Friday, August 26, 2011

Why Don't We Just Pay Parents?

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?

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Anonymous said...

I cannot imagine paying parents who are well-to-do. There could be a need basis, but that requires even more administration. It certainly seems like a good idea for the sake of the kids.

We are homeschoolers. We can afford for one parent to stay home. I'd like to see something that helps parents who must have two incomes, or one parent families. Unfortunately many families work by choice so they can have two new cars, etc.

No easy answer, but if you are talking about a poor district with parents who simply cannot afford to come, maybe it could work. Are you thinking one or two days a week? And how will they get time off their regular job to come work at school? Do they work on their day off then? Or if they work swing or graveyard, do they come when they should be sleeping? Who watches the younger children if it is a stay at home parent? Can they bring their younger children?

Most of these issues are solved with homeschooling because the groups/co-ops are more flexible for the whole family (no rules about bringing other children along) and times can be flexible too.

I like what you are doing. Thinking outside of the box is the only way to solve some of the problems in education. Also, this is something that should be implemented school by school and not as a blanket solution.

Teacher Tom said...

@witw . . . excellent points!

I would only see doing this in schools that have been identified as "failing," which are almost all schools that serve poor populations.

Holly said...

Now that's just socialist talk, Teacher Tom. And I absolutely love it.

Where do you think we could get the money? A federal grant? Raising taxes in the area? A whole educational system overhaul? I'd be in favor of any of the above, but it'd be hard to do.

Nikoli said...

For parents who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet (for whatever reason), paying them to be at various functions really isn't necessarily going to get them involved, because those jobs dictate their schedule.

It's an interesting concept for sure. I, personally, would rather see vouchers (school supplies? clothes?) or things like the grocery certificates mentioned, rather than cash. Something small for every parent that participates at each event, but maybe a big 'door prize' for each semester/year (more volunteering gets you more entries?).

The biggest obstacle I see in this, is parents with students in "succeeding" schools having a feeling of resentment and entitlement. "Hey, I've been involved for years! Where's MY money/prize/whatever!" And unfortunately, people suck just that much.

And how very sad it is that this discussion is even necessary. I know it will be hard to stay involved throughout my sons school career... but I'm gonna. Because that's what Dad's (and Mom's) do. If ya don't, you're doin' it wrong.

Thanks for the post TeacherTom! Big fan!

Mrs. LIAYF said...

There are some countries that do exactly this - pay low-income parents for ensuring their kids both attend school on a regular basis and do well in school. In many low-income families, there is only one parent who works more than full-time to support children and that parent has little time to attend school events or help with homework.

Essentially, this gives the parent paid "free" time to become directly involved in the educational process, volunteering in the classroom, and attending parent/teacher events. Grants are also given to assist the parents with purchasing basic school necessities and supplies. This financial assistance is coupled with health care (of course) to ensure the children and parents are healthy and don't miss school.

I can only imagine that in addition to improving school performance, this also improves the parent's outlook on how much goes into their child's education and gives them some tools for helping their children in further education (such as applying for college and assisting with good study skills). Perhaps some of the reason these children/families were not doing so well in the first place is because these parents never received these tools from their own parents.

It's not paying parents to care about their children - it's recognizing that low-income families live on the financial margins and don't have any free time to dedicate to their children's educations.

Teacher Jessica said...

I agree tht a failing school is probably going to be in a low income area where the bulk of the parent population does not get paid leave for family events. Either they show up to work to ern their wage or not pay for the heat or phone. I like this idea of paying for parent attendance and also agree that even if the parent attends an event for the wrong reasons, they got in the door, the child knows the parent is there and there is the better chance that the parent will get information and start to get even the slightest feeling of investment in the process, which I imagine would grow over time. Heck. They might even start to refuse the money after a few years for the good of the school.

Unknown said...

I have been following you briefly. I am a teacher who is starting to loathe the public schools more and more. I am even thinking of sending my son to Montessori. I am a single parent who would love to start his own home based school and attract others.

I like your thoughts. They may not be well thought out, but that's what men of imagination do--- they imagine things and work out the details later. It's the only way to go.

I may talk with you more in private sometime about how you started etc.



Teacher Tom said...

@Holly . . . I think we already have the money. For instance if the goal of Race To The Top is really to improve schools (and not just to institute a system of high stakes tests) then I can think of no better way to spend those funds. There are all kinds of things we're spending money on right now that are not nearly as effective as parent involvement.

@Nikoli . . . I'm sure there would be some people who still couldn't make it work with their schedules, but those who are doing piece work at home or other kinds of casual labor to make ends meet, could certainly now justify it. And it's not just taking time off work. Many parents can't afford things like child care or transportation costs to get to the school to take part, so this would really help. Personally, I think actual cash would work the best, but if the alternative "payments" were actually something that those parents would value, then I could see it working, but too often these kinds of things get so tangled up in value judgments (like, we'll give you coupons for fresh produce or school supplies) that we render them valueless to the recipient. In other words, the payment would have to be something they see as valuable, not just something we think they should see as valuable.

I only envisioned this as something that would be implemented in struggling schools, but it could be something we means test for and apply to all low income families.

@Mrs. LIAYF . . . Do you know what countries are doing this? I'd really like to look into it more!

Anonymous said...

I know there's a pilot project here in South Africa to pay teenage girls for school attendance. I didn't find it online but heard some research about it on the radio. I can't find any online links though. There is also a Wikipedia article on Conditional Cash Transfers (

Briana said...

I think your post addresses our country's view of what it means to be a parent in our country. Yes, there is some percentage of us who are able to have one parent work, but many of us must return to work very soon after giving birth, and this mentality of providing for our children by being away is continually perpetuated through their entire childhood. This is a topic on the forefront of my mind, as I prepare to return to my classroom after giving birth. I have read countless articles about maternity/paternity leave in Europe, crying over the fact that our country does not find the value of a child's first year of life, and how important it is that they are around their parents, for both breast feeding, bonding, trust, the list goes on.
Your article really brought it home that really, even though the children get older and have a need for a bond with a non-family adult, it's still just as important that their parents are part of their education. So, why not pay the parents! But, the government will never sponsor it, just as they do not support paying for maternity/paternity leave.

Mother Teresa said...

Not sure about this, I think it would be worth trying it out in a few schools to see. The kind of parental involvement kids need cannot always be provided by parents who cannot read or who do not have basic skills themselves. Paying them to show up to school functions would at least show the kids they care--even if for the wrong reasons...?

Anonymous said...

imagine the background checks! yikes!


i think its a great idea ...i myself am gonna open a single moms home and do a co-op daycare with it.i want the moms to be there as part of their program, to learn life skills and be trained on how to nurture their child as well as others.i have been following you for a while and have got lots of inspiring ideas.i will incorporate Montessori supplies with Bible curriculum and ECE all into one program.thank you for sharing again another GREAT idea!!!

Kristin @ Preschool Universe said...

Hmmm I have not read the studies you're referring to (I've just seen the headlines), and I agree that having their parents present gives kids incentive to succeed, to an extent. However, I wonder how much it would help, its likely that these college- educated, middle class parents also provide such an educationally superior home experience that it must be impossible to determine whether the advantages come from having involved parents or having the type of parents (concerned, educated, stable) that are usually involved. I do believe parents are the primary cause of failing schools. I hope there is a solution, and if paying the failing parents leads to them learning how to educate and support their kids better, then it might be a good thing to do.

Aussie Chick said...

Sometimes the simplest solutions are often the best!

This idea is pure brilliance!

For the outcomes which could be achieved for children and families within early childhood services & in developing parenting capacity, this idea has significant merit.

We offer "occassional care" vouchers for parents who are involved in our parent committee, fundraising meetings and assisting with other special events or experiences. This has been a great way of parent recieving something back for what they do invest for the betterment of their own child and all other children's early childhood education.

LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog Teacher Tom! We enjoy and get great professional inspiration and challenge from your blog here in Australia.
Thank you!

Males in Early Childhood said...

I can hear the nay sayers now......we're not paying the bludgers! That's how it would sound in Australia. The main cocern I would have is all the bureaucrats that would spring up to look after it. Most of the money would disappear before finding it's way to where it belonged, but nothing new there.

I would say you should go into poilitics. I'm sure there are plenty who would vote you in, but then what would all those families do without you? It's a shame that to become a significant voice with any real clout you would have to remove yourself from the very thing you feel most passionate about, the children.

Maybe we're all just a bunch of trouble makers, huh?

Bob Probst said...

Has there been a causal relationship established between parent involvement and student success? Saying that the former causes the latter may be misleading. Is it just as likely that parents get involved in successful schools? or are the 2 events (involvement/success) simply correlated to some other factor? Setting policy based on what we'd like to think can lead to trouble. on the other hand, taking a few risks can pay off big if you guess right.

Sybil Runs Things said...

I love this! Not having had that much experience with different types of schools, I have to wonder if some of the solution is for schools to offer more flexible ways for parents to be involved. I would have bent over backwards to be more involved in my childs' previous school but there were very few places we were ever invited in to help. Maybe school structure that makes it easy/easier for parents would be more helpful?
I do love the idea of paying parents who need that incentive, but wonder how that would play out. If a mother making $10 an hour needs to leave work to volunteer, the problem may lie in having that flexibility with their schedule.
Let's see. How about a tax break for volunteer hours served? Just thinking out loud. But I like where this is going! As a SAHM I would LOVE to be paid for "volunteering" at my girls' schools :)

Sarah said...

So many people (parents AND teachers) are apt to be skeptical of this sort of thing without trying it. I teach Title I preschool and parent involvement is a requirement of our program. If they don't come, they can't keep their spot. HOWEVER, instead utilizing that type of "scolding", punitive response to non-involvement, most of the classroom teachers instead incentivize attendance at events. We can't monetarily, because, let's face it, we're not rolling in the $$ either, but we do offer free dinner and free childcare at the events, PLUS raffles for free movie tickets, ice skating passes, gas cards, and the like. I call local community agencies and businesses and have all of these things donated. We usually have very good attendance. When we remove obstacles to attendance (what will I do with the kids? when will we eat dinner?) and add incentives, they're more likely to come. Think about it. Aren't YOU more likely to come to the optional staff workday with PTA provided lunch? Aren't YOU more likely to attend the neighborhood association meeting that also doubles as an ice cream social? Humans are creatures of cost-benefit ratio, we just need to insure low income parents get some short term benefit so that we can approximate them seeing the long-term benefit. If we don't get them in the door they'll never hear it.

Anonymous said...

Aah Teacher Tom, I am glad you are talking about this stuff. I read your blog and feel heartbroken that my son and so many others cannot have this experience. My son will be starting public school next year and I will be involved and I am inspired to try to make a difference in the involvement of the other parents at our 'failing' school.

Linda said...

I worked for 6 years at a school in an inner city, below poverty level neighborhood for 6 years. We "paid" for everything - if they attended conferences, if they sent back signed forms, if they stopped by to see the teacher when a note was sent, if they returned our phone turned into "sense of entitlement" and not anything that benefitted children, students or teachers. The only one benefitting was the parent who got a free Target gift card, a free bus pass, a free meal, a free food card...which, they would turn around and sell for money to buy drugs or spend on themselves. The parents who were involved remained involved - the ones who weren't stopped draining our resources. I am sorry if I sound like a "jaded" teacher - I am not, just responding to the reality of the very poor, inner city neighborhood schools. These parents should never have become parents - they need parenting classes, their own education, a decent job and some help to break the cycle of poor parenting and poverty - that is where we should put our money. If we don't break the cycle - it goes on and on.

Jardinière d'Eveil said...

In France, public school is the biggest system. People are not very used to pay for the education of their children. So it's hard for people to see they can't afford sending their children in a Montessori (or Waldorf, or Decroly,or Freinet) school, even if the approach seems more suitable, most of the time.

When I worked in a Montessori Kindergarten in France, I remember that some parents were not interested at all in being involved in their childen's school, even if they obviuously can afford to offer this kind of education, and even if they were highly graduated... "Time and money" or "feeling like to share and participate to the school" ?

Erin Thompson said...

I'm with Linda...

Love your thoughts though Teacher Tom!

Gretchen Douglas said...

WOW! This is phenomenal! I have been really troubled by this issue and how in the world to break the cycle. I think it would have to be in the so called "failing" schools and not in ones that are already "succeeding" but I think you are most definitely onto something! Please keep these ideas coming! There are naysayers and people who find things wrong with everything, but who can argue with research??

I'm a huge fan,