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Powerful parents transform schools

Parents aren't just sitting on the sidelines anymore. They're actively involved in schools and it's paying off in surprising ways.

By GreatSchools Staff

Schools across the nation are discovering a powerful force for school improvement: parents.

Parents aren't just volunteering to help with teacher luncheons and fund-raising campaigns; they're helping to raise the academic achievement level of children at their schools. An added bonus is that children of involved parents tend to do better in school.

How big a difference can parents make in schools? Here are some examples:

  • Padres con Poder (Parents With Power) recently received an "Exemplary Program Award" from the Santa Clara County (California) School Boards Association for increasing involvement by Spanish-speaking parents in their children's education. In the Luther Burbank School District, where 75% of students are Latino, the number of Spanish-speaking honor roll students shot up, discipline referrals dropped from 735 to 107 per year, and the district exceeded its state target of 14 points on the Academic Performance Index by 66 points.
  • At Ysleta Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, parents became alarmed when only one in five students passed the state achievement test. Now parents sit on the school's learning standards committees and ask hard questions. One parent, Barbara Silva, said that with her new understanding of the school's academic goals, "I can push my son to a higher level. He was kind of low; now he gets A's and B's."
  • In Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi, Parents for Public Schools took advantage of a little-known district policy that permits parents to visit classrooms, and they documented their observations. "We were instrumental in keeping an eye on what was happening in the classroom and in getting administrators not to renew some ineffective teachers," said Clara Hall, chapter president.

Armies of involved parents

Tapping new sources of data and federal funding earmarked for parent involvement, community groups of all stripes are organizing efforts for education reform. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation estimates that about 150 such groups have formed during the past decade to improve student learning in inner-city districts alone. The foundation has spent $10.6 million on 65 grants targeting school reform since 1999, and it plans to spend $6.4 million more through 2008 to document, evaluate and disseminate information about community-driven school improvement projects.

Parent involvement takes many forms. The Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) has taught more than 325,000 California parents how to navigate the school system and keep their children on track. "We are not asking parents to go in and tell teachers and counselors how to do their job. We emphasize that parents should go to school monthly and work with the teacher to design a plan for their child," explained David Valladolid, president and CEO.

At the other extreme is the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership (CIPL), which trains parents to push schools to higher levels of achievement by all students. More than 1,000 parents in 176 school districts in Kentucky have completed its six-day parent training course, which teaches them how to interpret school data, understand learning standards and initiate school improvement projects. Graduates work with a coach for 18 months following the training.

This army of parents trained by CIPL has championed many projects, including "Science Wizards" family events that caused one school's science scores to rise 14 points on state tests, a booklet that demystifies special education regulations and workshops that improved students' writing.

How children and schools benefit

Parent involvement definitely pays off for the children of those who get involved. In A New Wave of Evidence, a review of 51 studies published between 1995 and 2002, Anne T. Henderson and Karen L. Mapp found that students with involved parents are more likely to:

  • Earn high grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
  • Be promoted, pass their classes and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education

There's also plenty of proof that school-wide parent involvement efforts translate into academic gains. For example:

  • A long-term study completed in 2001 by Westat and Policy Studies Associates of 71 high-poverty schools in seven states showed that students' test scores rose 40% from third grade to fifth grade in schools where teachers reported high levels of parent outreach.
  • The children of parents who participated in an interactive homework program developed by Johns Hopkins University in 1997 had higher writing scores and better grades in language arts. Approximately 700 sixth and eighth graders and their families took part in the study.
  • In 1998 Ann Shaver and Richard Walls studied 335 low-income students in nine schools in a West Virginia district and found that students with highly involved parents were more likely to show gains in both reading and math scores than children with less involved parents. These increases held across all income and education levels.

Convincing parents to get involved

Once parents understand the positive benefits of participation, CIPL teaches them how to decipher their school's data to get a realistic picture of school performance. Examining indicators like test scores, graduation rates and teacher experience levels helps counter the natural tendency of parents to overestimate the quality of the education their children are receiving.

CIPL convinces parents of the need for schoolwide improvement by showing parents how many students at their school failed to demonstrate rudimentary skills on a standardized test, such as how many fourth graders at their school couldn't figure out the area of a rectangle - information that is available from National Assessment of Educational Progress's Nation's Report Card or their state department of education. When parents realize how poorly students are performing, there's often an audible gasp in the room.

Kerry Zack, manager of CIPL, said, "A lot of parents start out thinking only about their child's needs, but by the second day of training, they're thinking about what benefits the whole school because they realize that what benefits all students also benefits their child."

Working with administrators

Convincing administrators of the need for school improvement is another challenge, particularly those who feel that they're under siege because of budget cuts and expanded standardized testing requirements. John Murphy, former superintendent of the Charlotte Mecklenburg District in North Carolina observed, "School systems, just like most large organizations, don't change because they see the light. They change because they feel the heat."

CPIL suggests that PTAs invite parents and teachers to a three-hour session (with food and child care available) to discuss goals for their children and ideas on how to achieve them. Ideally, an impartial facilitator runs the meeting. The principal is usually asked to leave the room during brainstorming so participants feel free to speak frankly.

Not all principals welcome parent participation. "I got booted out of my school," said Deborah Stallworth, a CPIL graduate who later organized a lecture series for parents about the achievement gap at the main library in Louisville, Kentucky.

On the other hand, Cassidy Elementary School in Lexington, Kentucky, recently became the first school in Kentucky to receive a "Certification of Excellence" for parent involvement from the National PTA. Principal Richard Day explained, "I use parent involvement to promote excellence in the school. If you've got a lot of parents involved in the school, if they are knowledgeable about what you're trying to do, then you've got better reporters on what's going on in the school. Teachers know they have to be on the ball. I don't shield teachers from parents and I don't shield parents from teachers."

If enough parents indicate interest in school improvement, administrators are usually willing to listen. CIPL parent trainers like to use this example, called "Collaboration Counts":

1 parent = a fruitcake
2 parents = fruitcake and friend
3 parents = troublemakers
5 parents = let's have a meeting
10 parents = we'd better listen
25 parents = our dear friends
50 parents = a powerful organization

What the law requires

Parent involvement is one of the main tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act, which authorizes federal funds for this purpose. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, "Parents must be full partners in their child's education. Parents have a right to know whether their child is learning, and local schools and districts must be sure that parents have that information. No Child Left Behind provides a lifeline to parents by giving them information regarding not only how their child is achieving academically, but also how their school and school district are performing as well."

The law requires schools that receive Title I funds (58% of all public schools in the U.S.) to develop a written parent involvement policy and to have a school-parent compact that describes how the school will work with parents to improve achievement. In addition, every school district that receives Title I money (90% of all school districts) must have a written Title I parent involvement policy that is evaluated each year. (Title I schools are determined by the number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches.)

Under No Child Left Behind, each school district must reserve at least 1% of its total Title I grant for parent involvement. Some spend these funds on salaries of employees who are supposed to help engage parents in schools; others use them to pay for parent training programs.

Other potential sources of funding for school improvement efforts by parents are foundations, large businesses, and state and federal agencies that have funds designated for academic improvement and parent involvement (such as federal "Gear Up" programs designed to increase the number of low-income students going to college and Parent Information and Resource Centers).

Growing momentum

Colleges that train teachers are beginning to wake up to the need to incorporate parent involvement in their courses and may invite participation by local parents. Joyce Epstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who serves as director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships, said deans and chairs of departments of schools that grant education degrees were "brutally honest" in admitting during a 2001 survey that their graduates were not prepared to invite parent involvement in schools.

A recent poll of 161 institutions found that one-third of graduates receiving advanced degrees in education had written their master's or doctoral thesis on the topic of parent or community involvement. "Professors are becoming more aware of the need for training in this area," said Epstein.

She is working with schools, districts and state departments of education to build programs that foster partnerships between schools, families and communities. Her National Network of Partnership Schools currently has 900 schools and 100 school district members, along with some PTAs and the National PTA.

Epstein wants all children to benefit from parent involvement. "It's a question of equity," she said. "Studies show that students who have families that are involved tend to do better in many ways, including achievement, aspirations and postsecondary plans. That's been the case with individual parents who have made it their choice to be involved. What we're trying to do is make that process more inclusive - to take responsibility for conducting programs that will inform and involve parents of all economic, ethnic, racial and cultural groups, in all parts of the country and in all school levels: elementary, middle and high school."

Comments from readers

"Is there a forum where teachers and parents are working together? I am both a parent and a teacher. I want the best education for my students and my own children. I would like to find a forum where I can discuss parents' concerns and be heard as a teacher as well. I would like to share success stories and what are parents' true views on testing. Is it valuable information? Does that really show us what type of adults our children will become? As parents, we can revolt against this machine that labels our children and marks them. Fortunately, I don't have to deal with my child's self esteem regarding testing. She scores at the Advance Level. However, my sister does not. I've seen it destroy her self confidence. We've gotten tutors and she progressed, but is unable to meet Proficiency due to her Learning Disability. Yes, she has a learning disability and is still required to take the test and be ranked or judged against children that do not have the same difficulties. These test scores doesn't inform the type of instruction our children will receive. If that was the case then we would have far successes with the No Child Left Behind. Instead, test scores are just shown to teachers and we close our doors and teach. Discussions and problem solving doesn't take place. Finger pointing happens. Upper grade teachers blame elementary teachers and elementary teachers blame parents. Parents blame teachers. It really is a vicious cycle. I hope to find a forum where solutions and less finger pointing happen. "
"when moving to a new area or state in fact coming from a place were you volunteer alot how do you know if your moving to a High rated school who promotes volunteering in the school how would one find out if this is a luxury offered by the establishment I am looking to move to Franklin Mass because I have (2) brilliant children I have researched the schools there but need to know if I will also be welcomed in the school? I am a parent who is very involved and I have 2 smart children to show being part of there educations does make a difference how would I find out what the protocol is should I call the school? "
"This was a really great article. We are 7 core parents (and growing) who trying to improve our school's academic standing. "
"We need a group of parents that their young ones has been arrested due to authority abuse by the security guards that are allowed to arrest our children as they feel fit to do so. We have or should creat a group to protect our children. There are many othere resource to work with other than arresting the young children. Which hurts them in the future getting grants,jobs even housing."
"My son transfered to a new school 2 months ago. He is in 1st grade. I have found out that he watches tv in the clasroom 2x per day. Once during snack time and once just prior to him getting on the bus. I did ask the teacher what they watched and she stated anything that was on the public tv station and I think all grades watch cyberspace at the end of the day prior to getting on the bus. They watch 20 minutes during snack, and I am not sure how much at the end of the day. They also watch tv during indoor recess. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! The previous school he came from did not allow any tv in the classroom and I am strict about tv viewing. Only on weekends and only certain shows. I am very concerned about this and would like it to stop but do not know how to approach the principal and teacher about this. I am a firm beleiver in reading to your kids. Why can't the teacher be reading a children's novel to them every day during break times? Why can't they play board games during free time? Any insight would be greatly appreciated!"
"Summit academy north elementary school in Romulus does not care or listen to parental concerns.One of the teachers there has no communication skills and has been terrible to deal with."
"Seeing as how I am the 'fruitcake' mentioned above, I truly appreciate this article. I have shared with my current PTO president, the Superintendent, and the principal of the school we just left that suffers a terrible relationship between parents who want change and the leadership of the school. I'm headed to a PTO meeting this morning to discuss it. THANKS! "
"Hi, I am a parent and a school board member. We encourage parental participation and wish we could have more. But often find that parents only come to school when there is a problem and then base their ideas about schools on that visit. As No Child Left Behind continues we will have more demanded of every party involved in education. Parents and school systems need to work together for the good of students. Not view each other as enemies. Alot of pressure will be put on teachers to have their students preform well on testing. I feel sometimes it's a shame our parenting skills aren't tested also. It take everyone to see that all children are well education. The community, parents and schools all have a part to play. As my mother used to say, 'Now ya'll play good together.' "
"I really appreciate how accessible this information is to parents. Now, we need to get the word out to parents that the information is out here. Typically, schools send home monthly newsletters. Is there a program to encourage school administrators to send home information about this service? On another topic, it would be really nice to see the std. dev., high and low scores for the aggregate test scores. Where scores are generally very low, it would be nice to know if any students are excelling. Also, other factors that are structurally related to test scores like % of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunches would be good to list with the test scores. "
"i am from sayre pennsylvania.i am having a hard time getting involved in my childs school.they act like its a prison.and your not allowed to even go near the classroom to see how it is being handled and if the kids are learning.i think you should be able to observe how your chold is doing in school. "
"We should push for 'National Free The Schools Day.' The schoolyards are run like prison camps. Children should be handled with care and treated like children, no matter the educational requirements/limitations. Public schools should not be run similar to juvenile institutions or military boot camps! Children generally respond better to 'positive stimuli' and that is absent in today's public schools. More school officials seem to feel they'll only have authority and respect if they are 'hardnosed' or have hard-line polices. Kids need air, space and 'release time' whether in public, private or religious schools. After all, they're kids not tin-soldiers, puppets or robots. We're doing ourselves in by not letting them exercise more of their own thought patterns and creativity. They will 'unleash' a lot of that 'pinned-up' energy at some point. Let's just hope its not in a negative or violent fashion as displayed in the last few years! Let em be kids for crying out loud! There 'should' be a way to balance education, rules and tlc. Most educators are 'highly educated' and surely they can come up with something. Our parents should 'push' the issue of better treatment in our schools for our kids. They don't need to be staring 'Hitler' in the face all day! Fair and reasonable treatment shouldn't be based on economic factors or the ability to 'pay' for schooling. A kid is a kid Dekalb County, Georgia "
"Hi, I'm a parent in Dekalb County, Georgia. I've had an 'awful' time trying to be a part of my child's educational process and I've been 'booted out' of my child's school more or less too. It's awful! It's not enough just to have parent involvement legislation. We 'must' have parent involvement legislation enforcement! The schools are run like dictatorships! "
"Hi, I'm a parent in Dekalb County, Georgia. I've had an 'awful' time trying to be a part of my child's educational process and I've been 'booted out' of my child's school more or less too. It's awful! It's not enough just to have parent involvement legislation. We 'must' have parent involvement legislation enforcement! The schools are run like dictatorships! "
"Another wonderful organization that supports parents and community members who want to get involved in public schools is the organization - Parents for Public Schools, their website is "