The power of parental involvementPostGrad Education April 2012

GARRY HORNBY discusses the benefits of involving parents in children’s education.

Widespread recognition of the key role of parental involvement in children’s education came late last year when results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of parents appeared in the November 19, 2011 issue of The New York Times. It was reported that, in the 2009 survey of 20 countries, the PISA team interviewed parents of 5000 students about how they raised their children and then compared findings with the 2009 PISA test results. They found that, “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all”, and that, “Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA”.

Parental involvement is broadly defined as “parental participation in the educational experiences of their children”, so it includes both school-based and home-based involvement. The importance of parental involvement in improving educational outcomes for children was recognised by the New Zealand Ministry of Education through publication of the Schooling Strategy 2005-2010 in 2005. This report, which provides guidance for schools on key areas needing development, emphasised that improving parent and family involvement in children’s education was one of three priority areas for schools, along with improving the quality of teaching and increasing evidence-based practice.

A substantial impact

Extensive international research literature now supports the potential of parental involvement for improving children’s academic achievements and social outcomes. Evidence for the effectiveness of parental involvement in facilitating children’s academic achievement has been reported by several reviews of the research literature. In analysing this literature, Professor John Hattie, formerly of The University of Auckland, calculated the average effect size for the impact of parental involvement on children’s academic achievement to be 0.51, which is bigger than the average effect size for all educational interventions of 0.4. This suggests that parental involvement has a substantial impact on children’s academic achievement.

Besides improving children’s academic achievements, other merits of parental involvement include benefits for children, teachers, and parents. For children, the involvement of their parents leads to improvements in attitudes, behaviour, and attendance at school, as well as in their mental health. For teachers, parental involvement improves parent-teacher relationships, teacher morale, and the school climate. For parents, involvement in their children’s education has been linked to increased parental confidence in, and satisfaction with, parenting, as well as increased interest in their own education. Other important findings from these reviews are that the effectiveness of parental involvement in bringing about these changes applies across socio-economic status, gender and ethnicity, and also to children at primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

Types of involvement

Some research suggests that, as children grow older, the type of parental involvement changes and parents become less directly involved with schools. However, they are then able to become more involved in supportive roles at home such as setting high expectations and helping with homework, subject choices, and career options. For example, a recent study of parental involvement conducted in 20 secondary schools by researchers in England found that parents, teachers, and pupils agreed that parental involvement is important, but they differed in their views about its purpose. The researchers found that secondary schools tended to focus on school-based parental involvement and paid insufficient attention to encouraging home-based parental involvement, which was considered to be at least as important for secondary school students. They concluded that it is what parents do to support learning in the school and in the home that makes the difference to achievement.

Another example of this was provided by a study of high-achieving secondary school students from poor Afro-American families carried out in the United States. This study identified key parenting practices that distinguished parents of high-achieving students from parents of low-achieving students. Parents of high-achieving students reported valuing education, visiting schools, and advocating for their children, developing pride and self-reliance in their children, establishing routines for homework and bedtime, supervising children’s television viewing, encouraging reading, talking with their children, playing games with children, taking children on visits and outings, and fostering hobbies, as well as sporting and other activities. The parents of successful students in this study were involved in their children’s education both at school and at home.

Significant research

Research on parental involvement in New Zealand has so far been published mainly in the form of local reports, dissertations, or theses. However, there have been three major reports, one from the Ministry of Education in 2003, another from the Education Review Office in 2008, and another by the New Zealand Council for Economic Research, also in 2008. These reports have concluded that: effective partnerships between parents and schools result in improved outcomes for children; the majority of schools need to improve some aspects of their parental involvement practices; and the benefits of large-scale home-school initiatives taken on by schools are not as good as the effects of naturally occurring parental involvement that schools organise themselves.

Given the findings of the international literature and the three recent New Zealand reports, it was considered timely to investigate what parental involvement activities are actually being used in New Zealand schools so that guidance on effective involvement can be based on actual evidence from schools. Over the past four years, a research project investigated school-based parental involvement in primary, intermediate, and secondary schools in the Canterbury region to find out which aspects of parental involvement are widely used by schools, identify weaknesses or gaps in the provision of parental involvement in these schools, and clarify implications for schools regarding parental involvement.

Research studies have been conducted of parental involvement at 21 secondary schools and 22 rural primary schools in the Canterbury region as well as with 11 intermediate schools and 21 primary schools in Christchurch. Key findings across all these studies suggest that there was a wide diversity of practice of parental involvement across the schools. Many examples of useful and innovative practices were found at all levels, but effective practices for involvement were not consistent across the schools, and several important weaknesses in provision were identified.

Key findings

A key weakness was that few of the schools had written policies on parental involvement, whereas it is suggested in the literature that all schools should develop policies that set out the ways in which parents can be involved in their children’s education, as well as the procedures through which schools and teachers can help parents to accomplish this. Policies should be developed in collaboration with parents to ensure that the activities included will meet the needs of the different communities in which schools are based.

Another weakness was that the overall organisation of parental involvement in the schools appeared ad hoc and very much dependent on the views and experience of principals and senior staff. The literature suggests that what is needed in schools is a comprehensive system of involvement that includes all key aspects. In order to achieve this, it is suggested that schools need to designate a parent involvement coordinator who is an experienced teacher or member of the school’s senior management team. The first job of the coordinator should be to conduct an audit of parental involvement at the school and prepare a report for the school’s principal and governing body, to facilitate the development of a comprehensive set of parental involvement practices at the school.

It was also clear that the quantity and quality of parent education organised by schools varied widely between schools. Referral of parents to parent education sessions available in the community was also patchy. Without appropriate parent education, parents may not fully appreciate the importance of getting involved in their children’s schools and also fail to provide the kind of support at home that will optimise their children’s academic achievements. Therefore, it is important that schools consider ways in which they can provide parent education on this and other topics.

Another important finding was the lack of specific ideas to involve parents from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Many parents have English as a second language and come from countries with traditional schooling systems in which parent involvement is not emphasised, and, therefore, have low levels of involvement with their children’s schools. It is essential for schools to reach out to such parents so they appreciate the importance of their involvement in their children’s education.

It was also found that there was a general lack of training for teachers on working with parents. Teacher education programmes need to include rigorous courses on working with parents for pre-service teachers, and ongoing professional development should be provided for practising teachers. It is important that teacher education courses prepare teachers to involve parents in a wide range of activities, including strategies for involving parents from diverse backgrounds, preparing teachers for their role in educating parents about optimising their children’s development, and training teachers to address the specific needs of parents and families of children with special needs.

It is intended that the findings of this research and recommendations for future practice will be used by teachers, principals, psychologists, counsellors, and social workers, as well as teacher educators, to help schools develop effective procedures for parental involvement, thereby optimising academic and social outcomes for children in New Zealand schools.

Garry Hornby is professor of education at the University of Canterbury College of Education. The findings of this research and recommendations have been published by Professor Hornby in various international journals and in his latest book, Parental Involvement in Childhood Education.

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