"Parental involvement" is a term that has taken root in the public discourse on education reform. Unfortunately, as is usual with such terms, everyone's for it, but everyone has a slightly different idea of just exactly what it means.
Recently, Detroit schools chief Kenneth Burnley announced a plan called "Shhh! Our students are working," aimed at motivating parents to get their children to school well-fed and on time, and to make sure they have regular, undisturbed homework time.
"People send their children unprepared to learn every day," Burnley recently told the Detroit Free Press. "And the community pitches in to help them do a better job, and they continue to send their children to school unprepared to learn." Burnley says the plan may require uninvolved parents to perform community service, and he hopes it will raise awareness of the need for more parental involvement.
Other districts are approaching the issue a little differently. The Detroit suburb of Flat Rock is launching a pilot program in elementary schools offering parents the opportunity to choose their child's teacher. And parents in Hazel Park successfully proposed a plan to allow parents to complete surveys on how their schools and teachers are performing.
Even the law says something about the importance of parental involvement. The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires schools to create parental involvement policies in order to receive federal funds for struggling students. The ESEA says schools must form parent-school partnerships, providing school materials and training to help parents work with their children at home, and instructing parents on school curriculum and standards.
When people think of parental involvement, many think of the nationwide Parent-Teacher Association, the traditional PTA. The PTA is known for forming local groups of parents to participate in school activities and lobby school boards and legislators on education issues. The PTA supports the ESEA and other federal mandates for parental involvement programs. Its web site can be viewed at www.pta.org.
The PTA offers the following suggestions for involving parents in schools:
Teachers should consider offering weekly parent newsletters, homework phone lines for parent assistance and assignment information, evening meetings for parents, parent-student assignments, parent-teacher-student contracts, reading challenges, parent-teacher conferences and phone calls.
Despite a reported 6.2 million PTA members across the country and an established reputation in Washington, the PTA recently announced that its membership has been "static" for the past decade. Many believe this is the result of a backlash against increased PTA lobbying on controversial social issues unrelated to education, a dissatisfaction also suggested by the recent growth of new Parent-Teacher Organizations (PTOs) across the country.
PTOs are similar to PTA groups in that they are local groups of interested parents created to address school issues. But PTOs tend to be solely focused on the activities and issues in their district or school building and less involved with lobbying for state or national issues. PTO membership dues are usually reserved for local activities, whereas a considerable portion of PTA member dues is sent to the national PTA for lobbying activities.
The national PTO maintains a web site with resources for parents, www.ptotoday.com, but does not have an active national agenda. The national PTO primarily encourages parents to work within their communities and schools to establish relationships between teachers and parents, and to raise money locally for school needs.
The Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state's largest school employee union, also encourages parental involvement. The MEA's "Parents" web site (www.mea.org/Design.cfm?p=175) instructs parents to meet their child's teacher, become familiar with school regulations and practices, keep up with children's homework and school activities, and ask for assistance from teachers or principals when their student has a problem at school.
Although the MEA acknowledges the importance of parental involvement, the union has fought some parental involvement proposals, including the aforementioned parent survey proposal in Hazel Park, because they would impose new requirements on teachers. For more information on the Hazel Park proposal, see the related article, "Parent-designed survey to rate teachers meets opposition," in the spring 2001 issue of Michigan Education Report (www.educationreport.org/3414).
Cathy Egerer, a fifth-grade teacher from Midland, suggests the following for parents:
1) Attend the fall "Meet the Teacher" night
2) Attend parent-teacher conferences
3) Monitor your child's homework
4) Take your child to the library regularly and spend time reading with your child
5) Volunteer at school if you are able
6) Offer to share a hobby or area of expertise with your child's class
7) Talk to the teacher if your child indicates there is a problem.
Websites with More Information
Parents in Charge
ESEA Rules on Parental Involvement
National Coalition on Parental Involvement in Education
Parental Involvement Page
Michigan Electronic Library Parental Involvement Resources