A Downside to Reading to Your Child?

featured on the Learning First Alliance website, May 30, 2014

Sometimes it seems like parents just can’t win. Now they’re being blamed for their children’s education failures because they help with homework! So suggests a new study by Keith Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke, as highlighted by The New York Times on April 12, 2014.

It is well-documented that research can be used to prove almost anything. That’s the feeling I had recently when the Robinson/Harris study on parent involvement was released. Research often exists at 30,000 feet and sometimes does not seem to connect with real people on the ground. While this study identifies ways that parent involvement possibly does and does not work, unfortunately the message and the headline are that parent involvement doesn’t count.

Having helped shepherd two children through the public school system, I can’t quite grasp the findings of this study that being involved in their schools, being involved in how they behaved, and making sure homework got done could all actually have hindered their education. And all that time, I thought I was being a good parent!

The Robinson/Harris study looked at various actions of parents, mostly in the home setting, in relation to their children’s education and then tied those actions to their impact on test scores. While correlations can be made, this aspect of the study overlooked a lot. It left out the direct actions parents can take at school (as opposed to home) to impact overall student achievement (as opposed to only standardized test scores.)

I believe there are two distinct and separate sets of actions that parents can and should take in relation to their children’s education. The first set of actions involves what they do with their children at home. Since the starting point of a child’s education is to be in school, both on time and with good attendance patterns, parents are already in the game on this one. It has long been recognized that reading aloud at home to children has a positive impact on their lives, academically but in all sorts of other ways as well. So it’s mind-boggling to learn from this study that regularly reading to elementary school children appears to benefit reading achievement for white and Hispanic children but contributes to lower reading achievement for black children. As a parent, I talked with my children about school and what it meant to get an education, and as far as I can tell, it was received in a positive way and helped create good attitudes and excitement about school. But it turns out that this study found that such conversation actually proved to be negative for test scores in reading for black children and for both reading and math for white children during elementary school.

The study found that when parents regularly helped their children with homework, they actually performed worse and that this was true across the board for all social classes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and grade levels.  Could any of it have been influenced by whether or not teachers were giving appropriate and effective homework that supported the child’s learning at school? Maybe there are parents whose own education level does not allow them to be effective at helping their children with homework. But should parents just plain ignore a child’s homework requirement?

One of the findings of the study suggests that some forms of parental involvement do have a positive impact but that others actually lead to lower student achievement and academic performance. It’s hard not to see this as another way of actually blaming parents when their children fail. And parents are one of the most popular scapegoats around. Usually, parents are criticized for not being involved enough in their children’s education. Now they are being told that their involvement can actually hurt their children’s chances for a good education. To be fair, the study does say what parents can do that works: Have expectations for college attendance, discuss activities your children can engage in at school, and request a particular teacher for your child. The main thing recommended is for parents to communicate the real value of schooling and education but to do so in ways other than the conventional checking in with teachers and attending PTA events. All in all, it seems to be pretty much hands off after that.

The second set of actions that parents can take involves direction interaction with their children’s schools. Many of the things addressed in the study are actually parenting techniques. What is not addressed, and what is strikingly absent, is what parents can do that impacts the quality of their children’s schools, which in turn impacts their children and all children. Parents who are truly engaged recognize that they can hold schools accountable for providing a quality education and that they can then partner with schools to achieve that. Parents can insist that they have opportunities to connect positively with their children’s schools and teachers in ways that directly improve student achievement. That means much more than helping with a bake sale. It means attending a “math night” at school, where they can learn about their children’s curriculum and how they can encourage their children’s learning. It means advocating for after-school programs, tutoring, and other resources that help children succeed. It means learning to read and interpret accountability data, not just for standardized state tests, but for the entire array of academic indicators, so that parents understand how their children’s school is performing and then insist on improvement.  And finally, it is parents who can best advocate for the public’s support of public schools, making sure that schools are adequately funded and that class sizes are reasonable.

There are actually other bodies of research that have very different findings, notably research by Karen Mapp and Anne Henderson, and the book Beyond the Bake Sale. They and others have shown that a high and appropriate level of parent engagement increases attendance rates, homework completion, positive behavior, grades and graduation. Indicators like these show that there is much to consider beyond standardized test scores and that parents can help keep their children in school all the way to graduation. This actually ties in to the Robinson/Harris study that parents can talk to their children about the importance of education and can set high expectations for them.

So parents, if you are reading to your children, getting to know their teachers, and making sure they get their homework done one way or the other, don’t feel too guilty. Surely these things will not destroy their chance for a good education. And while it is recognized that parents are awfully busy these days, don’t forget that it is you and you alone who can demand that your children have great teachers and schools. Don’t think for a minute that in the best schools in America, parents are absent. In these schools, you will find parents who are actively engaged and partnering with educators for the very best education for their children. That is a big part of why these are great schools. Being involved at that level is perhaps the greatest contribution you can make to your children’s education!