Maria Allen, a parent who has been critical of her Fairfax County school system, recently called the principals of three Richmond elementary schools to find out why -- and how -- it is that their low-income black students were doing better than similar students in her school system.
Their answer was telling, she said.
"The bottom line is this," Allen said one principal told her. "We don't have an expectation of the home. We don't blame the home. We can't teach parents. We don't worry about whose responsibility it should be. We just consider it ours."
Parental involvement is often cited as vital to raising student achievement. The best schools usually have the most school-oriented parents, many experts say. So doesn't it make sense that all schools need that kind of support at home?
But a new study of low-income public schools in California has concluded that several other factors, including teaching the state's rigorous academic content and getting experienced teachers, have much more influence on achievement than does parents' involvement. The findings have inspired a national debate on the subject, with some parents like Allen saying the study is correct and others saying parental influence should not be so quickly dismissed.
Attempting to clarify the study after seeing the conflicting interpretations, the nonprofit EdSource group in Mountain View, Calif., which led the project, as well as others in the 11-member research team cautioned against concluding that parents are not important. "In fact, parent involvement was found to be positively correlated" with scores on California's academic performance index (API), the authors said. However, they said, other factors "had a far greater impact on school performance."
The group surveyed 5,500 teachers and 257 principals at California public elementary schools with large numbers of low-income students. They compared the methods used at each school with the average score on the 200-to-1,000-point API scale, which is based on state test results. The four practices most closely associated with high student performance were putting greater emphasis on student achievement, tightening the curriculum to fit the state academic standards, using student assessments to identify and remove weaknesses in instruction, and assembling certified and experienced teachers and principals with the best educational equipment.
The student characteristics of the 257 schools were very similar, but the schools' API averages varied by as much as 250 points. The authors calculated that, on average, strong emphasis of the four leading approaches was associated with 16- to 18-point higher API scores, while emphasis on "involving and supporting parents" was associated with a 9.9-point API difference.
Some experts said this matched what they have seen in other parts of the country. Karin Chenoweth, a senior writer with the Achievement Alliance, a Washington-based group promoting school improvement, said she recently visited Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon, N.Y., with plenty of parental involvement, and Frankford Elementary School in Frankford, Del., which had very little. "Both schools are very high-poverty, and both have 100 percent or close to 100 percent of their kids meeting state standards, depending on the grade level or subject," she said.
"Principals need to make schools welcoming places for parents," said Elizabeth Useem, a research consultant with the group Research for Action in Philadelphia, "but that is different from putting huge amounts of time into trying to get parents involved in governance or in coming to events at school planned for them. It takes a long time for parental governance input to work its way into classroom learning -- and even then, it might not be helpful input."
Many principals insist, however, that working with parents is crucial. Miriam Hughey-Guy, principal of Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington, said: "Parents need to know what their children are learning in school. They need to understand the educational system from the beginning to the end."
To make that happen, Hughey-Guy schedules many events that draw parents to the school. Last week, for example, she invited parents to view student science exhibits on Tuesday night, with pizza as an added inducement. On Wednesday morning, she had an open house for parents and community members. Thursday night was McSchool Night -- a gathering and fundraiser at a McDonald's.
"Building positive relationships through outreach efforts such as newsletters, fliers, telephone calls, personal contacts, family gatherings, attending neighborhood and/or out-of-schools events is vital," Hughey-Guy said.
Betsy Devlin-Foltz, secretary of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Einstein High School in Silver Spring, said her group realized that many of the school's Hispanic parents did not have Internet access and missed news of coming events but often drove their children to school. So, she said, her group "tries to hand out fliers in English and Spanish in the drop-off loop before important events."
Like the California study's authors, researchers say that regular parental contact correlates with achievement, even if it is unclear how much. "I've published four research reviews on this topic since 1981 . . . and I'm convinced that parent involvement is a key factor in the achievement gap and in improving low achievement," said Anne T. Henderson, a senior consultant with the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University.
Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in Lexington, Ky., said his group has worked to increase parental involvement for years and has many success stories. "Schools should make unequivocal public commitments to involving parents," he said. "An effective strategy we've found is to identify parent leaders and prepare them to reach other parents."
Ann Monday, assistant superintendent for instruction in Fairfax County, noted Allen's comments about county schools and said she thought that "achievement should be more broadly defined than just test scores." She said there is too much research showing parents playing a significant role to ignore them.
But Allen said she was still disappointed when the Fairfax County superintendent's community advisory committee recently put the greatest emphasis on parental involvement. "Great schools and school systems . . . aren't obsessed with teaching the parents," Allen said. "They aren't making excuses. They are focused on one thing: teaching the children."