Understanding the Times

Understanding the Times

Parents as partners, not just supporters.

We all sing the praises of parent involvement as an essential ingredient to increased achievement for students; yet in most school districts it's cultivated at only the lowest levels. We want parents to come to the ball games, school concerts, school plays and awards assemblies. But, do we really want them sitting in on classes or debating the merits of the curriculum? It doesn't seem so.

Instead, we invite them to an "open house" where parents can learn about their child's teachers and classes. But these are mostly one-way "presentations" to parents, designed not to elicit comments or discussion. Typically parents follow their child's schedule through a series of five- to 10-minute classes where teachers quickly present a class overview, generally putting more focus on their expectations of appropriate student behavior than on academic achievement. Important expectations such as, "students must come to my class with a three-ringed notebook, pencil and positive attitude" are communicated and parents are admonished to "get involved" by reinforcing at home the importance of following teachers' rules.

Concerning the curriculum, teachers-who are understandably nervous in these meet-the-parents settings-too often lace their presentations with educational jargon such as project-based, learner-centered, aligned with standards, and the scientific method. Parents-who are nervous, too, and don't want to appear educationally ignorant-rarely question these terms or challenge any aspect of the presentations. The primary outcome (and goal) of "open house" events is parent attendance. This isn't bad, but it is a low-level form of parent involvement.

Homework doesn't get a much higher grade. There's more pressure than ever to pile it on, and parents are being asked to make sure it is done. However, this does more to make parents into homework monitors than education partners, putting them in an administrative position. Every parent knows the routine. Set up a special homework spot, and then like clockwork switch from subject to subject until it's all done. Parents' primary job is to make sure homework is completed; another low-level form of involvement, and unfortunately one that can put them in more of an adversarial role than a collaborative one with their children.

Bloom's Taxonomy Revisited If we really want to improve parent involvement, we may benefit by modeling an approach after Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Bloom's objectives in the cognitive domain are defined concisely from lower order to higher order as: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Educators have long been exhorted to go beyond the lower levels such as knowledge, which Bloom defined by descriptors such as recalling, identifying, recording and labeling. They should reach the higher levels that call for cognitive activities such as constructing, illustrating, anticipating, collaborating, modeling, revising, validating, criticizing, establishing and defending. The idea, of course, is that involvement with the subject matter-and, in fact, learning-deepens as we progress from lower-level activities to higher-level ones.

What if we took the same approach to parental involvement in our schools? A taxonomy of parent involvement roles might include the following:

  • Supporter: attend athletic and arts events, visit open house, monitor homework
  • Advocate: participate in PTO, serve on building or school improvement committee, chaperone field trips and other school events
  • Partner: review curriculum objectives, occasionally sit in on child's class, participate in teacher/parent conferences
  • Developer: plan and conduct home activities that support the school curriculum, help to construct a neighborhood learning center staffed by volunteer parents.

These activities are just brainstorming examples of the types of activities that might be indicative of each level. It's easy to see that going beyond the supporter and advocate levels takes creativity and hard work, along with lots of determination and time, by both parents and school officials. But the benefits will justify the effort. Parental involvement is foundational to student success. (I'd love to hear your ideas, and especially your successes at the higher levels.)

It all starts with administrators asking themselves just how much they want parents involved.

Daniel E. Kinnaman, dkinnaman@promediagrp.com is publisher.


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