Room Parent. Classroom volunteer. Bingo night chairperson. Playground helper. Field trip chaperon. Although these and other volunteer jobs can be time-consuming, a large number of parents get involved in their child's elementary school education.
Take a look at a typical middle or high school, however, and a different parent involvement picture emerges. Few parents can be seen in the buildings' hallways and classrooms. Not many parents show up at the bus stop on a normal day. They don't regularly examine their child's backpack, know only a few of their child's friends and often may be hard-pressed to name all of their child's teachers.
The decline in parental involvement in middle and high schools is apparent in the Washington area and nationwide. A 2001 study by the Department of Education found that 88 percent of children in grades K-5 had a parent who attended at least one scheduled meeting with a teacher in 1999. That same year, only 70 percent of middle school students and 51 percent of high school kids had parents who attended such a meeting. The study also found that while 48 percent of children in grades K-5 had a parent who acted as a volunteer or served on a school committee, the figure dropped to 29 percent and 26 percent in high school.
Membership in parent-teacher associations also declines in middle school and high school. According to Diana Virijevich, membership director for the National PTA, based in Chicago, there are about 4.7 million PTA members at the elementary level, 1.25 million at the middle school level, and approximately 248,000 at the high school level.
Why the dramatic drop in involvement? Parents and educators point to a variety of explanations. Most obviously, adolescents do not want their parents to be as actively engaged in their schooling as younger children do. "In a normal and healthy relationship, teens consider parents annoying," said Steve Farkas, director of research at Public Agenda, a public opinion research organization in New York, and co-author of the 1999 report "Playing Their Parts: Parents and Teachers Talk About Parental Involvement in Public Schools."
In my own case, my middle and high school daughters, who once begged me to be a room parent, would likely be mortified if I appeared in class with them on a regular school day.
Setting aside the embarrassment factor, the Public Agenda study also found that as schoolwork gets harder parents believe they cannot be helpful with homework. As a result, they have less of an understanding of the curriculum and fewer discussions with students and teachers about it compared to when their kids were in elementary school. Many parents believe that by standing on the sidelines, they are helping their kids learn to handle schoolwork on their own. They view their declining involvement "as a mark of achievement, a goal to which they aspire," the study reported.
Parents are further cut out of the loop as many students stop bringing home school notices to parents. During the 2000-2001 school year, Iris Ioffreda, former PTA president at Gunston Middle School in South Arlington, helped conduct an informal poll of how many parents received the printed material that the school sends home via backpacks every Tuesday and found that only about half the parents ever saw it.
"The notices seemed to get lost in the kids' lockers or were used as paper airplanes, unlike the elementary school where kids would still bring them home," said Ioffreda, who also served as PTA president at Key Elementary School in North Arlington. At Gunston she found it harder to get volunteers for school committees and events than at Key, which she attributed in part to mothers returning to the workforce and thus having fewer daytime volunteer hours available. In addition, she said that middle school was larger and less personal than elementary school. "There is still a core group of committed parents, but it is significantly smaller," she said.
Finally, parental involvement declines in higher grades because of the structure of the school year. Unlike in elementary school, where children have one teacher all day each day, students in middle and high school have several teachers, the classes often don't meet every day, and there are usually no specially allocated days for parent-teacher conferences. Likewise, the schools rarely sponsor school daytime activities such as Halloween parades, Valentine's Day parties, or book fairs where parent attendance or participation is crucial.
Although the reasons for the decline in parental involvement are understandable, the evidence is clear that older children benefit when parents resist the temptation to disengage from the school. Some of the pluses include higher grades and test scores, reduced likelihood of drug use and behavioral problems, and higher graduation rates, according to Shirley Igo, president of the National PTA. Says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, "When parents talk with adolescents about their lives and experiences, about growing up, friends, balancing chores and homework, and their goals and expectations for the future, those conversations have a payoff of less engagement in risky behaviors."
The need to stay in contact with a teenager's school is especially important because the teen years are when kids "can go off the deep end," said Karen Willoughby, coordinator of the Center for Promoting Family Learning and Involvement, a Fairfax County Public Schools program. When parents go to observe their child's school they get a sense of what goes on there. "Many parents have not been to a high school since they graduated from one, and that is the place where their children are spending six hours a day," she said.
Maureen Fox, a Bethesda mother of four and former PTA president at her children's elementary, middle and high schools, said that each of her kids feels compelled to be on good behavior at school because they "think other parents and administrators that they know that I know are spying on them at school." Maintaining this connection became even more important once her two older kids started driving, Fox said. "Parents start to move out of their children's orbit. When kids are captive in the car, parents hear a lot of stuff but when they start driving adults aren't privy to all those discussions," she said.
Carole Brand, a community activist and Chevy Chase mother of three, said that when she volunteers in the guidance and front offices at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, she can be one of the first parents to learn about school personnel changes and she can share that information with other parents before they might otherwise find it out.
Similarly, working at the school store at Westland Middle School gave Brand a legitimate excuse to be in the school building when her children were there, and this kept her in touch with the school's goings-on.
Teachers, administrators and extracurricular-activity leaders also stand to gain by having involved parents. They play an important supporting role in high school athletics by selling hot dogs at games, chaperoning events, recognizing specific achievements of individual athletes and promoting good sportsmanship, said William "Duke" Beattie, coordinator of athletics for Montgomery County Public Schools. "The athletic program thoroughly supports parental involvement. We depend on it," he said.
The longstanding claim that adolescents do not want parents involved at school is a myth, according to some education experts. Even though kids complain and get irritated by involved parents, "annoying parents are caring parents from the kids' point of view," said Public Agenda's Farkas.
And Epstein of Johns Hopkins has found that "it's true that kids don't want parents involved in the same way as in elementary school, but if the adults can change the way they interact with their child at school, many kids don't mind them volunteering."