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Inflated Research Claims Can Harm Children

Why “parental involvement” is not a “broken compass.”

Father reading to children
In our fame-seeking and data-driven world, the most outrageous claims made by “experts,” bloggers, and researchers often gain the most media attention. That’s because they create controversy that is widely disseminated on social media. In turn, controversy builds audiences and sells publications.     

One case in point that recently sent shivers down my spine involved two articles that tout recent research and a new book, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education by Keith Robinson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and Angel L. Harris, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at Duke University. 

First, an article was published by The Atlantic in March 2014, entitled Don’t Help Your Kids with Their Homework, written by journalist Dana Goldstein. Without a single challenge to the research itself, Goldstein proclaimed that Robinson and Harris had “largely disproved” the assumption that “close relationships between parents and schools improve student achievement.” Really? 

Goldstein’s article generated over 54,000 shares on Facebook, several thousand tweets, and lots of conversation. As I read through numerous comments and tweets about the article, it was plain to see how many readers accepted the research at face value, even thinking it was revolutionary. Others asked challenging questions. 

This weekend, an article was published in the New York Times by Robinson and Harris entitled Parental Involvement Is Overrated.  In this article, the authors concluded that their extensive longitudinal study suggested parental involvement in education has little effect on academic achievement. They asked, “What should parents do?” They answered, “They should set the stage and then leave it.”   

According to the New York Times article, Robinson and Harris statistically analyzed 30 years of longitudinal surveys that contained demographic information on family ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and academic outcomes from K-12 children. Then they compared that data to 63 different forms of what they termed “parental involvement.” 

The results? They found little data to suggest parental involvement of any kind helped kids achieve greater overall test scores. In fact, they found a myriad of conflicting data suggesting parental involvement affected kids from different cultures and grade levels differently.    

I must admit these two articles provoked me to scrutinize Robinson and Harris’ research. Why? Because when researchers use “big data” to draw simple conclusions that can potentially harm children, I think we all need to model the art of positive skepticism.   

Comments to the New York Times article were greeted with such skepticism. Some that resonated with me included:

  • “Stupid generalizations.”
  • “No one should be surprised that baking cupcakes for the PTA/PTO sales does not affect student performance.”
  • “An interesting and flawed conclusion.”
  • “Parental involvement isn't compartmentalized in a way that would allow research to separate some things from all other things and study their effects in isolation.” 

Unraveling the Broken Compass Theory 

As a researcher and self-professed skeptic, I am not surprised with the outcomes of Robinson and Harris’ study. What does surprise me is how these researchers could come to the conclusion that what they were measuring was significant and ground-breaking. And more importantly, how could they claim that one research study could disprove decades of research by literally thousands of scholars. In addition to my disappointment with how and why the research was conducted, it also brought up important issues that must be addressed if children of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are to succeed: 

  • What do we mean by “parental involvement?” This term, used by Robinson and Harris, is considered by most to be out of touch with current scholarly work in the field. The term “family engagement” much better represents the systemic, interconnected ways current researchers view the important role families play in education. The idea that we cannot isolate and measure each form of engagement (as Robinson and Harris did) is supported by hundreds of studies. A whole-systems approach to family engagement is championed by educational leaders, including the Harvard Family Research Project, the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, and the new professional association, National Partnership for Family, School, and Community Engagement.

  • How do we measure success?  Robinson and Harris’ research measured children’s success by test scores alone. We seem to be stuck in this mindset of measuring success quantitatively and it is a mindset that is harming our children. There is a plethora of research that supports the notion that success is much more than grades and test scores. In The Fallacy of Good Grades, I elaborate on how grades are only one measure of success and how internal strengths are far more important to life success and well-being. When it comes to developing these strengths, the partnerships that parents and teachers form is invaluable. This has been demonstrated in many studies, including the latest brain research on how relationships stimulate neuroplasticity that, in turn, stimulate learning for teachers, parents, and students. 

While the goals of family engagement in education have been tested, scrutinized, and questioned over the past several decades, that is precisely the role of good scholarship. In fact, my own peer-reviewed article Boundary Dynamics: Implications for Building Parent-School Partnerships, published by the School Community Journal in 2009, challenged the often narrow way we look at “parental involvement.” But when scholarship erodes to making claims unsupported by existing evidence, I begin to worry about the impact on children. 

Of course, there are kernels of learning in all research studies. And while I believe this study’s methodology and conclusions are flawed, there are outcomes that deserve discussion and further study. For example, the issue of parental involvement in homework is a valid and important one that continues to be studied by researchers. We know that parents help their children for a variety of reasons and that it yields mixed findings when correlated to test scores. Robinson and Harris’ research contributed to this body of knowledge. 

The goal for any kind of parental involvement must be to improve learning, not test scores. When parents help facilitate learning, children thrive in school. When they try to improve children’s test scores, the results are less optimal. 

The bottom line for parents and educators is this: The family engagement compass is still evolving but it is certainly NOT broken! Let’s not be so quick to reject several decades of scholarly wisdom when researchers discover a few flawed aspects of “parental involvement” that need to be further understood and refined. 

Instead, let’s move forward with building family-school partnerships for the 21st century. Together, we will continue to learn what works best for individual students and how all of us nurture children and teens who thrive in school and life.

Author 

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadershipeducation, and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.  

Follow Marilyn at Roots of ActionTwitter, or Facebook 

©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint. 

Photo Credit: Cathy Yeulet

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and researcher in the field of positive youth development and youth civic engagement.

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