Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Lack of Parent Engagement Helps Create Failing Schools

Who is more at fault, teachers or parents?

For the first time in history, a generation of American students will be less well-educated than their parents. Teachers are getting the blame. In the current dialogue and debate about how to make our schools better, not much is being said about disengaged parents. While teachers have become the scapegoats for America's failing schools, maybe it's time to shine the light on parents.

Blaming the Teachers

Not only are teachers being vilified, they are being punished. We're cutting their pay, firing them, denying new textbooks, dictating new curricula, increasing class size, demanding longer hours, requiring high-stakes testing, making teachers teach to the test or face retribution, closing schools, reassigning teachers arbitrarily, taking away their pensions, criticizing their training, and both degrading and grading them.

Last week the National Education Association shifted its position and for the first time is advocating using student learning to assess teachers–great idea except there are no clearly reliable and valid measures of student learning. Some places are even having students grade the teachers as part of teacher assessment.

Since research shows that the parent is even more important to student success in school than teacher quality, should teachers be grading parents instead?

Disheartening Statistics

Among the nations of the world, the U.S. ranks 14th in science, 17th in reading, and 25th in math. Yet one still reads about immigrants giving up their previous jobs as professors and accountants to move to the U.S. and drive cabs–this, so their children have a chance at the American dream. Those parents get it. But other statistics on American parents' investment in their child's education have been disheartening:

  • Nearly one-third of students say their parents have no idea how they are doing in school.
  • About one-sixth of all students report that their parents don't care whether they make good grades in school or not.
  • Only about one-fifth of parents consistently attend school programs.
  • More than 40 percent never do.

(From Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do by Lawrence Steinberg, pages 19-20)

Real Stories From the Front Line

I asked my teacher friend, Will McIntyre, who has a 25-year career and currently teaches in a typical American high school in one of the nation's 10 largest districts, about the parents in his school. He rolled his eyes and had plenty to say. His observations supported the disturbing statistics cited above: "Parents don't read at home. They buy the kids iPods, expensive phones, and all kinds of electronic gadgets, but few parents are modeling reading. Even the kids on free lunch somehow find the money for a three hundred dollar iPhone, but not a free library card or an eReader."

His biggest concern was that too many parents are disengaged, and he could cite example after example. Few parents show up at open house or communicate with teachers unless there is a problem. Even though his high school provides electronic access to grade books and daily assignments, half of the parents rarely use it. One father whose 12th-grade daughter had a 1.4 grade point average complained to the counselor that he had "no idea" that his daughter was not on track to graduate. The father was shocked to learn that graduation required a 2.0 grade point average. "I don't have time to use online parental academic review," the father complained, "and she refuses to show me her report cards." How is that an option in any home?

My teacher friend went on to say: "In my suburban high school of twenty-two hundred students, the typical yearly Open House/Back to School Night only brings in 10 percent of the parents. Students who are in academic jeopardy seem to have the parents who are less likely to attend. We made the mistake of scheduling one parent meeting during the American Idol Finals–roughly two dozen of the 500 invitees attended."

Tips for Engaging Parents

Maybe schools need to be more aggressive in communicating to parents the importance of parent engagement, including what the school expects of the parent. A state representative in Florida actually filed a bill in 2011 that would have required PreK-3 elementary school teachers across the state to grade parents based on the quality of their involvement in their children's schools. A parent grade of "satisfactory," "needs improvement," or "unsatisfactory" would have appeared on the child's report card rated in four categories. Did these parents communicate with teachers, attend meetings, help their children complete homework and prepare for tests, pay attention to absentee and tardy rates, and send kids to school rested and well-nourished? We don't know. The bill didn't pass.

Grading parents may be heavy-handed and a little harsh. In place of a parent report card, here are tips to encourage parents to be more involved in their child's schooling.

  • Teach your preschooler to read before entering school.
  • Team with the school, be an advocate for your child, and monitor your child's progress.
  • Praise your child's effort (not achievement); celebrate success.
  • Have heart-to-heart discussions at home about successes and/or problems in school.
  • Investigate your child's academic problems before assigning blame.
  • When possible, encourage and/or help with homework and encourage your child to prepare for tests.
  • Get to know your child's teachers.
  • Pay attention to your child's absentee and tardy rates.
  • Make school a priority.
  • Discuss realistic long-term school and life goals.

Parents who back their children make a difference in school success by helping develop an appropriate mindset, motivation, and self-discipline at school. Disengaged parents promote school failures and are helping create a generation of children who are less well-educated than they are.

(For a research synthesis and excellent commentary on this topic see Richard Rothstein's essay, "How to Fix the Schools.")

I am the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Baby to Age 7. Available on Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.