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The Parental Involvement Puzzle

When it Comes to Parental Involvement, How Can Families Best Navigate the Path to Student Success?
Professor Nancy Hill

It's 10 o'clock on a Thursday night. Your eighth-grade son has been sitting at the computer for two hours, struggling with a conclusion to his essay on To Kill a Mockingbird. The assignment, which he's known about for a month, is due first thing tomorrow.

In a situation like this, well-meaning parents  especially those accustomed to helping with time management, organization, and homework when their children were in elementary school  may be tempted to jump in with unsolicited advice or assistance. But according to research published in Families, School, and the Adolescent, a book coedited by Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Nancy Hill, parents who want to help their secondary school children stay on track academically may need to shift strategic gears.

"To be effective," says Hill, a leading scholar on parenting and adolescent achievement, "parents' strategies for staying involved in their children's education need to keep pace with the developmental changes that happen in the middle school years. They also need to address the changing nature of family-school relations as the school environment gets bigger and more bureaucratic."

By far the most useful engagement parents can have, according to Hill's analysis, is in academic socialization, which the researchers define as linking what children learn in school to goals and interests. 

In a previous study, Hill followed the progress of students from the seventh through the eleventh grade, tracking the impact of parental involvement on variables such as behavior, achievement, and occupational and educational goals. That study revealed an unexpected outcome. While all students whose parents were actively involved in their education in the seventh grade had higher goals and aspirations as eleventh-graders, parents who were college graduates had a stronger impact on school behavior and grades, which are the prerequisites of reaching students' goals. Parents who did not have college degrees were successful in instilling goals for upward mobility, but not in improving behavior and achievement.

"For students whose parents had college degrees, their parents' involvement in the seventh grade set forth a chain of reactions that improved their school behavior from teachers' perspectives in the eighth grade, which in turn increased their grades and test scores in the ninth grade," Hill says. "And grades and test scores in the ninth grade mapped on beautifully to occupational and educational goals."

The study led Hill, an expert on variations in parenting and family socialization practices across ethnic, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood contexts, to hypothesize that college-educated and noncollege-educated parents must interact with their children's education in qualitatively different ways. "The results made me curious," Hill says. "I wondered what these parents were doing. If we could identify the most effective strategies for parental involvement for middle and high school, then schools might develop programs and policies that would give all parents better tools to help their children succeed."

Across-the-board declines in achievement in middle school have been well documented, and the challenges associated with parenting and teaching students who are developing their own sense of autonomy and independence have given rise to a large body of research. But there hadn't yet been a systematic review of existing studies to determine which types of parental involvement yield the best outcomes for adolescents' achievement. So Hill and doctoral student Diana Tyson undertook a meta-analysis of more than 50 studies of parental involvement in middle school. "The beauty of a meta-analysis is that you can look at all of the existing studies and calculate the strength of the relationship between one variable and another, taking into account variations in sample size, region of a country, quality of the study, and other factors," Hill says. The results of this study were published in the spring of 2009 in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Hill and Tyson hypothesized that parental involvement that enhances students' understanding of the consequences and purposes of their actions without compromising their developing sense of autonomy would have the strongest positive relation to achievement outcomes. They believed that school-based and home-based parental involvement — such as helping with an essay on To Kill a Mockingbird — would have less impact. And, in fact, that is what their research showed.

"We found that school-based parental activities, such as volunteering or participating in PTA meetings, had a modest but positive relationship to achievement," Hill says. "Likewise, parent-led activities outside of school, such as taking kids to the library or museums, also had a somewhat positive relationship, with the exception of homework help, which actually had a negative impact."

By far the most useful engagement parents can have, according to Hill's analysis, is in academic socialization, which the researchers define as linking what children learn in school to goals and interests. "Some parents are better than others at helping their children make the connection between middle school achievement and post-high school plans," Hill says. "Our study shows that helping children understand the value and utility of education correlates well with higher achievement levels in middle school and high school."

Academic socialization includes setting expectations around homework, organization, and grades in a way that gives students a chance to take responsibility for their own success. In focus groups the researchers ran concurrently with the meta-analysis, some parents talked about their belief that children learn from failure. "We call it scaffolding independence," Hill says. "Don't jump in and help your children right away. Let them try to find their own solutions first. If you don't bring their forgotten lunch to school today, they will be more likely to remember it tomorrow."

Analysis of the focus group data will be completed next year, but Hill has already taken note of several strategies that stand out. "Parents across several groups mentioned signing their children up for extracurricular activities as a way to scaffold time management," she said. "If they have a soccer game Tuesday evening, students realize they will need to finish homework due on Wednesday ahead of time." She also was struck by the number of parents who said they required their children to complete extra schoolwork, either through academic enrichment programs, camps, tutoring, or replacing computer- and TV-time with reading. "These parents are orchestrating their children's free time in a purposeful, goal-driven way," says Hill.

In terms of policy measures that might enhance the impact of parents' efforts, the research by Hill and other chapter authors in Families, Schools, and the Adolescent points to the importance of strengthening and broadening the content of school-parent communication. "No Child Left Behind talks about parental involvement in terms of communication and accountability," Hill says. "But, too often, teacher-parent communication is problem-driven. If parents could receive more information about their children's strengths and about curriculum content, they would be better equipped to offer effective guidance and to reinforce classroom learning in real world situations."

Hill says that schools need to be sure that parents, especially those who didn't attend college themselves, realize that middle school courses can open or narrow their children's choices further down the line. "In order to coach their children effectively, parents need to understand the rules of the game."

The study's focus groups confirmed one other essential point for parents and school leaders to keep in mind. "It's a myth that middle school and high school students don't want their parents to be involved in their school lives," Hill says. "Teens don't necessarily want their parents to check their book bags or chaperone school field trips, but talk to them about their strengths, potential, and goals, and you'll see their faces light up."

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