Policy is only half of the equation.
Yesterday, I released a report on the role of rights and responsibilities in education laws across the United States. In it, I argue that if states want school choice truly to work, they must turn a critical eye to how laws treat parents, how they invite them into the lifelong process of a child’s schooling, and how they call equal attention to parental rights and responsibilities.
Since the 1990s, the school choice movement has created incredible opportunity for many children and families across America. Yet policy is only half of the equation. In recent years, school choice advocates have begun to put their finger on the other half: the family. This makes a great deal of sense.
Yet after analyzing results from 20 choice laws in particular, and reviewing 82 other choice laws in general, my research found that regrettably, existing choice laws demonstrate that parental rights and responsibilities in education statutes are little more than a dull roar. More often than not, when “parent” is mentioned in a school choice law, it is about the legal structure of the program or is a brief hat tip toward parents — rather than language that empowers them when it comes to the education of their child.
The reason to involve parents in a child’s education is not just theoretical. Existing research has shown that parent involvement can boost the academic outcomes of students. According to a 2005 meta-analysis by William H. Jeynes, students living in a home with involved parents had an “academic advantage” of higher grades and test scores than less involved parents. Reading and communicating to a child mattered a great deal to student achievement, but parental expectations actually had a greater effect on student outcomes. In a 2012 meta-analysis, Jeynes identified four programs that had statistically significant, positive effects on student achievement: share reading (parent and child reading together); a parent-teacher partnership; checking homework; and increased communication between parents and teachers.
The reason to involve parents in a child’s education is not just theoretical.
According to Strong Families, Strong Schools, “studies of individual families show that what the family does is more important to student success than family income or education. This is true whether the family is rich or poor, whether the parents finished high school or not, or whether the child is in preschool or the upper grades.”
Technology is starting to make it easier for parents to play a bigger role in their child’s education. One example comes from a 2015 study in which parents received a daily text on their cell phone with tips about engaging a child in literacy, math, or the arts found an overall improvement in parent-child interaction and more engagement from fathers. This approach was particularly effective for parents of boys.
Another example can be seen in the creation of Student Information systems (SIS) in some school districts. These systems include a “parent portal” to allow parents to review student achievement data, teacher comments, and track attendance. A 2013 study by Barbara Starkie reviewed the use of a SIS system in a suburban Massachusetts middle school and found that SIS was the most preferred form of home-school communication, increased interaction between parents and teachers, and is a medium parents “can use in meaningful ways to understand and support their child’s learning.”
All state departments of education have an office dedicated to family outreach and support. In Florida, the Office of Family Engagement/Parental Involvement “provides resources, recognition and technical assistance to families in an effort to increase family engagement that promotes their children’s success in education.” Many states have dedicated considerable resources and energy to achieving similar goals. But it’s also important to have this conversation at a national level – to emphasize to students, parents, and teachers alike that parents should not be left behind in conversations surrounding education and student academic achievement. In fact, they should be at the center of them.
Carefully crafted school-based parental involvement programs must have a critical eye for how families matter to the learning process, and how they must assume both rights and responsibilities in the process. While parents are not exactly looking to school districts for cues on how to raise their children, our nation’s education system will benefit from more engaged parents. The same is true for nonprofits, corporations, and the faith community. In turn, this process will refocus our attention to education not just as a means to an end, but as the foundation for a healthy and productive civil society.
Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on education policy issues including choice in public and private schools, implementation of K–12 standards, the role of for-profit institutions in education, prison education and reentry, rural education, and the role of community colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in adult advancement.