Parents want more say-so in how schools operate

DUE partly to the growing number of educated baby-boomer parents, and partly to new education research, the role of parents in school is expanding for the first time in decades. Parent involvement is directly related to children's success in learning, studies show. And fewer parents now unquestioningly ``turn over'' their children's education to the public schools - a fact causing some tension among reformers hoping to establish ``expert status'' for teachers and administrators.

For years, ``parent involvement'' has been a lobbying cry of conservative ``pro-family'' groups, many of them linked with anti-abortion and school-prayer issues.

When two important findings in the Department of Education's leading 1986 publication ``What Works'' dealt with the importance of the parents' role in home and classroom, many critics called it a sop to religious fundamentalists and a way to justify spending less federal money.

But parent issues are being promoted by a wider variety of Americans, including many left-of-center groups. Empirical research now shows that even among low-income families, those children whose parents are ``authoritative'' (not authoritarian) and take education seriously have higher grades and test scores and behave better.

In a digest of 50 scholarly studies of parent-student-school relationships published in June, the left-leaning National Council for Citizens in Education found that, without exception, ``When parents are involved, children do better in school, and they go to better schools.''

``There's a new consensus developing,'' says Anne Henderson, author of the digest. ``More involvement equals better achievement - there's no getting around it.'' (The digest is titled ``The Evidence Continues to Grow.'')

Parents are not just settling for more reading to children, or working in school bake sales. The educated baby-boomers want more say-so in how schools operate and make decisions.

In Chicago, where parent involvement had atrophied for 15 years, 9,000 parents attended school board hearings on funding last spring.

Across California on May 8, some 75,000 parents attended 4,000 ``schoolhouse parties'' to lobby for more state education money.

``This isn't just a renewal - it's something new,'' says Tee Gallay of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, a coalition of local citizen groups. ``There's a whole new type of parent out there who wants to get actively involved in local political and budgetary education issues.''

Broad parent involvement with school issues establishes a powerful climate for student learning, at home and in school, experts say.

Many schoolteachers and principals however, view the ``new parent'' with alarm. In general terms, educators are not opposed to the apple-pie idea of parent involvement. (Teachers have complained of the lack of it for years.) But increased ``parent power'' threatens the professionalism and ``expert status'' many teachers have been working for.

Research at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, shows that teachers and administrators feel parents have a role in helping children with homework and in maintaining discipline, and that they think parents should attend school functions. But the study indicated that parents want to do more - from working as classroom assistants to serving on school advisory committees (opposed by a majority of those administrators questioned).

In some cases, tensions run high. In Chicago, for example, the school board voted down the parents' proposed budget at 43 schools, as well as a proposal for funds for schoolbooks and supplies - while at the same time voting to expand the central office staff, already up by more than 300 positions in two years.

``There's a lot of lip service given to parent involvement, but not much actual interest,'' says Ms. Gallay.

Even at the simple level of parent-teacher interaction, improvement is needed, experts say. A recent national poll reported that 60 percent of all parents said no teacher had ever called them about their children's schoolwork.

Such evidence leads parent Barbara Zohn, incoming president of the Minnesota Parent-Teacher Association, to say that if public schools don't improve their outreach, parents will end up taking their business elsewhere.

In a recent Minnesota report about improving teacher education, Ms. Zohn says, none of the 37 most important skills listed included ``learning how to work with parents.'' She also notes the tendency to excuse lack of teacher outreach as a result of ``burnout, low pay, and poor working conditions,'' but when parents don't get involved it's always because ``they don't care.''

Still, US parents on the whole have a long way to go. The average mother spends only a half an hour a day talking with or reading to her children; fathers, less than 15 minutes.

Groups such as the National Council for Citizens in Education advocate restoring incentives in the federal government's $4.1 billion Chapter 1 remedial education program for disadvantaged youth, to include parents in schooling.

Currently, policy is governed by the assumption that student success is tied to income, family education, and culture. But research at the University of Wisconsin comparing high-achieving and low-achieving students from poor, black families found that the parents of the better students monitored their children's progress and consistently set high goals.

On a different but related tack, University of Chicago researcher James Coleman found that Roman Catholic schools do a better job of helping low-income minority students get to college, ``not because they offer better education, but because they have a much closer relationship to the families they serve.''

Effective schools pay close attention to their welcoming policy for parents, PTA conferences, report card presentation, and outreach.

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