MAXWELL:  Parents’ support outweighs all else

3/3/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When I was a college teacher, students routinely asked me to write letters of recommendation for them, either for admission to other colleges or for jobs. One of my criteria for writing letters was strong evidence that students had the support (emotional, psychological and financial) of their parents or guardians.

I would ask them detailed questions about their relations with the adults in their lives, especially during high school.

Even though most of my colleagues roundly criticized me, I rarely wrote letters for students whose parents did not support them. I knew that students whose parents supported them succeeded more often than those whose parents did not.

Cynics who think that this view sounds like so much common sense will be interested to know that a recent survey by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation confirms what most teachers have known all along: Parental support is the most important factor in student success.

The survey involved the 104 delegates to the United States Senate Youth Program, sponsored by the foundation. The students are meeting in the nation’s capital, where they will be immersed in public affairs for a week. They were selected by their state departments of education.

All of the participants are active in student government, most belong to the National Honor Society, and all except a handful are active in religious organizations, volunteer work and sports. The 104 students came from schools ranging in size from 81 students to 4,000, the average being 1,180.

Asked to account for their success at school, 53 percent cited support from their parents, 25 percent marked “teacher quality,” and 11 percent chose “school academic standards.” When asked to describe their parents’ role in their education, 79 percent said “always positive” while 21 percent responded “usually helpful.” Asked why do some students excel while others fail, 47 percent credited parental support, and 29 percent said that successful students have “more focus.”

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-controlled Legislature would do well to consider the survey as they prepare to ram through school vouchers and other efforts that will help a limited number of students while taking resources from the public schools. In their efforts, officials also should think about establishing a program that will help low-income, disenfranchised parents in the state’s urban cores become personally involved in their children’s lives.

Parental support need not be the exclusive domain of middle- and upper-class society. Poor parents who have children in fundamental schools, for example, are required to get involved. Over time, most of these parents eagerly support their children. They can serve as role models to other parents.

I know many low-income parents who are joined at hip with their children where school is concerned. The black parents who live across the street from me, for instance, are involved in every facet of their children’s school lives. These are poor people, but their children already understand that loving adults at home are on their side. The mother, in fact, has brought the two girls to my house to borrow books.

These children do not play outside until their homework is completed.

As a college teacher, I often raised many eyebrows when I would write college admissions recommendations for black students with C averages. My answer was simple: Each student for whom I wrote a letter had parents who regularly inquired about their children’s progress in my classes. These were the same parents who had supported their children throughout high school. I knew well that these were students who probably would always make C’s but who would succeed because their parents backed them.

Parental support means more than any standardized test score in predicting who succeeds and who fails in school. Because of the survey, folks at the Hearst Foundation and state department of education officials who recommended the students to the Senate Youth Program now recognize the significance of parental support.

As Florida moves toward vouchers, charter schools, controlled choice and exotic busing schemes, officials should not ignore the missing link _ parental involvement. Just as welfare reform programs are spending millions to train former recipients to value work, Florida officials could initiate programs to teach parents how to get involved in their children’s school lives.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.