This is Part II of a two-part series on parental involvement by Alfie Kohn.
While everyone wants parents to be engaged with what their children are doing in school, what matters more is the nature of that engagement. There’s a big difference between a parent who’s focused on what the child is doing — that is, on the learning itself — and a parent who’s focused on how well the child is doing. To ask “So, honey, what’s your theory about why the Civil War started?” or “If you had written that story, would you have left the character wondering what happened, the way the author did?” represents a kind of engagement that promotes critical thinking and enthusiasm about learning. To ask “Why only a B+ [or a 3 on the rubric]?” is a kind of engagement that undermines both of these things.
Of course, parents wouldn’t be asking the latter questions if the school weren’t reducing students to letters and numbers in the first place; they’re taking their cue from educators who blur the differences between a focus on learning and a focus on performance, or between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Nevertheless, this issue seems to have escaped the notice of just about everyone who writes on the topic of parent involvement.
Finally, there’s the matter of whether established educational practices are, on the one hand, accepted uncritically, so that the only question is whether kids are compliant and successful by established criteria, or whether, on the other hand, those practices are examined to see if they make sense. Not surprisingly, it’s the rare educator who encourages the latter. The result is that parents are urged to become more involved (ma non troppo!) in a way that may be more about perpetuating the status quo than about doing what’s in children’s best interest.
A “partnership” between school and family sounds lovely unless that partnership is perceived by the child as an alliance against him. If the purpose is to coerce him into obeying rules that may not be reasonable, or to “live up to his potential” by working harder at assignments of dubious value, then we’d want parents to ask penetrating questions about the school’s practices. Parents should aim higher than helping teachers to make children toe the line.
Homework offers a vivid example. Even on its own terms, parental involvement may not be beneficial. A recent study of middle schoolers found that “the more teachers intended to establish a close link with parents and to involve them in the homework process, the less positive the student outcomes were.” And a review of 50 studies found that, while parental involvement in general was “associated with achievement,” the one striking exception was parental help with homework, where there was no positive effect.
But the predominant outcome measures in such studies are test scores, which means that even if “positive effects” did turn up, they wouldn’t impress those of us who doubt the validity and value of standardized test results. Nor would they tell us about the possible negative effects that certain kinds of involvement might have on students’ creativity, psychological health, excitement about learning, their relationship with their parents and so on.
The practice of forcing children to begin working what amounts to a second shift after they get home from a full day of school has absolutely no proven benefits before high school, and there are increasing reasons to doubt its value even in high school. What kids need, therefore, are parents willing to question the conventional wisdom and to organize others to challenge school practices when that seems necessary. What kids don’t need is the kind of parental involvement that consists of pestering them to make sure they do their homework — whether or not it’s worth doing.
Exhortations for more “parental involvement” remind me of calls to be “a good citizen”: In the abstract, everyone is for it. But inspected closely, what’s most often meant by the term turns out to be considerably more complicated and even worthy of skepticism.
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.