Parents' Engagement in Their Children's Education

Two nights ago, I attended a meeting of the Title I Parents Advisory Committee of Fairfax County Public Schools. Title I schools in the United States are schools that have at least 40 percent of its students qualifying for either free or reduced-price lunch. Title I schools are provided additional funds by the federal government to help address the academic achievement gap based on family income. The main topic of that evening's meeting is parent engagement, as numerous studies have shown, parent engagement correlates with succesful academic outcomes. One issue raised in that meeting is the difference between parent's involvement and engagement. A large percentage of students' parents often come to school events such as Bingo Night, Talent Shows, Multicultural Dinner, and other social gatherings but when it comes to meetings of Parents Teachers Associations, the attendance is usually low. To analyze the relationship between what a parent does and how a student performs in school also requires a channel that is academic in nature. Engagement as the word connotes involves establishing a relationship. This relationship is between the parents and their children's teachers, working as partners to support learning inside the classroom.

Ferlazzo at Educational Leadership zeroes in on this distinction:
A school striving for family involvement often leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute. A school striving for parent engagement, on the other hand, tends to lead with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about. The goal of family engagement is not to serve clients but to gain partners.
One example I shared in the meeting was how the elementary school my children attend decided what to do with homework. There were meetings held between parents and school staff to arrive at the decision of removing homework, and instead, simply focusing on daily leisure reading, and spending time with family. This is clearly an example where parents are given the opportunity to be heard on a matter that is clearly academic in nature.

Above copied from

Aside from having so many opportunities for parents to be involved and not so much for parents to be engaged, there is the nagging problem of parents simply not engaging in their children's education. This, of course, is not attributed to parents simply not caring about their children's learning, but more on obstacles or circumstances. The graph shown above says a lot about which parents are engaging and which ones are not. Clearly, parental educational attainment correlates with a parent's participation in a child's education. And as mentioned at the beginning of this post, parents tend to attend events that are not necessarily linked to the academic mission of the school. What is much more alarming is that a parent's participation dramatically drops in both middle and high schools:

Percentage of Students in Grades K-12 Whose Parents
Reported Involvement in Their Child's School, by Type of Involvement and Selected Characteristics: 2016¹
Attended general meeting Attended scheduled parent-teacher conference Attended school or class event Volunteered or served on a committee
Total 89 78 79 43
         K - 2nd grade 91 92 85 56
     3rd - 5th grade 92 90 84 51
         6th - 8th grade 90 73 76 35
     9th - 12th grade 82 58 73 32
Household poverty status
     At or above FPL 90 78 83 47
     Below FPL 81 75 62 27
Parents' language
     Both/only parent(s) speak(s) English 90 79 82 46
     One of two parents speaks English 86 74 71 38
     No parent speaks English 81 68 62 25
1Estimates are from questions asked to parents about the 2015-16 school year.
Note: Since the focus of this report is on how students’ parents interact with schools, homeschoolers are excluded from all of the analyses.
Source: McQuiggan, M. & Megra, M. (2017). Parent and family involvement in education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016  (NCES 2017-102) [Table 2], Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.  Retrieved from

The decrease in parent's engagement in middle school and high school is only expected as teachers are now handling specific subjects unlike in elementary where there is one teacher assigned to one classroom for most subjects. It is indeed more difficult to establish a working relationship when there are more than a handful of teachers working with one's child. Nonetheless, research still shows that a parent's engagement still influences student learning outcomes beyond grade school. Hill and Tyson have done a meta-analytical assessment on studies done on this topic. And they find that, as expected, it still depends on what the parent does. Helping with homework apparently hurts and what matters apparently is what Hill and Tyson call "academic socialization". The following is their definition of "academic socialization":

For early adolescence, parental involvement may entail communicating parental expectations for education and its value or utility, linking schoolwork to current events, fostering educational and occupational aspirations, discussing learning strategies with children, and making preparations and plans for the future—that is, academic socialization.

For any parent who wants to contribute positively to his or her child's education, it is important to be equipped with both tools and opportunities. A parent who is not aware of what his or her child is currently studying cannot possibly link schoolwork to current events, its value or utility. Obviously, not all parents are likewise competent enough to provide "academic socialization". These by the way point not just to challenges but also opportunities for teachers and school administrators. It cannot be overemphasized that education must be lifelong. Adults need education and training. In addition, teachers can likewise work toward giving their students occasions to explore how their education relates to real life. I remember one day I spent in my child's elementary school during which I share with fifth grade children what I do as a chemist. With me on that day were representatives from other professions. It was a "career day" and it opens the eyes of students to what their future may hold. Here in fact is an illustration that parent's engagement does not really need to be required of every parent. One parent's engagement can lift more than one child.

Parent's engagement in a child's education does require a lot of listening. Needs can not be met without knowing what these are first. Like any relationship, it cannot be dictated but only planted and cultivated.