Well, goodness.  Some folks are in a tizzy about parent involvement and the validity of its importance to student achievement. You see, decades of research had us thinking it mattered…a lot.  It mattered so much that it was encouraged by federal policy, namely No Child Left Behind.  Organizations were created to develop and evaluate it, conduct and disseminate research about it, and advocate for it.  And the U.S. Department of Education just released a Parent and Community Engagement Framework.


US DoE Parent and Community Engagement Framework

This op-ed in the New York Times (and the related research), however, has thrown us a curve ball. Headlined provocatively with, “Parental Involvement is Overrated,” it describes research by Keith Robinson and Angel Harris, both university academics in the Sociology field.  Using 63 indicators of parental involvement (63!), they 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.”  Then, they reported that “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.”

Color us (un)surprised.  Now, that’s not to say we don’t believe in meaningful parent involvement in a child’s education.  There’s too much evidence to suggest its value, as argued by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist, in this pushback piece in Psychology Today.  But what we know to be true, generally of all research, is that it depends.  What’s “it?”  Well, almost everything depends on a variety of factors…including parent involvement, or parent engagement as more are calling it these days.  The “it depends” issue is what makes social science intriguing and vexing.  It’s so important…yet so complicated to tease apart.

Educators have a mixed-reputation for their use of research.  Among other challenges cited in a SEDL report related to this issue, “many educators stated they were more likely to believe a research report if it conformed to their personal experiences.”  We suspect this issue of bias and preference lends unfortunately to our longstanding history of “warring” within the sector“.  Whole language vs. Phonemic awareness, conceptual problem-solving vs. mathematical computation skills, and now Common Core vs. state-based standards and assessments.  In addition to being exhausting, this “either/or” thinking keeps us in an aggregate form of perpetual limbo…making progress difficult on any scale.

An innovative approach to this new twist in the parental involvement/engagement issue would be to consider it differently.  There is no need to be threatened by research that tells us what we might not want to hear or challenges our existing ideas.  Evidence-based educators know that knowledge builds and is nonlinear.  We make thoughtful decisions based on existing research, consider the trends, attend to findings that are “outliers” to our working hypotheses, and apply all of this to our own specific context and situation. One of the important purposes of research is to help us ask better questions.  It, perhaps frustratingly, does not always provide us with the answers.  We must, as professionals, absorb all of the evidence and caveats within the research and make our own informed decisions.  Then we must use our own critical eye to observe if our choices are truly working for us…and our students.

Let’s not fall prey to another educational war, this time about parental involvement.  Let’s be intrigued by the complexity, better understand what works and what does not, ask more questions, and examine our own decisions.  It’s complicated.  And it’s worth it.


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