The findings, the latest from a longitudinal study of Pennsylvania students, suggest parents of different classes may teach their children very different approaches to navigating the school system and championing their own education, priming them for later academic challenges or success.
"What we see typically is, often those parents had problems themselves in school," said Sherri Wilson, the National PTA's senior manager of family and community engagement. As a result, "they are reluctant to ask for help from school themselves, and also they do not encourage their children to ask for help because they don't want to draw attention."
As part of an ongoing series of studies in an outlying suburb in Pennsylvania, sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco of Indiana University in Bloomington observed and interviewed 56 white students from 3rd through 5th grades and their working- and middle-class families and then conducted follow-up interviews when the students were in 7th grade.
Through observations of classroom interactions with teachers, and interviews with the students and their parents, the researcher tracked students' confidence and their ability to seek help from teachers, clarify assignments or concepts they didn't understand, and resolve problems around academic issues—what Ms. McCrory Calarco called educational advocacy.
"I find that although both middle-class and working-class parents teach children skills for negotiating with institutional authorities on their own behalf, the nature and content of these lessons varies along social class lines," she said. "Whereas middle-class parents stress the development of children's self-advocacy skills, working-class parents instead emphasize skills for problem-avoidance."
While the study is small, its findings build on studies suggesting that students' ability to seek help and successfully navigate the school system can make a big difference in their academic achievement.
For example, Stuart A. Karabenick, a research professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found that students who sought help appropriately were more likely to try to master educational content, rather than simply trying to pass a given test—a mind-set associated with both better academic and life achievement.
In addition, research by special education professors David W. Test and Catherine H. Fowler, both of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, found that students who participated in programs that improved their help-seeking and advocacy skills became more engaged and better-behaved in school.
Ms. McCrory Calarco found that the middle-class parents often engaged in role-playing to help their children practice asking for help, but did not – as commonly thought – swoop in to "save" the student from problems in school.
"That was one of the most surprising findings," Calarco said. "They recognize, and many of them actively resisted, the 'helicopter parent' stereotypes, but they wanted to equip their students with very important skills to know how to get help at school." By contrast, working-class parents stressed respect for the teacher and directed their children to solve problems on their own; they did not encourage students to ask for help or discuss questions with the teacher, Calarco found.
For example, the study describes a single father, "Mr. Graham," who tells his daughters to ask classmates but not their teacher for help when they don't understand an assignment. He recalled his own childhood experience with a teacher who yelled at the class for questioning an assignment.
"Unfortunately, it seemed very much like a cycle," Calarco said. "It almost seemed he wished there could be a different relationship for his children, but... he thought that would be unlikely."
Schools can play a role in helping students feel comfortable asking for help and discussing academic issues, the study suggests.
Calarco found students whose teachers approached them directly and clearly explained how to ask for help were more comfortable discussing problems.
In spring 2008, Terry Simpson, a special education teacher at Windsor High School in Windsor, Colo., launched a class called Learning and Educating About Disabilities, or LEAD. Advocacy lessons in the class, originally just for special education students, were soon after included in a transition class for all incoming freshmen.
"My role is encouraging and actively teaching how to be assertive versus aggressive, and what is your purpose in advocating for yourself," Ms. Simpson said.
Yet Calarco said educators alone can't ensure students will know how to advocate for what they need, particularly if they come from backgrounds that discourage asking for help. "It seems as though even if you are taught those skills at school, it's not going to work if it's not reinforced at home by the parents," she said.
That's why the National PTA takes a different tack. The group has just completed the initial three-year cycle of its Urban Family Engagement Network, which trained 750 parents in nine cities—Albuquerque, N.M., Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, Philadelphia, and the Queens borough of New York—on how to seek help from schools and work with them on school policies.
Parents attend training outside of schools—in a housing-project recreation room or a community center, for example—on their legal rights and responsibilities with regard to their children's education and ways they can work with teachers and administrators. Ms. Wilson said the program is starting a new three-year cycle and evaluation with the original and eight new cities to be selected this fall.
"We teach parents advocacy skills so that they feel comfortable going into school and advocating on behalf of their kids," she said. "Our belief is that once they have that skill set for themselves, parents will feel more comfortable teaching their children how to do that."