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Parents Play a Critical Role in Their Children's Education

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Discussions continue about improving the U.S. public education system. One question which is frequently overlooked is: What is the role of parents in education?

There are a variety of thoughtful and interesting conversations about everything from resource allocation, to the impact of race on educational achievement, to the most effective uses of technology, to redefining education to meet the needs of the 21st century – topical and relevant discussions that never seem to include parents. Parents aren’t completely ignored, but more often than not, the role they play isn’t a substantive part of the discussion. Their involvement becomes a less than critical part of any proposed solution. I believe we can make the argument that a significant part of the solution to the educational challenges we face requires meaningful parent involvement, not just lip service.

In all fairness, however, meaningful parent involvement can be tough. Schools are faced with federal regulations that require it (Title I, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act); there is solid evidence that when parents are involved there is a strong, lasting connection to academic achievement, and particularly for children at high risk. Many of these children have parents who themselves were unsuccessful in school; for these children, parent engagement is a real challenge.

For parents, it is generally easier when children are younger; content is easier, and schools (and children) seem a bit more welcoming to parents being involved. As children grow, however, the content becomes more difficult, schools and children are much less welcoming to parent involvement, and parents are left with just asking questions: “How was school today?” and/or “Did you do your homework?” Of course, all this doesn’t even consider the issue of parents working multiple jobs who struggle with finding time for involvement in their child’s education.

More regulations and legal structures are not necessarily the answer either. There is a subset of children, those with disabilities, who have federal protections mandating significant parental involvement. Unfortunately, those regulations often create a contentious, rather than cooperative, relationship between parents and teachers and school administrators.

When it comes to parental involvement, most people agree with the “why”; it’s the “how” that poses the challenge. The vast majority of parents want to be involved, but face significant barriers in doing so. The vast majority of schools welcome parent involvement, but with short parent meetings (for which both sides struggle to find time), it’s hard to know exactly what to do.

One option that may hold promise is for schools to find ways to connect with parents through groups with which they are already connected (such as faith-based organizations and employers). Partnering with faith-based community groups, for example, might provide a local school a way to communicate key messages about practical but critical steps parents can take to improve outcomes for children. Conversely, messages to schools from parents may take on more significance when they represent a group of individuals and involve a key community partner.

Similarly, engaging businesses as more than just a source of funding could have a powerful effect on building a community’s schools. Remembering that many employees are also parents and offering opportunities for school administrators to hold periodic “brown bag” sessions on key topics and/or opportunities for parents whose children attend the same school, are meaningful ways that employers could offer support.

A national organization based in Silicon Valley, Raising A Reader, has been successfully engaging parents through community groups for more than 10 years. The strong outcomes they have demonstrated go well beyond simply helping young children enter kindergarten with the language and early literacy skills needed for academic achievement. By focusing on early literacy through parent involvement – and engaging parents through community groups, Raising A Reader also sees significant increases in meaningful parent involvement, as we understand the critical role parents play in their child’s future and the expectations they set for themselves and their children. This is a very powerful factor in later achievement.

According to Raising A Reader’s National Executive Director, Dr. Gabrielle Miller, one of the biggest challenges is helping people see that parent involvement is more than just a “feel good” idea. It is a critical component not only for early literacy, but for putting children and parents on a path to long-term achievement. They don’t have all the answers, but they have shown that involving parents can be a big part of the solution to the challenges. There are creative ways to keep parent involvement going throughout the school years – ideas which begin by always including parents in the discussion.

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