With schools increasingly held accountable for the performance of every student, the demand to partner with parents has intensified. School plays and fundraisers supported by moms, dads, and grandparents are still staples of American public schools. But in the spirit of "it takes a village," families now might find such activities paired with a workshop on test-prep or a briefing on how to read state accountability reports.
When "no child left behind" became the mantra of federal education officials five years ago, it was touted as a way to empower parents to ensure their children received a good education. If schools are chronically failing academically, children can receive tutoring or transfer. But there have been barriers to parents taking advantage of those offers. In 2003-04, only 1 percent of eligible students chose to transfer, and only 19 percent participated in supplemental services such as tutoring, according to a recent report by Appleseed, a nonprofit organization in Washington.
Such escape valves give parents leverage, but it's perhaps more important for family members to be brought in as allies as local schools plan improvement, experts say.
"The revolution of [the No Child Left Behind Act] is it really institutionalized parent involvement in schools in a way that says, 'Your contribution is more than just sending your kids and baking cookies,' " says Edwin Darden, director of education policy at Appleseed. But, he adds, "there's a long way to go in terms of parents really understanding fully what the rights and the opportunities are of No Child Left Behind." The vision of the law, the group reported, "remains unfulfilled."
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) actually requires schools that need improvement to inform and involve parents in their strategies, but federal and state monitors haven't been paying much attention to that part of the law, says Anne Henderson, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and coauthor of "Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships."
Parents tend to have widely varied interactions with school staff, partly because of factors such as their socioeconomic background or ability to speak English, Ms. Henderson says. For white, middle-class parents, it's generally easier to walk into a school and advocate for a child to take particular classes to be on track for college. For low-income, less-educated families, "they don't know 'educationese'.... There are class and cultural differences that make it difficult for them to relate easily and comfortably to school staff – and school staff may look down on those families," she says.
When Baruti Kafele, principal of Newark Tech high school in New Jersey, hears educators lamenting that certain groups of parents just won't get involved, he tells them, "That is an excuse, and it is unacceptable."
The author of "A Black Parent's Handbook to Educating Your Children (Outside of the Classroom)," Mr. Kafele is often called upon to give talks to parents and educators. One creative solution he heard about at a school in Charlotte, N.C.: The staff took a bus tour of the communities the students live in, mostly impoverished areas where the teachers generally didn't venture. "Until you get into the community, you don't even know the child.... You can't fear the student, nor the community, nor the parent," he says.
Research shows that students do better when teachers and parents get past their misunderstandings and work together. Henderson mentions one study of schools with large portions of low-income students, for example, which found that when teachers did a three-part outreach – getting to know families, sending home assignments that parents could do with kids, and phoning routinely to talk about students' progress – there was a 40 to 50 percent faster rate of student improvement in reading and math.
Monique Taylor is the kind of parent who doesn't have much time to attend group meetings at school, but she appreciates that her daughter's teachers talk to her about any concerns.
"When she was kind of dropping in her reading, you know, they gave me a call, and between me and her teachers, we kept with her," she says as she's picking up her fifth-grade daughter, Amira Patterson, at the Maurice J. Tobin school in Boston. Soon mother and daughter will be attending orientation for a summer program that Amira's teachers suggested, to help the family plan for college.
Even this school, which tries hard to connect with parents, finds it difficult at times to keep them engaged in broader decisionmaking, say staff members who attend a monthly parent-council meeting at Tobin. About 15 parents usually attend, but on this frigid February night, the staff sat for nearly an hour munching on a dinner that's provided, waiting in vain for any parent to show up.
A state legislator in Texas, frustrated by what he sees as parents' lack of engagement, is taking a hard-nosed approach. Rep. Wayne Smith (R) proposed a law recently that would fine parents for failing to show up at a parent-teacher conference without a legitimate excuse. Schools would have to send a certified letter proposing three dates for the meeting.
Organizations like the National PTA, on the other hand, prefer the carrot to the stick. It has designated this week as its second annual Take Your Family to School Week. Hundreds of parent-teacher associations responded with ideas ranging from a parent-teacher basketball match to parents shadowing their children in abbreviated classes.
One bright note as awareness on this issue grows: The percent of parents who participated in a general school meeting rose from 75 percent in 1993 to 85 percent in 2003, according to a recent report by the national Center for Education Statistics.
By the time students are in high school, it's particularly difficult to get parents to participate, says Michelle Walden, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Central High School in Capitol Heights, Md., a participant in the "family" week.
"A lot of the parents just truly don't know" of the activities going on, she says. Sometimes they refuse to be on e-mail lists because they're unsure what kind of e-mails they'll receive, or their kids forget to give them announcements. "A lot of them are kind of like, 'I don't get involved,' unless it relates directly to them," she says.
When it comes to giving parents options if schools are failing, one key is for them to receive clearer and more timely information.
The Appleseed study looked at reports on school performance that go out to parents and found "some that were, frankly, truly awful," Mr. Darden says; they were packed with statistics and jargon. "A parent shouldn't have to pick up the phone to ask someone to decode [the report]," he says.
Other reasons for low transfer and tutoring rates cited by various experts include a lack of better performing schools into which students could transfer; a strong desire to stay in neighborhood schools; and poor communication with parents about tutoring options.
The US Department of Education acknowledges the need for improvements in these areas. "There are about 1,800 schools today ... in this chronic underperformance category," said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in a conference call last month unveiling proposed changes to NCLB, which is up for reauthorization in Congress this year. "We all have to answer the question ... what are we gonna do about that? No Child Left Behind must be a promise that is lived out and met for these families."
Her proposals include providing more money for supplemental services for students who live in rural areas, have disabilities, or are learning English – three groups that have been particularly underserved. "Promise Scholarships" would give an additional $2,500 to $3,000 to eligible students to help them to transfer to better public schools (even outside their district) or private schools, or to receive intensive tutoring.
Federal education officials are planning to visit 14 districts to focus attention on parental involvement and supplemental services.
An independent bipartisan commission also released recommendations for improving NCLB this week. They include a requirement that public school districts create an office or designate a contact person for parents to talk with about options for their children.
Meanwhile, some grass-roots groups around the country have already been advocating for schools to do more to include parents in their decisionmaking. The Boston Parent Organizing Network, for example, lobbied for the district to hire a family coordinator for each school. Two years ago, 15 were hired, says assistant director Myriam Ortiz, but the group is still fighting for full implementation of the plan by bringing parents to every budget meeting to voice their demands.