little oversight of how tens of thousands of schools spend their parent-involvement money or whether those efforts raise achievement.

Many schools, according to Steffen Saifer, director of the Child and Family program at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore., “have so much they consider more important that they’ve gotten good at knowing how to minimally meet the requirements.”

“What’s typically done -- sending notes home in backpacks, holding parents nights, offering conferences -- isn’t effective with low-income parents or parents who don’t speak English,” Saifer said. “That’s what works in middle-class districts.”

“It’s a dilemma we all face in the area of parental involvement,” said Rosie Kelly, a U.S. Department of Education official involved in monitoring state Title I programs. “Our monitoring is for compliance. You’re talking about a quality issue.”

President Obama has not unveiled his own policy on parental involvement, but he has made clear he wants more of it. “For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn,” the president told the NAACP in July.

No one disagrees, but what are schools to do?

A paper published in the Review of Educational Research in 2002 evaluated 41 studies touting the impact of parent-involvement programs, and found most to be compromised by flawed design or analysis.

In particular, few took into account the families’ social class. Emphasizing that the programs may work nonetheless, the authors found “little empirical support for the widespread claim that parent-involvement programs are an effective means of improving student achievement.”

Even strategies that seemed certain to work have fallen short. A case in point is Even Start, a 20-year-old federal early-childhood program, carefully crafted using research that found that the more educated the parents, the more likely they were to engage children in learning. In Even Start centers, low-income parents learn literacy and child-raising skills while children play and learn separately. In joint sessions, parents practice sinking into comfy chairs with a book and a child, learning to create a joyful experience out of reading together.

The goal is to provide poor children with one of many advantages more affluent children are born with -- a parent who reads to them.

Despite its promise, Even Start didn’t work, at least not according to researchers funded by the Education Department who found in 2003 that parents and children gained no more literacy skills after a year than did a control group. Obama invoked these findings in targeting the program for elimination in 2010. (Congress hasn’t held a final vote on his proposal.)

The demand for accountability from Even Start suggests that the Obama administration will seek similar evidence that other parent-involvement policies are working. “I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a speech in June. “It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk.”

He announced that his department is launching a survey to measure levels of parent and family involvement in education nationally.

But what educators need more urgently is hard evidence of what kinds of support make the most difference. There are some promising places to look.

Joyce Epstein, a sociologist who directs the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, has helped low-income schools raise student achievement by involving both parents and local institutions in learning. “You don’t have to give parents a college education,” Epstein said. “You just have to give them a strategy for having an interesting conversation with their third-grader about a book they’re reading even if the parents haven’t read the book.”

The New York City Department of Education’s Office of Family Engagement has involved large numbers of parents by holding workshops early in the morning and on weekends, when parents who work multiple jobs are free. They also provide translators in more than a dozen languages and classes on how to advocate for one’s child and how to help children of every age in every subject.

There are many such strategies that the government could subject to rigorous examination and guide districts on how to implement those that bring results. Rather than chanting the familiar mantra that parental involvement helps students, it is time to tackle the reasons the current approach isn’t working for everyone and seize this opportunity to lower the tall barriers to achievement facing low-income children.

Dale Russakoff is a freelance writer in Montclair, N.J. A longer version of this article appeared in the Foundation for Child Development’s annual report, “How do families matter?”