We have literally decades of research that confirm what everyone in this auditorium already knows: families have a major influence–probably the major influence–on children’s achievement. A 2002 study reviewing recent research found that students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades and get better scores on standardized tests. They are more likely to take extra classes and earn more credits. They attend school with greater regularity. They have better social skills and fewer behavioral problems. And they are more likely to go on to college.
We have literally decades of research that confirm what everyone in this auditorium already knows: families have a major influence—probably the major influence—on children’s achievement. A 2002 study reviewing recent research found that students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades and get better scores on standardized tests. They are more likely to take extra classes and earn more credits. They attend school with greater regularity. They have better social skills and fewer behavioral problems. And they are more likely to go on to college.
So—problem solved. Let’s just make parental involvement a condition of having kids.
No matter how desirable it might be to “license” parents, however—to restrict parenthood to those who are physically, financially and emotionally ready to have children—that isn’t going to happen. So the challenge for those of us who are concerned about access to education, retention, and similar issues—particularly as those issues affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds—is to identify the barriers to parent involvement, see what we can do to address those barriers, and in the case of students whose parents will never be involved, see how we can provide alternative support networks.
In 1997, a report to Congress “Overcoming the Barriers to Family Involvement in Title I Schools,” identified five of the most common barriers to parent involvement and school-family partnerships. The report focused upon K-12 schools, but the barriers are the same in two and four-year institutions of higher education—and of course, kids whose parents haven’t been involved during grade school and high school are much less likely to enroll in post-secondary institutions. The barriers identified by the report are:
· Lack of time and resources
· Lack of information and training
· School structure and practices
· Cultural differences, and
· Lack of outside support for school-family co-operation and partnership.
Let’s look at each of these.
1) Time/resources. Most parents work these days, and not just those from disadvantaged populations. But lower-level jobs generally offer much less flexibility. The Mom who is a lawyer or accountant can schedule a trip to school; the mom who clocks in at the factory or convenience store has much less latitude. When children are young, if you only have so much time to be off, that time tends to be reserved for medical problems and family emergencies. Lack of resources encompasses everything from transportation to empowerment. Most of us in this room approached our child’s local school or college with the attitude that “I’m a citizen, I pay taxes and/or tuition, and I’m entitled to reasonable service from this institution.” People who have been consistently marginalized, who may lack an education or even facility in the language, can be far more intimidated. That brings us to barrier number two:
2) Lack of information and/or training. If you don’t have time to help your student go through the catalog, if you don’t have access to the internet, if you have difficulty reading the information the school or college provides, it can be immensely difficult—emotionally as well as practically—to be as involved as might be desirable.
3) School structure and practices offer the best hope for surmounting these barriers, but even schools with the best of intentions, even schools that recognize the important role families play in enrollment and retention, are concerned first and foremost—as they must be—with providing education, and the education function will have first call on our their resources.
4) Cultural differences. Here, again, we need to be careful to define our terms. Cultural differences aren’t just language barriers—different cultures have different approaches to education, to values, to interaction with others. They may express respect differently, voice opinions differently. Respecting those differences begins with understanding how broadly they frame our perspectives and influence our responses.
5) Finally, there is lack of outside support. This can be as simple as unwillingness of employers to allow family members to come to a school event, and as complicated as unresponsive social welfare networks.
So—how can we overcome these barriers, and empower these families to help their students?
One preliminary point should be emphasized: Before we can discuss working with grade schools and high schools and community partners to overcome barriers to family involvement, it is critically important to define our terms. When you are a high-school English teacher, as I once was, it is easy to assume that parents who don’t come to Parent-Teacher conferences or otherwise contact you about Johnny or Janey—or Roberto or Rosario—are “uninvolved.” But there are several studies demonstrating that parental involvement is fairly consistent over racial, ethnic and income categories. What differs is the nature of the involvement. White, middle-class families tend to be more involved at school, but parents from all demographics are engaged in supporting their children’s education at home.
That said, other research confirms that greater involvement with the child’s school does have a positive effect upon student achievement. We won’t increase involvement at school, however, if we begin with the attitude that home-school interaction reflects the parent’s level of interest, and if you didn’t make it to the PTO meeting or the “Welcome Parents” weekend, you obviously don’t care about your child’s education.
Once we recognize that we are trying to increase home-school cooperation, there are so-called “best practices” that have been identified as effective in promoting that dimension of family involvement. Many of these, again, focus upon the years before college—underlining the importance of networking with elementary and secondary schools to promote the kinds of involvement that will lead to later college attendance.
Studies suggest that:
· Efforts at family involvement should be explicitly linked to student learning. That can be as simple as displays of students work at open houses or as difficult as putting together focused discussions with parents about ways that families, teachers and community organizations can work together on improvements. Perhaps it is a school newsletter that discusses test results and what students can do to meet higher standards. Perhaps it is individualized communication with the family about the reasons for the grades that were given, and the student’s specific strengths and weaknesses.
· Obviously, efforts made to involve families will be different for students at different ages and stages. What will be appropriate for younger children will not be practical or relevant to older ones—although educators need to work together to ensure that we are reaching out to families at all levels. At the high school and college level, families should be provided with information about program options, graduation requirements, test schedules, and where to find academic support. They should be invited, welcomed, and encouraged to call with questions about their student’s progress and the school’s expectations. If at all possible, information should be provided in a format that is accessible to the family—if that means translating materials into another language, or simplifying jargon, that should be done.
· We need to facilitate transitions. This is particularly important when a student is the first in his or her family to attend college—or perhaps, even high school. We can offer tours of the new school, and opportunities to visit and observe. We can offer meetings and produce written materials to introduce staff and program. If resources permit, representatives of the school can make home visits before school starts. We need to recognize that even for the most empowered students, these transitions are scary times; for those who have fewer resources and experiences to draw on, it can be overwhelming.
· Find ways to build relationships with families—that may mean identifying “cultural brokers”—staff members or community volunteers who understand a student’s background and can help the school with strategies to communicate most effectively. It goes without saying—but of course I will say it anyway—that all interactions should begin with respect for that family’s background and culture.
· Ask families what they need. This may seem obvious, but so many schools genuinely worry about meeting needs, but never ask the families involved what those may be. Is there a time we can set meetings that would be better for you? Is transportation a problem? Do you need interpreters? Are there other family members we should include or notify of meetings—and have we made it clear that they are welcome to come if you cannot? These and many other questions can help an individual school tailor its approach to the families that it serves, and solve the problems they really have. And don’t just ask the parents who are already coming to the PTO meetings—ask a cross-section that includes those that don’t.
· Ask them, too, what they want and expect for their children.
· Work on empowering families. When parents feel a sense of efficacy, when they feel empowered to work with educators to help their students, their children achieve more. One way to do this is to make access to the institution and the staff as simple as possible—provide directories of staff, of school resources and in some cases, of other families and students. Offer workshops on communicating with children about school, drugs, dating…establish a “front door,” a person or office that the family can contact, rather than assuming family members will know which office to call with which problem. Ideally, there would be resources to support a staff person whose sole responsibility is to connect the school with families of students and act as a go-between and ombudsman when problems arise.
· Finally, and as a corollary to all of this, schools need to establish relationships with the social service providers that may be available to help families cope. It is clearly beyond the scope of schools and universities to deliver social justice, or anything beyond some very basic social services. But a student who comes to class from a home that is experiencing extreme stress isn’t coming in ready to learn. If dad is gone, or abusive, if mom just lost her job, the landlord is threatening eviction, the gas company is turning off the heat, and baby sister needs an operation—that student’s mind is not going to be on Shakespeare or chemistry. To the extent schools can provide a clearinghouse for social services, to the extent we can ease the crises, we make it easier for the family to support the student. There are resources to help schools provide that information—Here in Indiana, for example, the Indiana Center for Family, School and Community Partnerships offers information and workshops addressing precisely these issues, and pays particular attention to populations with special-needs children, those with limited English proficiency, or who are in high poverty communities. I’m sure there are others.
Let me just conclude by recognizing that none of this is easy, and that even if we somehow find the resources to do all of the things I’ve just outlined and more, there will be what I have called “throwaway kids.” These are the children who come from homes where one or both parents is missing—or worse, abusive or criminal or mentally ill or a substance abuser. These are the “street kids” that were described in a Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis study a few years ago—kids who’ve been thrown out of their homes because they were rebellious, or because they were gay. These are the kids whose parents have been so demoralized by their life experiences that they have no resources of any sort to offer their children.
For these throwaway kids, we need to find alternatives to families. I don’t know what those alternatives are, or where to find them, but it breaks my heart that some children come into this world with two or three strikes against them before they will ever have a chance to come to bat. Not very long ago, just before my youngest grandson was born, my daughter-in-law called me to come see the nursery that she and my son had prepared. They are both lawyers, and this was their first baby. They wanted a baby, they were excited at the prospects of parenthood, and they were ready for a baby emotionally & financially. I looked at that nursery (describe) and I have to tell you that all I could think of was “why can’t all children be born to people who want them and are ready and able to parent them?” There are no guarantees that even those children will turn out well, as we all know. But none of us should sleep well until we build a society that provides an adequate start for children who come into this world with so little and whose needs are so great.
Meanwhile, however, we all need to remember that the great majority of American families—whatever their economic or educational status or cultural background—love their children and want the best for them. If educators build a bridge to those parents, they will cross it.