This is Part I of a two-part series on parental involvement by Alfie Kohn.
When people who write about agriculture or dentistry tackle the important issues in their respective fields, do they try to shake things up? Are they feisty and willing to peer beneath the surface of whatever topic they’re exploring? I have no idea. But I do know that those qualities are awfully hard to find in what’s written about education.
Consider the question of parent involvement in schooling. Almost everything published on this subject leaves the ideological foundations of the discussion unexamined. Either we’re treated to a predictable announcement that Involvement Is Good (“Parents should do more!”) or else we’re warned that some folks have a tendency to get, well, you know, a little too involved. (“Jeremy, I’m wondering whether you might have had some help with your science fair project? I ask only because it’s unusual for a sixth grader to build a working nuclear reactor.”) Put these two themes together and the message seems to be that the interest parents take in their children’s education is either inadequate or excessive.
Does that mean there’s a sweet spot in the middle that consists of just enough involvement? Or are we looking at an example of what a statistician might call a bimodal distribution when involvement is plotted against socioeconomic status: Poor parents don’t do enough; affluent parents do too much?
Let’s begin by noticing that the whole question is framed by the extent to which educators think parents ought to be involved. The parent’s point of view is typically absent from such discussions. And, of course, no thought is given to the student’s perspective — what role kids might want their parents to play (or to avoid playing). But then that’s true of so many conversations about education that we scarcely notice its absence.
There’s something both short-sighted and arrogant about exhorting low-income parents to show up at school events or make sure the homework gets done. The presumption seems to be that these parents lack interest or commitment — as opposed to spare time, institutional savvy, comfort level or fluency in English. Annette Lareau and other sociologists have described how class differences play out in terms of parental advocacy — including why poorer and less-educated parents may be less effective when they do become involved.
But even observers who are sensitive to issues of class don’t always take a step back to ask what kind of involvement we’re talking about, and to what ends. As is so often the case, our questions tend to be more quantitative than qualitative, with the result that we focus only on how much parents are involved.
Imagine someone who monitors his or her child’s schooling very closely, for example, and doesn’t hesitate to advocate for — or against — certain policy changes and resource allocation decisions. Is that a good thing? Rather than just asking whether the level or style of advocacy is effective, we’d also want to know whether this parent is asking for changes that will benefit all children or mostly just his or her own child (possibly at the expense of others). Our intensely individualistic, free-market-oriented culture — witness the growing push for charter schools, vouchers and privatization — encourages us to see education not as a public good but as just another commodity one shops for, and to evaluate its effectiveness in terms of how much my kid gets out of it. Thus, those of us who value the cause of equity have reason to be disturbed by many sorts of parent involvement — not just because some are more involved, or better at being involved, than others but because of what that involvement is intended to achieve and for whom.
Proponents of progressive education, too, have reason to be disturbed by the focus of much involvement, even in individual classrooms. What are the pushiest parents pushing for? If they’re judging schools by test scores and children by grades, if they’re demanding more traditional forms of math and reading instruction, tighter regulation of students and more homework, then the content of their agenda will strike us as more relevant than the degree of their involvement. Some of us may be inclined to ask, “How can we invite these parents to reconsider whether their preferences are really consistent with their long-term objectives for their children?” And: “What would it take to create a powerful parent constituency pushing in the other direction?”
Stay tuned for Part II of this two-part series on parental involvement by Alfie Kohn.
Alfie Kohn is the author of 12 books on education and human behavior, including “The Schools Our Children Deserve” and, most recently, “Feel-Bad Education.” He lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at AlfieKohn.org. Copyright © 2013 by Alfie Kohn
1. For example, see Lareau’s book “Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education” (Philadelphia: Falmer, 1989).
2. Alfie Kohn, “Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform,” Phi Delta Kappan, April 1998. Available at AlfieKohn.org/teaching/ofmk.htm.
3. I review research relevant to this distinction in my book “The Schools Our Children Deserve” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), Chapter 2. Also see this 20-minute video presentation: http://cfee.me/PSPvidAK.
4. Ulrich Trautwein et al., “Between-Teacher Differences in Homework Assignments and the Development of Students’ Homework Effort, Homework Emotions, and Achievement,” Journal of Educational Psychology 101 (2009), p. 185.
5. Nancy E. Hill and Diana F. Tyson, “Parental Involvement in Middle School: A Meta-Analytic Assessment of the Strategies That Promote Achievement,” Developmental Psychology 45 (2009): 740-63.
6. Alfie Kohn, “The Homework Myth” (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006); and, for a look at a new high-school study, http://ow.ly/fzwxn.