The Challenges of Parent Involvement Research.
by Baker, Amy J. L. - Soden, Laura M.
Recent major legislation, such as the Goals 2000: Educate America Act
and the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has
made parents' involvement in their children's education a national priority.
School districts nationwide are being encouraged to reexamine their parent
involvement policies and programs and to demonstrate innovative approaches
in order to obtain Federal education dollars. In particular, eligibility
for Title I funding, available to school districts in high poverty areas,
is now contingent upon the development of "compacts" in which families
and schools agree to assume mutual responsibility for children's learning:
partnerships must be forged between homes, schools, and communities, requiring
an unprecedented level of contact and communication between parents and
educators (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 1994).
While most practitioners and researchers support the policy direction
of increased parent involvement, few agree about what constitutes effective
involvement. Confusion persists regarding the activities, goals, and desired
outcomes of various parent involvement programs and policies. A major source
of this confusion is the lack of scientific rigor in the research informing
practice and policy. Because of this, less is known about parent involvement
than commonly is assumed. Nonetheless, early studies suggesting the importance
of parent involvement are treated as definitive, regardless of the equivocal
nature of the data, and they are used to support the position that all
types of parent involvement are important.
RESEARCH FINDINGS TO DATE
Years of practice wisdom, theory, and related areas of research (i.e.,
the importance of the home literacy environment, parental stimulation of
children's language development, security of the parent-child attachment
relationship, and parent involvement in preschool and early intervention
programs) strongly suggest that parents' involvement in their children's
formal schooling is vital for their academic success, even though the research
evidence is less than conclusive. While methodological limitations are
prevalent in the majority of parent involvement research (described below),
the sound studies that do exist have consistently found strong parent involvement
effects. Moreover, the cumulative knowledge from existing studies suggests
the importance of several other specific types of parent involvement, including
*provision of a stimulating literacy and material environment (Snow
et al., 1991),
*high expectations and moderate levels of parental support and supervision
(Kurdek, Fine, & Sinclair, 1995),
*appropriate monitoring of television viewing and homework completion
*participation in joint learning activities at home (Tizard et al.,
*an emphasis on effort over ability (Stevenson, 1983), and
*autonomy promoting parenting practices (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg,
& Dornbusch, 1991).
There is mounting evidence that each of these parent involvement variables
facilitates children's academic achievement. There are also indications
that they do so in relatively complex ways that interact with family background
and social context variables such as ethnicity, family structure, maternal
employment status, socioeconomic status, and gender (Schiamberg & Chin,
1986; Milne, 1989; Tocci & Englehard, 1991; Zimilies & Lee, 1991;
Lee & Croninger, 1994).
METHODOLOGICAL LIMITATIONS IN EXISTING RESEARCH
Despite the validity of some studies, much parent involvement research
to date contains serious methodological flaws, which results in a lack
of confidence in their findings and limits their accuracy and usefulness.
In general, flaws in existing research fall into four areas: use of non-experimental
design, lack of isolation of parent involvement effects, inconsistent definitions
of parent involvement, and non-objective measures of parent involvement.
USE OF NON-EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN
Many of the field studies examining the impact of parent involvement
on children's achievement employ non-experimental designs which are too
weak to allow for confidence in their findings. These designs--as compared
to true experiments--do not contain the controls necessary for researchers
to conclude that parent involvement is the cause of enhanced student performance.
Thus, alternative explanations, other than parent involvement, cannot be
LACK OF ISOLATION OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT EFFECTS
SEPARATION OF THE EFFECTS OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT FROM THAT OF THE
INVOLVEMENT OF OTHER ADULTS.
Many studies did not isolate the effect of parent involvement from the
benefits of extra assistance in learning. For example, in many studies,
children in a parent involvement intervention were compared with children
not receiving the intervention, and improvements in achievement were identified
as benefits of parent involvement. Drawing such a conclusion is based on
the consensus in the field that parent involvement programs have their
impact not only through specific learning activities, but through changes
in a network of interrelated family factors (i.e., home environment, parental
expectations for their children's performance, increased cognitive stimulation)
SEPARATION OF THE EFFECTS OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT
FROM THAT OF OTHER INTERVENTION COMPONENTS.
Researchers sometimes concluded that parent involvement was the critical
factor in the success of an intervention program that offered a variety
of concurrent activities, such as an educational curriculum for children
or social services for the family. However, they failed to test the specific
effects of parent involvement in analyses independent of the effects of
other aspects of the program. Conclusions regarding the specific impact
of parent involvement are not justified in such studies.
INCONSISTENT DEFINITIONS OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT
While many studies have measured the construct of parent involvement,
few have operationalized it the same way. Some researchers have focused
on attitudinal components of parent involvement by defining it as parental
aspirations or expectations for the child's educational success. Other
researchers have focused on behavioral aspects of parent involvement, such
as assistance with homework or attendance at parent-teacher conferences.
In other cases parent involvement was conceptualized as parenting style
or family interaction patterns. Such differences in definitions and measurement
of parent involvement make it difficult to assess cumulative knowledge
across different studies.
Even when focusing on the same aspect of parent involvement, researchers
operationalized it inconsistently. For example, while several studies have
examined the impact of the quality of the home environment on children's
academic achievement, rarely did two studies define home environment in
the same way. In one, the home environment was measured as maternal involvement
and responsiveness, avoidance of restriction, organized environment, play
facilitation, and daily variety. Alternatively, another study defined the
home environment as the number of parents in the home, the home library,
reading at home, watching television, working on homework, absence from
school, parent involvement, and family resources.
NON-OBJECTIVE MEASURES OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT
Researchers frequently assessed parent involvement by the parent's (or
some other informant's) report rather than by observation or objective
measure. Thus, more is known about what parent say they do than about what
they actually do. The bias in using subjective reports in parent involvement
research should be a serious concern. Lack of objective data becomes especially
problematic when information about parent involvement and child achievement
outcomes is reported by the same person; the result can be a distortion
of the statistical relationships obtained, producing stronger correlations
between the two than would otherwise be the case. Some researchers have
attempted to increase the validity of self-report data by measuring parent
involvement from more than one source (parent, teachers, students). However,
this approach has resulted in low correspondence among the different respondents,
indicating that one or both reports may have been inaccurate.
Self report measures of parent involvement have another drawback in
that they tend to be closed-ended surveys that cannot fully capture the
dynamic nature of parents' involvement in their children's education. When
parents visit schools, meet with teachers, read to their school-aged children,
and assist their children with homework, complex interactions are at work.
Many of these processes could better be explored through open-ended and
observational techniques, which would produce rich data, shed light on
multi-faceted interactions and relationships over time, and generate new
hypotheses about the role of parent involvement.
INACCURACY OF PROGRAM EVALUATIONS
Program evaluations may be the most challenging form of applied educational
field research that exists. Unfortunately, they tend to be among the weaker
parent involvement studies, plagued by many of the flaws described above.
In addition to the general constraints of conducting research in an applied
setting, program evaluations pose special obstacles for researchers because
of the clinical and ethical issues involved in withholding treatment or
wait-listing participants who clearly might benefit from the program (i.e.,
at-risk students, low-income families).
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
Future parent involvement studies must overcome the methodological limitations
identified above in order to increase their accuracy and utility. While
increasing the rigor of parent involvement research in educational settings,
researchers will also have to be more sensitive to the needs of parents
and staff who may consider implementation of some of the more rigorous
evaluation procedures intrusive and judgmental. Including parents in the
development of measures and protocols may ease their concerns and also
provide a mechanism for obtaining valuable input. In addition, funding
allocations to program evaluations and applied educational research in
general will need to increase.
USE OF EXPERIMENTAL PROCEDURES
Only one study design, the true experiment, adequately overcomes all
the threats to internal validity problematic in educational research. The
critical component of this design, random assignment to the control and
experimental groups, rules out pre-test differences between groups, so
that differences at post-test can be attributed to the independent variable--parent
involvement, in this case--with confidence.
ISOLATION OF THE EFFECTS OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT
In order to truly understand and document the full impact of parent
involvement, studies must separate parent involvement effects from related
variables and from the impact of other adults involved in the program by:
(1) specifically measuring a parent's involvement (i.e., type and level)
separate from other components of the intervention in order to assess its
independent impact on the identified outcomes, and (2) evaluating the differential
influences of the content of a program and the deliverer (parent or other
adult) of the program on outcomes.
CLARIFICATION OF THE DEFINITION OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT
Researchers must make explicit which aspect of involvement is being
measured and how it fits into the broader construct of parent involvement
in order to create a coherent understanding of the importance of different
aspects of involvement. To ease researchers' ability to compare their findings
with the work of others, and to build upon existing knowledge in a systematic
fashion, researchers will need to develop and validate common instruments
for measuring parent involvement across a variety of settings. Drawing
on Epstein's (1994) six-item classification system--covering school-home
communications, parent involvement in school and community, home learning
activities, and parents as decision-makers--might prove useful for developing
such a measurement, as it provides a widely accepted typology of parent
OBJECTIVE MEASUREMENT OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT
Studies must use techniques such as direct observation of parental behavior
with standardized data collection tools, since self-report data can be
ADDITIONAL STUDY DESIGN IMPROVEMENTS
The following issues also require further attention in parent involvement
LOCATION OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT. Research is needed to identify the unique
and overlapping benefits of involvement at school and involvement in the
home. It is clear from the existing knowledge base that involvement in
these different ecological settings is not interchangeable, especially
with respect to the barriers and goals of involvement.
AMOUNT OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT. The amount of involvement necessary to
effect a positive impact on children needs to be identified. Questions
regarding threshold effects of involvement (the minimum amount of involvement
necessary to have an effect) and overload/ceiling effects (the saturation
point of involvement) have yet to be adequately addressed. This is especially
true for involvement at school, which may interact with other parental
activities to increase parental stress and/or lead to overload. Thus, studies
should attempt to determine the optimal amount of parent involvement.
COMPREHENSIVENESS OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT. More research is needed to
determine whether parents need to be involved in all aspects of a parent
involvement program (planning, implementation, evaluation) in order for
their involvement to be valid and beneficial. Currently, some practitioners
attempt to engage parents in all levels of school functioning or at all
levels of implementation of a parent program within the school in the belief
that the more comprehensive the involvement of parents, the greater the
benefit to children's education.
COMPLEXITY OF INVOLVEMENT PATTERNS. Researchers need to take into account
the complex and transactional nature of interrelationships between parent
involvement and its outcomes. For example: (1) relationships among different
types of parent involvement; (2) the relative importance of different aspects
of parent involvement at different points in the life of the student; and
(3) the complex processes by which different types of involvement interact
to mediate, moderate, or suppress each other.
ANCILLARY BENEFICIARIES OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT. Much remains to be learned
about the impact of discrete parent involvement activities and particular
beneficiaries, such as the parents themselves, families, schools, and communities.
For example, the impact of involvement in their children's education on
parents' literacy, self-esteem, and feelings about their children has yet
to be explored and documented.
DIFFERENTIAL GENDER EFFECTS OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT. It is important for
research studies to consider from the outset the relationships between
parent involvement and student achievement separated by gender. Indeed,
the research studies that have done so suggest that the specific aspects
of parent involvement considered--parental styles and parenting techniques--have
different effects depending upon the gender of the child. In order to study
gender differentials, research will need to generate hypotheses about which
types of parent involvement are likely to have different outcomes for boys
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