Can parents save American education?

Lauren Williams's picture
Thursday, May 23, 2013

Research suggests that students whose parents are involved in their schooling make better grades and are more likely to go to college, and some states -- with California leading the way of course -- are passing parent trigger laws that give parents much more power to intervene when local schools are failing. President Obama has weighed in as well. He is one of many leaders calling on parents to step up to the plate when it comes to education. "We all know that we can have the best schools and the most dedicated teachers in the world," Obama said in a public service announcement taped in 2010. "But it won't be enough unless we fill our responsibilities as parents. "

Most American parents readily agree with the premise that parents are a crucial ingredient in a child's educational success. A few years ago, when the Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa survey asked parents which is more important in helping a child learn -- parents or the school --the results weren't even close: 78 percent of parents said "the student's parents" and only 21 percent said "the school." And an analysis of opinion research conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Kettering Foundation shows that most parents view participating in their child's education as a fundamental responsibility and see stronger parent and community involvement as a critical factor in improving neighborhood schools. As a DC dad in one of our focus groups put it: " I think [good schools] depend on the parent participation... Some schools have a lot of parents... in the PTA. They come to the school. They advocate for the school regularly."

But what exactly do we mean by "parental involvement"? Are we talking about traditional parental roles -- the moms and dads who check on homework and report cards and support the schools from time to time by helping out with clubs, sports, and bake sales? Or are we talking about parents as change agents -- citizens who push school reform forward by voting for candidates who share their views on education and challenging local officials to make sure their schools have world-class standards, top-notch principals and teachers, and sufficient funding to do the job?

It's rapidly becoming clear that "parental involvement" actually means very different things to different people. Based on a recent Public Agenda study for the Kauffman Foundation, parents themselves seem to differ in their view of what kind of parent involvement is most effective and in their comfort levels in taking on various roles. Although the study focused on parents in the Kansas City area, it may well have implications for parental involvement initiatives around the country. 

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