You can hardly throw a rock at your computer screen (although I would recommend using the search phrase "parent involvement in schools") without hitting an academic study that finds that parent involvement in a child's education is the number one predictor of educational success, however it's measured. More than teachers, more than pedagogy, more than curricula, more than textbooks, homework, or tests, in fact probably more than all those things combined, we know that when parents are meaningfully engaged in their children's schools, things go much better for them.
Teachers already know this, of course. In fact, most parents do too. According to a survey of research conducted by the Michigan Department of Education, 86 percent of the general public believe that support from parents is the most important way to improve schools. And just so there is no doubt, here are a few other highlights of parent involvement they uncovered:
- Higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates
- Increased motivation, better self-esteem
- Better school attendance
- Lower rates of suspension
- Decreased us of drugs and alcohol
- Fewer instances of violent behavior
- Family participation in education was twice as predictive of students' academic success as family socioeconomic status. Some of the more intensive programs had effects that were 10 times greater than other factors
- The more intensely parents are involved, the more beneficial the achievement effects
- The more parents participate in schooling, in a sustained way, at every level -- in advocacy, decision-making and oversight roles, as fundraisers and boosters, as volunteers and para-professionals, and as home teachers -- the better the student achievement.
There is decades of research supporting parental involvement as the key factor in school success, but if you're reading this, you probably don't need any persuading. In fact, if you're not Hispanic or black, hold a university degree, and have a middle class income, there's a better than 80 percent chance that you're deeply invested in your child's academic life. On the other hand, if you are Hispanic or black, dropped out of high school, and live below the poverty line, there's probably a less than 30 percent chance that you attend school events or volunteer time at the school.
In other words, it shouldn't surprise anyone that schools that serve middle class families tend to have ample parental involvement. These are the majority of schools in America that are "succeeding." Schools that serve largely poor, uneducated, minority populations struggle to get mom and dad across their thresholds. It also shouldn't surprise anyone that it's the public schools that serve these poor populations that are "failing" according to whatever measure you want to use.
It seems pretty obvious that the best way to improve the performance of these schools is to increase parent participation.
Easier said than done, right? Almost by definition, these are parents who are struggling, who have been failed by schools, who are often single parents, who may not even speak English at home, who are, in many cases working 2 or 3 jobs just to get by. These are parents who are are tired, distracted, and beaten down. Even if they want to get involved, they often can't. And many of them, frankly, have simply given up on the whole idea of education to the point that they don't even care. How do you increase parent involvement in the face of that?
In yesterday's post I made the half-serious joke:
. . . I suggest that instead of putting money into things like high stakes testing, new buildings and text books, or getting teachers competing against one another for bonuses, we might want to consider paying these poor parents to get involved with their kid's school. That's what the research seems to indicate will make the most difference. For anyone thinking of starting a charter school in a poor neighborhood, here's the free idea from Teacher Tom.
Well? What's wrong with that idea?
Will parents then just be there for the money? Yes. Some of them. But most of them aren't there at all now, either because they can't afford to or because they just don't care. Money talks, especially when you are very poor. But gosh, now we have them at school on a regular basis: parent-teacher conferences, open houses, PTA events. We're paying them to learn the basic information and basic skills they need to know to to help their kids, and of all the things upon which we could spend our education dollars, increasing parent involvement stands to pay the highest dividends.
Think what this will do for families in which the parents work 16 hour days just to make ends meet. Not only will they not have to sacrifice valuable income to get involved, but they'll also be in a position to help their kids, even if all they do is demonstrate an informed interest. Indeed there will be some who seek to take advantage, to just show up for the cash, addicts perhaps. Even that, even putting that knowledge about a child's family life into a teacher's hands can make a huge difference for that kid.
And for every family that just shows up for the cash, there will be another family that is actually able to save their at-risk child, perhaps enough to make a "failed" school into a success.
We could even means test, I suppose, but I'd be inclined to make it available to the entire school. I doubt many of the parents who are showing up already will accept the pay because they've already demonstrated a commitment to education and know the school needs the money. And overall, I just can't imagine that this would cost more, and it would improve educational outcomes far more, than many of the other things on which we're spending money in the quest to improve test scores.
The focus, of course, of our national discussion about improving schools, has been on blaming teachers, when it's pretty obvious this is really a parent involvement issue. A Florida state legislator recently introduced a bill that would have created a parent "report card" that would give parents grades for various types of involvement in their kid's school lives. Although I see this as a kind of a gimmick -- parents who are already involved don't need it, parents who aren't will just hear scolding -- but at least it puts the school reform emphasis where it ought to be.
This idea of paying parents, even if it's just minimum wage ($8.67 per hour in Washington state), addresses two problems at once, without scolding: puts some money in the pockets of people who need it most and gets more parents into their children's schools, even if it's initially for the wrong reasons. I'm convinced that committed teachers who are supported by their schools, will be able to "turn" a good percentage of these parents, getting them coming back for the right reasons.
I'm sure there are aspects of this idea that are not well thought-out and probably many great ways to improve upon it, but it's been on my mind like a brain-fever these last 24-hours. Maybe it's a bit idyllic, maybe it sounds a little like throwing money at a problem, but hey, when have we ever tried throwing money at education? And besides, it's not like there are a lot of better ideas out there.
I'd be really curious to know what you think?