Parental Involvement: Are We Certain?

Although there are many things in education about which we are unsure, one thing most of us accept as a certainty is that parental involvement matters and that the more parents engage themselves in their children’s education the better. Of course, kids will do better if parents make sure that the kids do their homework, come to parent-teacher conferences, help out at school fund-raisers, talk with their children about what happened today at school.

Unfortunately, finding consistent evidence to either support or refute this belief has been very difficult. Because there is no agreed upon definition of what counts as parental involvement, and because researchers measure different things in different ways, it is difficult to compare research outcomes. Until there is a more universal measure of parent involvement, our understanding of parental involvement will be limited.

Despite these known limitations, two sociology professors, Dr. Keith Robinson of the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Angel L. Harris, a Duke University professor, did extensive research using longitudinal parent surveys and family questionnaires from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) using data from three decades (1980s-2000s). The results were published this spring in a book, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education (2014).

In an interview Dr. Robinson shares that he and his co-investigator were surprised that they found very little impact on student achievement in math and reading that could be linked to the 63 kinds of parental involvement studied in the research. Much that they found turned the conventional wisdom on its hear. For example, it appears that Asian-American parents do not engage in the conventional involvement behaviors at all but their children tend to do well in school.

What did appear to matter was less a specific action than it was conveying a more general message to one’s children about their future. According to Dr. Robinson the most important thing parents can do is to talk

to your kids about their post-high school plans, and this one stood out because it was, pretty much for every racial, ethnic and socio-economic group, positively related to a number of academic outcomes—such as attendance and marks. What this might be hinting at is the psychological component that comes from kids internalizing your message: school is important. It may be with these conversations parents are connecting kids’current education—whether their children are in Grade 2, Grade 3 or high school—to a future, and the children are able to see that bridge. That finding was the most significant.

The question of parental involvement is part of a larger discussion about why large numbers of students in the United States are not doing well in school. Both the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation mandate that schools find ways to encourage greater parental involvement in order to increase student achievement, on the assumption that increased parental involvement would increase student achievement.

The problem is that while parents from all ethnicities and socioeconomic groups do care very much how their children do in schools, there is not very much good information to help them decide how they can support their child in school. In fact there are ways that parents involve themselves that can actually cause harm. For example, the research found when children brought home news of poor performance on homework, non-punitive responses by parents (e.g., ensuring a quiet place to do homework) were more likely to result in improvement than were negative responses (e.g., taking away privileges)>

This problem points up the fact that schools are complicated systems with lots of small moving parts whose connections with one another are not always clear. To imagine that focusing on parental involvement will raise student achievement without reference to other parts of the system would be naive even if we were certain what kinds of parental involvement mattered and how it should be done.


Further Reading

Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris. “Parental Involvement is Over-Rated. New York Times, April 12, 2014.


Brian Bethune“Parents Should Talk with their children about post-high school plans: In Conversation with Keith Robinson,” McLean’s Magazine, December 2, 2013.


Dana Goldstein, Don’t Help Your Kids with Their Home Work. The Atlantic, March 19, 2014.


Mai Miksic. Is Parental Involvement Really a Waste of Time? CUNY Institute for Education Policy, April 23, 2014.


Mario Luis Small, “Mutual Obligations and Commitments. NY Times, February 9, 2014.


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