NEW YORK -- Most parents and teachers agree on the most important way for parents to be involved in their children's schools, according to a new study by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Agenda that takes a detailed look at one of the most prominent, if amorphous, trends in education.
The report, Playing Their Parts: Parents and Teachers Talk about Parental Involvement in Public Schools, finds that parents and teachers have mixed feelings about parents taking part in a school's hiring and curriculum decisions. But the two groups heartily endorse a different kind of parental involvement: having parents raise polite disciplined children who come to school enthusiastic about learning. The study was sponsored by Kraft Foods, an operating company of Philip Morris Companies Inc.
What many policy makers and reformers are talking about -- getting parents involved in school governance -- misses the most bedeviling concerns teachers and parents face, says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda. Most teachers and parents see an urgent need for the type of parental involvement that starts at home, promoting good behavior and a strong work ethic.
Playing Their Parts finds that eight in 10 parents (83 percent) say the most important role they can play is checking homework and encouraging their children to learn. Only 4 percent say instead that parents' first priority should be to help hire staff and shape curriculum.
The desire to expand parents' role in school management has inspired numerous site-based management teams throughout the country as well as part of the federal government's Goals 2000 platform. But most parents say they simply feel uncomfortable and unqualified to take on management duties. I'm involved in my daughter's classroom, but choosing the topics, that's not my area, a New Mexico mother said. Given a choice of 10 activities they could do at school, parents are most likely to say they are very comfortable chaperoning a class trip or party (73 percent). Only a quarter (25 percent) say the same about helping plan curriculum.
This important survey confirms that parents have an absolutely crucial role to play in their children's educational success, says Amina Dickerson, director of corporate contributions for Kraft Foods. As a company deeply concerned with the welfare of families, Kraft calls on everyone to reduce all possible constraints to positive parental involvement.
Nor are teachers enthusiastic about getting parents onto school governing boards. Only a quarter (25 percent) say that they approve of parents taking part in staff hiring. At the same time, it is worth noting that of those few teachers who work in schools where parents evaluate teachers, a high proportion approve of the practice (65 percent).
As it is, only a third of teachers (34 percent) say the level of parents' attention to their children's education is excellent or good. Eight out of 10 teachers complain about parents who fail to set limits for their kids or control how much time they watch television. Most teachers (69 percent) also say that students who try to slide by with the minimum amount of work present a serious problem.
Push and Pull
Most parents today (74 percent) say they do more for their child's education than their parents did for them, but about the same percentage also wish they could do more (71 percent). A careful look at Public Agenda's study and similar research suggests that today's parents juggle not just their schedules, but also their conflicting approaches towards raising children. Sometimes they sympathize with children: about nine in ten (88 percent) say that children who try hard should not feel bad about getting poor grades. At other times parents try to instill independence: 93 percent of parents say that children should learn to handle schoolwork on their own as they grow older.
The results show the incredible ambivalence parents feel, one moment wanting to bolster their children's self-esteem and the next letting them sink if they can't swim, Wadsworth said. This contradiction has profound implications for parental involvement, because it makes it hard for parents to raise the type of hardworking children that teachers say are needed in their classrooms.
No activity exemplifies the dilemma of parental involvement better than the nightly ritual of homework. Most teachers (57 percent) say that parents should at least check to make sure their children have completed assignments and done so correctly, but only 16 percent say that parents typically reach or surpass that minimum level. Parents say that supervising homework is no easy matter: 50 percent of parents report having had serious arguments with their child over assignments where there was yelling or crying. I wanted this time to be quality love time, and it couldn't be because of this homework, a Birmingham mother says. That frustration has led one in every five parents (22 percent) to admit having done their children's homework themselves.
In the coming months, two nonprofit organizations will use Playing Their Parts in community engagement projects also funded by Kraft. The Public Education Network, a consortium of school reform groups throughout the country, will host forums with four of its members: the APPLE Corps in Atlanta; the Charlotte-Mecklenberg (N.C.) Education Foundation; the Paterson (N.J.) Education Fund and the Portland (Ore.) Public Schools Foundation. The National Association of Partners in Education, a 30-year-old alliance devoted to partnerships between schools and communities, will make use of the research in day-long seminars at five sites across the country, later publishing the action plans that result. To focus educators' attention on parental involvement, Public Agenda will present Playing Their Parts at teachers' and administrators' conferences throughout the year.
Playing Their Parts is based on surveys conducted in the fall of 1998 of 1,220 randomly chosen parents of public school children and 1,000 public school teachers from across the country. The margin of error for either sample is plus or minus 3 percent. In addition, Public Agenda held eight focus groups and conducted 25 interviews with experts. The report was written by Director of Research Steve Farkas and Director of Programs Jean Johnson, both senior vice presidents; and Ann Duffett, assistant director of research; with Claire Aulicino, a research assistant; and Joanna McHugh, a research associate.
To order a copy of Playing Their Parts ($12.50, shipping included), call (212) 686-6610. Excerpts will be available March 17 on Public Agenda Online (http://www.publicagenda.org). The Web site includes additional research on education and the family from Public Agenda and other organizations.
Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and education organization working to help citizens better understand complex policy issues and to help the nation=s leaders better understand the public=s point of view. It was founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich.