Schools have the wrong idea about parental involvement

Jay Mathews
Columnist May 8, 2011

My first experience with the parental-involvement issue occurred in elementary school when I was 11. The PTA had a children’s Christmas party with a prize for best costume. After we paraded across the stage (I thought I was spectacular as a brightly decorated gift box), the judges asked that only those children who had made the costumes themselves remain.

I conceived the idea. I did much of the work. But my mother had helped me. Infuriated, I stepped off the stage.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

My second experience with this bias against parental assistance lasted a long time — my 27 years as a school dad, ending when my youngest child left for college. It was unsettling because, like that elementary school contest, the rules were often unwritten and affected one of the most stressful of parent-child issues: schoolwork.

It is getting worse as the anxiety over grading fairness and college admissions turns our high schools into cauldrons of distrust and envy. Remember the controversy over rules for Advanced Placement world history at Westfield High School? Students were barred from even discussing homework assignments with their parents. The teachers did not want some kids to have an unfair advantage. Some schools are keeping graded exams from going home in part because of the same mistrust of over-involved moms and dads.

I don’t think I was a helicopter parent, hovering over my kids. They usually insisted on doing their own work. But I sympathize with parents who want to help. I think our schools, and our culture, have the wrong attitude about parents who have skills and knowledge to share.

If I were a former college pitcher and spent time helping my daughter perfect her rhythm on the mound, would anyone object? No. I might even get an award from the little League if she got us to the finals.

But if my wife and I, both journalists, edited our children’s school essays, or if our Paris-born neighbors corrected all the errors in their children’s French homework, or if my cousin the trial lawyer prepped his daughter for her graded classroom debate in U.S. government, many people, including some well-meaning teachers, would say we were going over the line.

To them, school is not just a learning experience, but a competition. They have a point. Many people think a child’s life will be better if he gets into the University of Virginia rather than Virginia Commonwealth University. I don’t agree, but that is no comfort on the day your son finds a rejection on his password-protected page at the U-Va. admissions Web site, while his best friend celebrates getting in.

All parents have special talents of some kind. What should we do when attitudes and unwritten rules say we can’t use them to help our children in school? I suspect most of us get involved anyway, being careful not to write the essays or do the science fair project ourselves. We just teach, but we don’t talk about it.

Wouldn’t it be better for schools to examine more carefully how this emphasis on keeping a level playing field interferes with learning? If parents can’t make use of homework opportunities when their children are paying attention, they probably won’t get many other chances.

We should turn the discussion instead toward how to get more support for students who don’t have it at home — more tutors, more counselors. Why not find ways for teachers to be paid for spending extra time working on homework with students who need that?

In 2007, the National Survey of Student Engagement found that college students whose parents frequently intervened on their behalf “reported higher levels of engagement and more frequent use of deep learning experiences.” Helping your child learn should not be something shameful. Let’s say out loud that we are going to pass on what we know, no matter what anyone else thinks about it.

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