Oct. 15, 1998
Vol. 18, No. 2

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    Some school practices can create obstacles to parental involvement

    Parents of high school students want to be involved in their children's education, but many high school practices create obstacles to such participation, according to a study released this fall by University of Chicago researchers.

    Increased communication with and support for parents play a key role in reform efforts to increase student achievement.

    According to the study, titled "Changing Standards, Changing Relationships: Building Family-School Relationships to Promote Achievement in High Schools," high schools will have a hard time pursuing higher standards and achievement if students are not more engaged in educational activities at home and at school, and if parents are not more involved in supporting their adolescents' education.

    "Parents of high school students want to know more about their kids' education," said Melissa Roderick, Principal Investigator for the study and Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration. "They want to know about how to get ready for college, what the academic expectations are, advice on working with their kids. But many high schools are set up to discourage that sort of interaction."

    School-level obstacles to participation include: --Communications with parents that focus on rules and disciplinary problems rather than achievement or academic expectations. --Large, bureaucratic schools that make it difficult to find a teacher who knows the student's work. --High school students who study new and complicated subject matter to which their parents were not exposed.

    Researchers also found that Hispanic parents feel the least able to support their children's education at the high school level, and teachers in largely Hispanic schools report the lowest levels of parent communication. Language barriers and a lack of familiarity with American high schools were cited as significant challenges to the involvement of Hispanic parents.

    According to the study, Hispanic parents were most likely to want more information about the American educational system or raising teen-agers. They were least likely to report being able to count on schools for help or having a designated contact person at the school.

    "Hispanic parents whose children attend majority Hispanic schools experience the most changes in their relationships with and support from schools as their children move to high school," said Susan Stone, a researcher at the University's School of Social Service Administration.

    "Communication may decrease because of overcrowding, school resource constraints facing majority Hispanic high schools, a shortage of Spanish-speaking high school teachers and/or cultural barriers between teachers and parents."

    However, communication in high schools has begun to improve over the past four years, the researchers found. Chicago high school teachers today report better communication and more positive relationships with parents than they did in 1994. High schools that have an intensive focus on improving student achievement have seen the greatest gains in communication. More than half of the schools where teachers once described a decline in communication have been reconstituted.

    Schools that have the lowest level of student achievement are also the most likely to describe a very low level of parent involvement. But traditionally low-achieving schools struggling to improve under reforms have shown the greatest improvement in communication. Fenger High School on Chicago's South Side has made improved parent-school relationships an important part of its goal to end its probationary status with Chicago Public Schools. Two years ago, 38 Chicago public high schools were placed on probation when 15 percent of the students or less did not meet national reading norms. New programs include skill-building for parents, extra counseling and a parent liaison for freshman and creating extra opportunities for parents and adolescents to be together.

    "When you talk to parents individually and in conference," said Fenger Principal Janice Ollarvia, "what you often find is that many of them don't feel adequate to help their kids with things like homework."

    Prior research finds that adolescents do better and stay in school longer when: --Parents talk with their children about education and provide day-to-day monitoring and support of schoolwork. --Parents set and hold high expectations for their children. --Parents help their children develop problem-solving skills. --Schools communicate to parents what their child is doing in school and what the teacher's expectations are so parents and teachers share common goals for the child.

    The study is the second in a series of research briefs produced by the Student Life in High Schools Project, with assistance from the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the Chicago Public Schools. The purpose of the briefs is to produce analysis that will assist high school improvements.

    The Steans Family Foundation, the McDougal Family Foundation, the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (OERI-GR
      ) and The Spencer Foundation provided additional funding for this project.