Study: Parental involvement doesn’t help kids in school

A couple of sociologists are causing big waves with their New York Times column that asserts what more than a few of us find hard to believe: Parental involvement in the lives of their children doesn’t make that much of a difference.

Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a professor of sociology and African and African-American studies at Duke, found in their study that parental involvement may actually hinder student achievement.

What did we find? One group of parents, including blacks and Hispanics, as well as some Asians (like Cambodians, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders), appeared quite similar to a second group, made up of white parents and other Asians (like Chinese, Koreans and Indians) in the frequency of their involvement.

A common reason given for why the children of the first group performed worse academically on average was that their parents did not value education to the same extent. But our research shows that these parents tried to help their children in school just as much as the parents in the second group.

Even the notion that kids do better in school when their parents are involved does not stack up. After comparing the average achievement of children whose parents regularly engage in each form of parental involvement to that of their counterparts whose parents do not, we found that most forms of parental involvement yielded no benefit to children’s test scores or grades, regardless of racial or ethnic background or socioeconomic standing.

The pair said they conducted their study partly because politicians increasingly blame the achievement gap on parents of poor children.

When involvement did benefit kids academically, it depended on which behavior parents were engaging in, which academic outcome was examined, the grade level of the child, the racial and ethnic background of the family and its socioeconomic standing.

For example, regularly discussing school experiences with your child seems to positively affect the reading and math test scores of Hispanic children, to negatively affect test scores in reading for black children, and to negatively affect test scores in both reading and math for white children (but only during elementary school).

Regularly reading to elementary school children appears to benefit reading achievement for white and Hispanic children but it is associated with lower reading achievement for black children. Policy makers should not advocate a one-size-fits-all model of parental involvement.

Helping with homework? Forget it. They found consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades regardless of race or ethnicity. The exception was Asian students who grades were higher during adolescence with regular help, but whose test scores did not improve.

“What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it,” the two said.

The readers aren’t buying it:

Reading this essay, I have to wonder whether or not the authors have kids in school and, if so, what schools. Because where I come from, “parental involvement” has nothing to do with trying to further your own child’s educational performance and everything to do with serving the community of children around them.

My kids have TWICE as many kids in their classrooms as President Obama’s kids’ school does. TWICE. So when parents get involved at our school, it means helping accompany classes on trips, helping to build shelves in classrooms, taking part in fund raising so the school can buy things like pencils and paper (yes, it’s true, these things can no longer be covered by schools’ budgets).

Parental involvement is a community effort – all kids, not just those of individual parents, benefit. Parents’ lives are enriched by their interactions with the community of children, the school community gains from their help and also their increased awareness of what’s going on in their child’s schools, etc.

Just as No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top is not really about teaching kids to learn but rather, to take tests, Robinson and Harris’ research seems completely centered on children’s achievement rather than their complete school experience. It takes a village. Unfortunately, in today’s private sector-influenced education landscape, the village is being led by idiots