What Kinds of Parent Involvement Really Make a Difference?

A fiend shared this article – What do you think?

In this article in The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Angel Harris (Duke University) and Keith Robinson (formerly at University of Texas) affirm the importance of parents to their children’s academic success. But Harris and Robinson note that researchers disagree on the type of parent involvement that is most helpful. Is it helping with homework? Reading to children? Engaging children in home learning activities? Teaching social skills? Communicating with teachers? Attending meetings and events at the school? Being involved in school decision-making?

None of these are what really make a difference, say Harris and Robinson: “We argue that traditional measures of parental involvement fail to capture the fundamental ways in which parents actually help their children academically… [T]he mixed results observed in previous studies indicate that parental involvement does not operate through the typical channels posited by researchers, educators, and policymakers.”

So what does boost student achievement? According to the authors’ research, it’s stage-setting. The analogy is to what a theater’s behind-the-scenes workers do so actors can perform successfully in the show. “Thus,” say Harris and Robinson, “a good performance can be characterized as a partnership between two critical components: (1) the actor embodying his or her role, and (2) the stage-setter creating and maintaining an environment that reinforces (or does not compromise) the actor’s embodiment of the role. Likewise, many parents construct and manage the social environment around their children in a manner that creates the conditions in which academic success is possible.”

The most effective parents, say the authors, set the stage for their children’s academic success by the life space and messages they orchestrate:

– They provide a secure home and neighborhood environment so children don’t have to worry about food and shelter and getting to and from school safely.

– They make strenuous efforts to get their children into good schools.

– They are supportive of academics, but also of non-school activities like ballet or piano lessons.

– Their support comes across as caring about children’s overall success, not pressure and micromanaging to get an A in math. This can be conveyed indirectly, for example, by a desk rather than a TV in a child’s bedroom, and lots of books and magazines in the home.

– They convey the critical importance of academic achievement to future options and life success.

– They show confidence in the child’s intelligence and ability to do well in school, fostering a positive academic identity and a sense of responsibility to not let the family down.

All this produces a strong academic self-concept in young people. Harris and Robinson note that it’s possible to have that, but not a positive overall self-concept – and vice-versa. The best outcome is both – a strong academic and general self-concept.

How much of this is related to socioeconomic status? Harris and Robinson note that in more-affluent communities, a variety of factors make it easier for parents to set the stage for academic success. In poorer communities, the opposite is true: weaker neighborhood institutions and public services, fewer college-educated adults in the home and neighborhood, less access to museums and other enriching experiences. In addition, say the authors, “over the course of a year a majority of the poorest families experience at least one of the following deprivations: eviction, crowded housing, disconnection of utilities, no stove, no refrigerator, or housing with upkeep problems… These conditions inhibit the development of educational skills, depress school achievement, and discourage teachers… Thus, stage-setting is not a proxy for social class but a mechanism that explains the link between social class and achievement.”

Harris and Robinson note that African-American and Hispanic families have an uphill battle in this area because stereotype threat – internalizing negative societal messages about intelligence and ability – makes it more difficult for children to adopt a positive academic self-concept. In addition, schools with a high percentage of black students are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, a higher rate of teacher turnover, and may be less successful at reaching out to parents. Thus, say Harris and Robinson, “black parents have a particularly unique challenge in effectively setting the stage for their children’s academic success.”

Studies show that parents of all SES levels have high hopes for their children’s school success. What matters is how those hopes play out day to day. Harris and Robinson suggest four possibilities:

– Parents don’t convey the importance of education and don’t provide an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces low achievers.

– Parents convey the importance of education but don’t create an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces mediocre or average achievers.

– Parents don’t convey the importance of education, but there is an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces average achieving students.

– Parents convey the importance of education and create an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces solid high achievers.

Clearly some parents succeed in making these messages more central to their children’s frame of reference and creating a positive life space, thereby broadening children’s horizons, enriching their psyches, and setting them up for academic success.