Essential and Subversive: Parents in Education

Dana Henley at Principled Discovery quotes a Florida newspaper story, Home schooling grows by 80 percent in state in past decade which, following a decent enough overview of the experiences of its example family, and a debunking of the socialization myth”You know you are a homeschooler,” goes the old joke, “when your six-year-old can explain the term socialization.”, caps off its coverage with some data: historical trends in homeschooling, legal requirements in Florida, contact information–and a “balanced” list of Pros and Cons of Homeschooling, apparently pulled from the author’s head. The first “Con” is this:

Parents have a much greater role in their children’s academic life. 

to which Dana responds:

Parental involvement as the first con of homeschooling? Who is this a con for? The parent? The child? The system? I want to know because every study I know of researching the topic concludes that parental involvement is the number one indicator for academic success, regardless of socioeconomic status. 

And she’s right. Here is New York University’s Anne T. Henderson, author of Beyond the Bake Sale describing the findings of her research:

When families are able to be involved, both at home and at school, because it’s important to be involved in both, not only do their kids do better in school, but there’s a collective effect: the schools get better. When we study the extent to which the schools are open to working with families and are used as community facilities….the schools that are more open tend to be higher performing, and they tend to have better reputations in the community, too, because they’ve earned them. …students tend to take more challenging higher level courses and do better at them. They feel more comfortable at school, that people who work at the school know and respect their families, they enjoy school more and behave better when they are there. There are a lot of very specific important good effects on students that we can trace back directly to parent and family involvement in schools.

What have we learned from all this? First, though parents and families, especially in lower-income areas, are often the subject of complaints from teachers and administrators for failing to care about the education and character of their own children, the truth is that families of all backgrounds are doing a lot more at home than we may realize or give them credit for. …Some parents may be uninformed about what is going on in school, and how to support it–but they want to know and to support their children’s learning. The more they are able to do this, and the more they have the resources to advocate effectively for their children’s education, the better the schools and their children do.

But however beneficial we understand parent involvement in education to be, the system we have is not integrated, but segregated. Parents and teachers are assigned to separate spheres, home and school, and contact between the two is seen as adversarial:

When I did a publication a couple years ago called “Learning from Others,” [continues Henderson] I called a lot of schools and districts and programs, and asked them how they worked with families as advocates. I often got a little silence on the end of the line. Then somebody would say, “Well, you know, we get along really well with our families here. They don’t need to play that role.” Those with ears to hear will note the similarities in this response to other instances of segregation in American life.

In The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot argues that conversations between parents and teachers are

…shaped by their own autobiographical stories and by the broader cultural and historical narratives that inform their identities, their values, and their sense of place in the world. These autobiographical stories–often replays of childhood experiences in families and in school–are powerful forces in defining the quality and trajectory of parent-teacher dialogues. There is something immediate, reflexive, and regressive, for both parents and teachers, about their encounters with one another, a turning inward and backward, a sense of primal urgency.

(Regarding her own earliest school memory, of activities connected to the story of The Gingerbread Man, Dana Henley writes, “I learned an important lesson that year, I think. Something about not trusting adults and literature being responsible for the theft of cookies.” Don’t miss her amazing account of some of her own formative experiences with school, and how she eventually became her own advocate, in Homeschool Stereotypes vs. Public School Realities.)

But the barriers are institutional as well. Henderson notes that some parents don’t have the resources or knowledge to advocate effectively for their children in school, and that those who do are often seen as pushy “helicopter” parents acting in ways that are unexpected or inappropriate for their parental role. Lawrence-Lightfoot finds that teachers, for their part, feel ill equipped by their formal training to collaborate with parents:

None of the teachers that I spoke to, for example, mentions learning anything about working with families in their teacher training programs…they claim that their education did not offer a conceptual framework for envisioning the crucial role of families…the “ecology of education,” the broad map of the several institutions that educate children…[they] describe training in which there was no central value put on the crucial importance and complexity of building productive parent-teacher relationships…never a realization of the enormous opportunities and casualties that such an effort would entail…[and they] claim that their training never gave them the tools and techniques, the practical guidance [for] working with parents.

Education is a place in society where the spheres of the personal, the professional, the institutional, and the political all overlap, and so reconnecting parents with education is a subversive act. It flies in the face of established traditions of separation, and challenges us on both emotional and organizational levels. Henderson describes the most successful parent involvement programs as being the ones that explicitly change the system of segregated “family” and “educator” roles, and give both parents and teachers the support they need to do things differently. These schools initiated personal connections between parents and teachers early in the school year, both in families’ homes and at the school building, and they deepened those connections every month as the school year progressed.

How can parents be advocates for their children, and why are child-advocates often seen as adversaries by educational professionals? We need to reconfigure the middle and high schools so that every single student has a person, an adult at the school who knows them well and is their family’s main contact. We need to make the effort to build an advisory system that keeps track of individual students and meets their parents face to face. We also have to pay attention community organizations that are in touch with the needs and perspectives of parents.

Our schools need to ask, what does a “family friendly” school look like? How do parents join the school’s learning community and participate in setting its goals? What is their role in the school? Whose job is it to serve parents on behalf of the school? Whose job is it to speak for partnership across the whole system? Invitation is the key: parents need to feel invited to join the process of educating their children, and confident that they can make a difference. It all goes back to relationships.

Intentionally bridging–and challenging–institutional boundaries is essential; we will not make a difference if we keep the system we have. It will take both innovation and perspiration, but we can begin now, even with the system we have, by getting in the room together–by simply showing up to talk.

And that, as it happens, is how I found out about Anne Henderson and the parental-involvement research of Beyond the Bake Sale. Excerpts of the book and other resources are available at The New Press. I pulled off the bike path into one of Madison’s popular farmers’ markets, and found a table that wasn’t selling produce. Instead, there was information for parents from the Madison Metropolitan School District, and a chance to talk face-to-face, without a prescribed agenda and outside school walls, with the new Superintendent of Schools Daniel Nerad and MMSD School Board member, Maya Cole. I met one of Maya’s sons, who was helping staff the table, and we chatted about parenthood and our respective visions for education. She pointed me to her website, the Maya Cole Schoolcast, and her podcast of a speech by Henderson at a recent Parent Leadership Conference on parent and family involvement in education, from which my quotes above are loosely transcribed.

Reflecting on her podcast blog, Maya Cole says: “Storytelling, podcasting and the world wide web are different attempts by all of us to share stories and participate in the conversation.” Parents, teachers, scholars, students, unions, homeschoolers, freeschoolers, & unschoolers–all our voices are out there. Are we listening? Will what we hear change the way we work with one another on behalf of our children?

Here’s hoping that we can share and participate long enough, and deeply enough, to truly change the system.



  1. One thing that I found interesting was a research study we went over when I was a parent educator for the school district where I taught. Even when the relationship is adversarial and the parent is doing nothing but fighting the school, appealing to administrators and to the school board, their children do better. Supporting your child’s education does not have to be doing whatever the teacher or system says and agreeing with it at every step.

    We went over this study because one of the biggest fears teachers have of parental involvement is these kinds of parents, but from the student’s perspective, parents who care enough to object are important, too.

    Dana’s last blog post: So I finally decide to post


  1. […] contribution is a collection of readings on economics and poverty, for parents, kids, and churches. Have I missed some good ones? Of course I have. Put some stinkers on the list? […]

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