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Lessons—Schools Can Use Help Teaching Parents to Get Involved

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON AUGUST 7, 2002 ]

Schools can use help teaching parents to get involved

By  Richard Rothstein

Austin, Tex. — Some students fail in school because their parents participate too little in their learning. Many educators strive to get parents involved, but the task may be beyond the capacity of schools acting alone.

That is why work of the Industrial Areas Foundation is worth watching. Started in 1940 by Saul Alinsky, the foundation organized community groups that forced officials in Baltimore, Chicago and Rochester to improve housing and public services. In the early 1980′s, a new leader, Ernesto Cortes, began to focus on schools here in Texas.

Mr. Cortes saw that it was not enough for teachers to raise their standards for low-income and minority pupils. Parents must also spur children to achieve, see that homework is done and stretch children’s reasoning skills in conversation at home. Parents can make college a goal but also need to check whether students are taking the courses that make them eligible.

Poorly educated parents, including many Hispanic immigrants, have an added disadvantage if they give teachers undue deference. Such parents not only don’t know what to ask but may think that questioning teachers is disrespectful.

Middle-class parents typically demand explanations from teachers when their children’s grades are low. If students slack off, teachers expect such parents to help. But when schools ask for similar aid from low-income and immigrant parents, the pleas may fail if parents see education as only the teacher’s job, not their own.

In Northern cities, tactics of the Industrial Areas Foundation were often confrontational. In its Texas school campaigns, raucous public demonstrations, threats of boycotts, and political mobilization have forced districts to reduce some class sizes and add some health clinics and after-school programs. But most of the group’s work in education is now collaborative. The state gives special grants to schools in the foundation’s network, and each school has a paid community organizer, called a parent support specialist, on its staff.

Maria Teresa Flores is one, at Ridgetop Elementary School in Austin, where many parents speak little English. Mrs. Flores leads teachers and community volunteers in walks around the neighborhood, soliciting parents’ views on how to improve Ridgetop and often prompting parents by describing problems already cited by others. Before parents meet with teachers or the principal, Mrs. Flores puts the parents through a dry run. She explains what report cards mean and what questions parents should ask if their children’s test scores are low.

After a teacher retired last year, Mrs. Flores prepared 15 parents to meet with the principal, Julie Pryor. The parents had complained that the retiree had followed an uneven discipline policy. In the meeting, the parents won a pledge that they would be consulted in the choice of a new teacher, to ensure that classroom rules would be consistent.

Mrs. Pryor noted that in her own child’s school, she and other middle-class parents never hesitate to question teachers, and don’t fear arrest or deportation if they do. But Ridgetop parents had such fears before they were organized by the foundation and by the priests and other volunteers who are the group’s local leaders.

The transformation of immigrants into self-confident citizens, conscious of both rights and responsibilities in schools, has taken several generations for other ethnic groups that came to the United States without strong commitments to education. In Texas, Mr. Cortes’s group has tried to compress the process into a single generation. The work costs a lot — including state money for schools in the network, district pay for parent organizers, dues from churches and other organizations to local umbrella groups, and uncounted hours of volunteers’ time.

All of this succeeds when a supportive principal like Mrs. Pryor combines with parents who have natural leadership ability and with teachers who appreciate the benefits of time-consuming collaboration with parents. If one of these elements disappears, the organization wanes and must then be rebuilt.

The payoff for parent involvement may take years. So far, test scores at schools in the foundation’s network have not surpassed those at comparable schools, perhaps because most Texas scores have been rising and it is hard to distinguish where parental support has been a cause. The motivation pupils gain from having parents and teachers collaborate may ultimately show up in other ways, like rising graduation or college enrollment rates.

Even if organizing parents is effective, it is so time consuming that it cannot be a panacea for low achievement. The work of Mr. Cortes and his colleagues serves as a reminder that calls for parent involvement mean little if parents lack the skills for effective participation.

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