BY MAI MIKSIC | It is nearly an unquestioned presumption in education policy circles that parent involvement plays an important role in children’s academic success. President Obama declared his support for it by stating that “There is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences or help with the homework or turn off the TV, put away the video games, read to their child. Responsibility for our children’s education must begin at home” (Obama, 2009). Many programs, such as Head Start, aspire to improve parent involvement, and schools receiving Title I money must include parent involvement initiatives. In a country that has struggled to provide high quality education for all children, many researchers and policymakers believe that parent involvement could play a key role in closing the achievement gap.
Yet in a recent article featured in the New York Times, Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris declared that parent involvement is overrated. Their book The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education (2014), argues that certain types of parent involvement, such as checking homework, can actually have detrimental effects on children’s academic outcomes. This new book suggests policymakers have been wasting time and money on parent involvement initiatives. Research on the effects of parent involvement has been ongoing. What does this research say and how do Robinson and Harris’ claims fit into the conversation?
What is parent involvement?
One troublesome fact is that scholars do not share a simple and consistent definition of parent involvement. Involvement can take many forms, and some scholars capture this in complex definitions. For example, Kohl, Lengua, and McMahon (2000) conceptualize parent involvement as having six dimensions: parent-teacher contact, parent involvement at school, quality of parent-teacher relationship, teacher’s perception of the parent, parent involvement at home and parent endorsement of the school. Grolnick and Slowiaczek (1994) define parent involvement as the dedication of resources by the parent to the child within a given domain, such as school or home. Robinson and Harris (2014) extend the definition of parent involvement to include parent communication with their children about the value of education. One of the most commonly used definitions comes from Epstein (1996) for whom parent involvement consists of six components: parenting skills, communication with schools, volunteering in schools, home involvement, active participation in school decision-making, and collaboration with the community.
The trouble is that varied and multiple dimension measures make comparative findings difficult, if not impossible. The studies often measure different things, and at different times in children’s lives. Additionally, a multiple dimensions approach to parent involvement can be repetitive (i.e. parent-teacher relationship and teacher’s perception of parent). It is no wonder that there are divergent findings in the literature. We need a more universal measure of parent involvement.
A way forward would be to place parent involvement into three domains: school involvement, home involvement, and parent engagement. In this schema, “school involvement” strictly refers to participation in school events and interactions with teachers; “home involvement” encompasses activities in the home such as reading to the child and checking homework; and “parent engagement” refers to the ways in which parents engage their children in conversations about school aspirations and expectations. In this approach, school involvement, home involvement, and parent engagement can be considered latent variables composed of multiple indicators. A latent variable is a variable that is not directly observed, but inferred by indicators that are directly measurable. Since parent involvement is a rather abstract construct it can be considered latent; and it is necessary to use multiple indicators to measure its effects. Using these three domains as latent variables would make it easier to conduct more complex and rigorous statistical analyses such as structural equation modeling, which can test for and estimate causal relationships between multiple variables.
Thus far, though, scholarly work has not coalesced around a domain approach. The impact is that the policy world, which translates scholarship into practice, it is left with broad understandings of “parent involvement” and an imprecise understanding of causation. The rest of this essay attempts to show how the policy world can move forward within these limitations.
Is parent involvement effective?
The research literature on the effectiveness of parent involvement, defined very broadly as the ways in which parents support their children’s learning, is vast and has produced a wide range of conclusions. In general, results show that parent involvement has positive effects on children’s outcomes. It is associated with higher academic performance (Dearing, Kreider, Simpkins, & Weiss, 2006; Hayakawa, Englund, Warner-Richter, & Reynolds, 2013; Marcon, 1999); lower rates of grade retention and placement into special education (Miedel, 2000); lower rates of high school dropout and increased on-time high school completion (Barnard, 2004); better parenting practices and lower rates of children’s behavioral problems (Brotman et al., 2011). Randomized controlled studies of programs with strong parent involvement components have produced positive results for both parent and child outcomes (Kratochwill, McDonald, Levin, Scalia, & Coover, 2009; Kratochwill, McDonald, Levin, Young Bear-Tibbetts, & Demaray, 2004).
In a respected meta-analysis, Jeynes (2012) reviewed 51 studies that examined the relationship between parent involvement programs and pre-kindergarten through 12th grade academic achievement. He found that generally parent involvement programs produced a statistically significant modest effect size of .30 of a standard deviation. To give some perspective, an effect size of .20 or greater in the field of education is considered respectable. Depending on how it is calculated, .20 can equal roughly 6 months of learning (for reading) for an average 4th or 5th grader. Thus, an effect size of approximately .30 can be considered important. Effect sizes were particularly large (.51) for programs that involved parents and children reading together. Positive but not statistically significant effect sizes were found for programs such as Head Start and ESL training for parents.
A recent report from Van Voorhis, Maier, Epstein, Lloyd, and Leung (2013) of MDRC reviewed 95 studies on parent involvement and children’s literacy and math outcomes. The studies span more than 10 years of research on this topic. The review included descriptive studies, nonintervention (nonexperimental) studies, and intervention (experimental and quasi-experimental) studies. Since the authors did not conduct a meta-analysis, nothing can be said about the statistical significance of the findings, but overall, a majority of the results showed that parent involvement is positively linked to children’s outcomes in preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary school.
Despite these promising indications, a few studies have found that parent involvement has little to no effect on children’s outcomes. The two most notable studies in this category were done by Mattingly, Prislin, McKenzie, Rodriguez, and Kayzar (2002) and White, Taylor, and Moss (1992). Mattingly et al. (2002) examined 41 studies that looked at kindergarten through 12th grade achievement and parent involvement programs. The authors qualitatively evaluated the rigor of each study included in the analysis. Findings showed that the methodological designs and statistical analyses used in these studies were weak, and therefore there was little empirical support for the claim that parent involvement programs are an effective way of raising achievement. However, due to the lack of rigorous study design, the authors also acknowledge that they cannot draw conclusions about the ineffectiveness of the programs analyzed. Instead, they called for more rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled studies. White et al. (1992) examined the effect of parent involvement in early childhood interventions on children’s outcomes. Similarly, he and his colleagues found little to no evidence that children benefited from parent involvement programs.
However, it is difficult to take either study as definitive. First, the studies included in the analyses are rather outdated. Parent involvement programs are constantly evolving, and recent research has produced positive findings that are statistically significant (see Jeynes (2012)). Secondly, neither of these two studies is a true meta-analysis that can estimate impact effects. Mattingly et al. (2002) qualitatively rated each article, and White et al. (1992) did not do a comprehensive literature search; instead, they cherry-picked studies from another study that had been already done.
On balance, academic studies suggest that parent involvement (however defined) is either beneficial for children’s academic achievement.
Robinson and Harris: Cause for Concern?
What about the latest commotion from Robinson and Harris’ book? Headlines about this book in the New York Times and the Atlantic declared that parent involvement is overrated. For example, Dana Goldstein’s piece in the Atlantic was titled “Don’t Help Your Kids with their Homework.” But a closer look at the authors’ own results tells a slightly different story. Robinson and Harris’ rhetoric is strong but their data are nuanced and hardly definitive. In some cases, the authors found negative correlations between certain parent involvement activities, like checking homework, and academic achievement. However, the authors also found some positive relationships between parent involvement and academic achievement in the early years, using the Child Development Supplement (CDS) dataset, although the effect of parent involvement seems to diminish over time by middle school. The authors also found that active forms of involvement are advantageous for socioeconomically disadvantaged youth. In particular, Latinos and Blacks seem to benefit the most from assertive parent involvement, such as taking the initiative to reach out to teachers or requesting a particular teacher for the student. Their overall findings are therefore mixed and certainly do not warrant alarmist headlines.
The deeper concern with their research is methodological. The authors themselves caution that their findings are based on associations and are not causal by any means. In other words, their results are entirely based on correlations, and they cannot claim, for example, that checking children’s homework causes lower achievement.
This is because Robinson and Harris rely heavily on simple regressions. Regressions, an extension of doing a correlation that involves multiple variables, can tell you whether parent involvement is predictive of academic achievement, but cannot tell you if parent involvement causes achievement. Regressions also contain the problem of omitted variable bias, which occurs when a variable that should be included in the regression is not included. This results in overestimating or underestimating the magnitude of the relationship between the two variables. When doing a regression, it is almost always impossible to avoid the issue of omitted variable bias because it is impossible to include every variable that could explain academic achievement. But researchers can also do their best to find omitted variables by knowing the literature and using control variables that can correct for the bias. Unfortunately the authors do not provide adequate information to determine whether they sufficiently controlled for the issue of omitted variable bias. The weak empirical basis of Robinson and Harris’ book means it cannot in any way challenge the decades’ worth of research that has shown positive effects.
The research on parent involvement is riddled with inconsistent definitions of parent involvement and poor methodological design and analytic strategies. This does not mean, however, that parent involvement is “overrated;” rather, it means that while parent involvement is generally positive on children’s achievement, its precise mechanisms are as yet unclear.
The work ahead for scholars and policy-makers is related but distinct. Scholars should operate within a simpler taxonomy for assessing parent involvement, which I suggest should be school involvement, home involvement, and parent engagement domains. This would yield greater precision in figuring out which forms of involvement matter most in children’s academic achievement.
Policy-makers, on the other hand, cannot wait for academics to generate perfect knowledge of causal mechanisms. They can, however, continue to act on the vast, albeit generalized, conclusions that the field has produced: parent involvement matters in raising student achievement. President Obama is right to encourage parents to read to their children at home; interventions such as the Play and Learning Strategies (PALS), a parenting curriculum that encourages shared book reading, have been shown to be effective and should continue to be supported. As Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell (2014, April) wrote in her book review on Robinson and Harris’ book, parent involvement is certainly not a broken compass.
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