11/2/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
Conventional wisdom says low-income parents whose children attend low-performing public schools do not care much about their children’s education and, therefore, are not involved in their children’s schools and their children’s learning away from school.
Now, a new report, “One Dream, Two Realities,” commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, turns conventional wisdom on its head. The report shows that instead of not caring, such parents are the most likely to see rigorous education and their own involvement as being essential to their children’s success.
The researchers argue that society needs to stop blaming parents when students in low-performing schools do not succeed and start considering how schools are failing both their charges and the parents.
To reach their conclusions, researchers conducted focus groups and a nationally representative survey of 1,006 parents of current and recent high school students in urban, suburban and rural towns and cities across the nation. Parents verified whether their children attend or attended high-performing schools, moderate-performing schools or low-performing schools, the major criterion being the proportion of students from those high schools who go on to college.
The report confirms what educators and scholars have known: Parents are the key to the educational success of their children.
Students with involved parents, no matter their family income or background, are more likely to earn higher test scores and grades, attend school and pass their classes, enroll in higher level classes, develop better social skills, graduate from high school, attend college and enjoy productive careers. Not surprisingly, students whose parents are not involved tend to have the opposite experiences.
One of the report’s critical findings is that most of the nation’s approximately 25-million parents with children in high schools want to be more involved but are frustrated when schools do not give them adequate information or opportunities to participate more effectively.
Not surprisingly, the report shows that 83 percent of parents with students in high-performing schools said their school was doing a very or fairly good job communicating with them about their child’s academic performance, compared to only 43 percent of parents with students in low-performing schools. Seventy percent of parents whose children attend high-performing schools say the school does a good job informing parents of the requirements for graduation and college admission, compared with only 38 percent of parents of students in low-performing schools.
Another key finding, again bucking conventional wisdom, is that most minority parents want their children to attend college. In fact, 92 percent of black parents and 90 percent of Hispanic parents consider going to college to be “very important,” compared to 78 percent of white parents.
As more students join the ranks of the estimated 1.2-million who do not graduate annually, educators are trying to find ways to get more parents involved. Among the report’s suggestions based on what parents said they want:
– Flexible parent-teacher conferences that consider the schedules of parents who work;
– Immediate notification when their children have academic problems, cut classes or skip school;
– Homework hot lines to assist both children and parents;
– More information about graduation requirements and college admissions;
– Conferences in eighth or ninth grade to discuss what it will take for their children to succeed in high school;
– One faculty adviser who tracks their student all the way through high school as a mentor and a personal point of contact;
– Incorporate homework assignments that involve families in every course.
The report concludes that “America itself has two school systems – one that is largely equipping children for the demands of high school, college and the workplace and another that is too often failing them; one that is effectively engaging parents in the education of their children and another that is failing to do so. … Schools and parents have clear pathways to begin to improve one element that we know has dramatic impact on the education of children – the sustained engagement of parents who play vital roles in educating their children and nurturing them into the future.”
“One Dream, Two Realities” may have flaws, but in light of the urgency it brings to the issue of parental involvement, those flaws can be forgiven. It correctly points out that the current state of our public school system is “inconsistent with America’s promise of equal opportunity.”