What Does Parental Involvement Really Mean for Schools?

Study after study has shown that parental involvement is one of the biggest factors that contribute to a students' academic success. Politicians, including President Barack Obama, are calling on parents to take more of an active role in their local schools by becoming involved with their children's education, but defining and enacting "parent involvement" beyond just using the phrase has proven difficult.

According to a number of recent surveys, Americans strongly believe in the importance of parental involvement with 78% agreeing that parents contribute more to their children's academic success than do schools. However, while finding someone to disagree that parents have a role to play in education is difficult, finding someone to define what "parental involvement" really means is even tougher.

But what exactly do we mean by "parental involvement"? Are we talking about traditional parental roles — the moms and dads who check on homework and report cards and support the schools from time to time by helping out with clubs, sports, and bake sales? Or are we talking about parents as change agents — citizens who push school reform forward by voting for candidates who share their views on education and challenging local officials to make sure their schools have world-class standards, top-notch principals and teachers, and sufficient funding to do the job?

According to a study published by the Kouffman Foundation, people can't seem to agree on what kind of parental aid is optimal. The study was limited to the area surrounding Kansas City, but its findings apply to other areas around the country.

In the study, about 30% of parents feel that they should play a more active role in how their schools are run – including weighing in on decisions such as program selections and administrator hiring. Roughly 25% of parents polled believe that they should occupy a more traditional role like joining the PTA and volunteering time at the school.

About 1 in 5 of the parents were in a third group we called the "help seekers," and this is the group that may prove to be public education's biggest challenge. These parents are concerned about their own children's learning, yet admit that they either aren't very comfortable or don't have time to become more involved at their children's schools or as education advocates. These parents are often more critical of their schools, even as they seem to be looking for more guidance from those schools on how to work with their children at home to help them succeed.

States like California have gone well beyond the bake sale by enacting so-called parent trigger laws that allow families who have children in a failing school to band together and take steps from replacing individual administrators to shutting down the school and converting it into a charter.

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