Friday, June 27, 2014

Parents, stay involved in teaching, learning, schools...please.

Lots of teeth have been gnashing over parent involvement in schools (or is it homework, or is it...?).  Marilyn Price-Mitchell does a nice job of evaluating the currently vogue notion that getting involved in your child’s education isn’t as helpful as you think it is.  I only add some variation to her observations.
Keith Robinson and Angel Harris started the recent conflagration, first with their book, Broken Compass, then with opinion pieces in various leading newspapers--or the NYT, at least.   There they opined that parental involvement does not educationally benefit children as much as we all presume.  Their research showed that very few and very specific types of involvement were helpful to academic performance; namely, clear expectations about college attendance, general conversation with children about what they’re doing in school and requesting a particular teacher were the only engagement that proved universally worthwhile.
“What should parents do?  They should set the stage and then leave it,” Robinson and Harris conclude.  Their findings appear reasonable, based as they are on copious data.  But taking a different angle on these issues, their conclusions are less compelling. 
Following the predominant fad of relying on econometrically ordered data, Robinson and Harris show, for instance, that helping your child with homework doesn’t raise her/his standardized test score.  Neither does conferencing with the principal and the teachers.
Undoubtedly, the statistical correlations are clear.  The problem is that raising standardized test scores may not be the only, or even the best, reason to help your child with homework.  Supporting your student’s effort to grasp concepts and practice skills—which may or may not be relevant to the standardized test—are important, too.  
Further, my own research, as well as experience in the class room, call into question whether standardized tests really measure all of what we want youngsters to be learning and doing in school.  To put it bluntly, standardized tests can be gamed, making them more a test of how well the student tests, and less an assessment of how a student is performing in the wide range of academic activities s/he’s undertaking.
Each spring, I show my 8th graders how to answer multiple choice reading comprehension questions on Washington state’s annual test, the Measurement of Student Progress, without even reading the passage.  The class average consistently exceeds 5 correct out of 8 (where we would assume roughly 2 correct, based on random guessing).  Improvement on standardized tests, to be sure, is one measure of performance, but it may be less useful than we think or hope.
As for conferencing with school staff, Robinson and Harris are undoubtedly right—those conferences often contribute little to immediate student improvement, but not for the reasons the authors imply.  Most such meetings are for students who aren’t doing very well.  This “intervention,” in other words, is taken with a non-random sample of students.  And, yes, each individual conference often means little, as they are an inadequate response to underlying academic problems, undertaken with low expectations for success in the immediate term.  
But intervention must start somewhere, and every teacher has been thoroughly discouraged with a student only to see him/her completely transformed two or three years later.  I’ve seen plenty of students whose repeated conferencing with my colleagues and me did little, but as time granted greater maturity to these youngsters, they blossomed into well-functioning students.  Who’s to say that those several frustrating conferences in one grade weren’t important for the later development of that student?  But identifying variables and disaggregating competing causes in an econometric analysis of this effect will be much more complicated and nebulous than the more direct connections Robinson and Harris evaluated.
Ultimately, the admonition to “set the stage and then leave it” is somewhat dubious, mostly because “setting the stage” remains so abstract as to be meaningless.  Just what would stage-setting involve?  When?  More to the point, what is the advice to individual parents when Robinson and Harris’ findings are based on large demographic categorizations? 
Increasing brain science and education research both demonstrate that the stage that needs the most setting is the early years, before school age.  Children who have more verbal interactions with a caring adult in the first 12 months, for instance, show better academic performance later.  This and other early developmental patterns may confound later statistical correlations that Robinson and Harris report.
But causal and correlational difficulties notwithstanding, let’s grant Robinson and Harris their point—that parent involvement may not cause better student performance, or at least higher test scores.  Parent involvement has important benefits, however, beyond the individual effects for parents’ own children, benefits for the school as an organization and a community.
As the regulation of schools moves further up the bureaucratic hierarchy and farther away from local participants—including parents, the legal and institutional requirements get more intensive but less concretely useful in class rooms. This bureaucratization serves to ‘tighten’ the organizational environment, thereby increasing the risk of what sociologist Charles Perrow called normal accidents—predictable system failure arising out of the very complexity of that system.  The increasing governmental management and concomitant decreased local involvement, in other words, makes it more likely that schools as organizations will ‘fail’ to meet their goals.

The antidote to this dysfunction is local engagement, part of which includes parent involvement.  Volunteering at school, or conferencing with the teachers may be part of this, but other forms and patterns of local participation matter just as much or more.  

Robinson and Harris are correct that government programs intended to stimulate parent engagement amount to little, but, again, for different reasons than they posit.  Local activity must arise from the natural, and informal, impulses of the participants, not from a government mandate or program.
What does this local involvement look like?  Story nights--coordinated by parents and teachers, in which students present their work; parent engagement in discussion about curriculum adoption (which requires an administrative culture open to this); volunteerism to support students in need, not just one’s own children; annual student-led conferences with parents and teachers, or anything that causes parents, staff and students to work together are all examples of the collaborative and relational work that makes for more effective functioning of a school as organization.  When this kind of engagement happens, tasks get done, trust increases, and relationships grow better and richer.  
Teaching and learning, after all, are about relationships.  Engaged collaborative parent involvement is a relational tonic for the souls (of teachers, administrators, parents and students) wearied by the bureaucratic reality of school.
Oh yeah, you can get more on this by clicking those links over to the right...The Normal Accident Theory of Education stuff.

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