Parental Involvement: Cause or Correlation?

I was in a meeting about student success.  We had broken into groups, and the question of parental involvement came up.  “Were your parents involved in your school?” I half-whispered to a fellow director, born and raised in Hong Kong. “Not at all” she said.  “Not mine either” said I (born and raised in another former British colony).

A recent report from Edsource touts parental involvement in schools as being key to student success.  It says that parental involvement

… has a measurable impact on student performance in school, and is particularly important for English learners and students from low-income families.

That is the common wisdom.  Parental involvement causes student success.

Not so fast.

Further into the report Edsource quotes WestEd:

The richness and complexity that characterize parent involvement in education preclude the drawing of strict cause-effect conclusions. An infinite variety of demographic variables impact the experiences of children and families.

This points to a correlation and not a causation.  Confusing the two is rampant an annoying in news reporting.  It is costly and inexcusable when it drives public policy.

Parental involvement at school is likely the result of an education orientation in the home, not the cause of it. How could it be otherwise, really?

I can foresee many dollars being spent on school participation programs.  Schools will then be left wondering why they don’t see better results.  Suggesting to an overworked and underpaid parent that they need to come to meetings at school and that action will cause their child to do better in school is wrong.

I suggest that we have not adequately defined what parental involvement is.  Is it just counting how many show up for school events?  Do these statistics then get factored into a principal’s performance appraisal?

Quick story:  One of my teachers (in about third grade) must have been one of the “modern” kind.  She arranged for parents to come during the day for a student art exhibit – a very unusual move at the time.  I would have to say that my experience was crushing.  To raise an expectation in a child that parents were coming and then have them not show up is worse for the child than just conducting schooling as usual.

Demonstrating to some children over and over that their parents aren’t coming to a school event might actually increase student distress and disengagement.

Are parental activities at school making it worse for certain children while not making any discernable improvement for the rest?  Does this actually contribute to the achievement gap, not cure it?

Parental involvement is such a well-worn and unquestioned concept in American schools. Just what is it, specifically?  If it changes anything, how does it do it, exactly?

If we could answer those questions then we’d be getting somewhere.

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