Parents Influence Education More than Schools: Study

Parents Influence Education More than Schools: Study
November 5, 2012

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary Petrides Tillotson is an education reporter for Watchdog.org.  (read full bio)
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Parents have more power over their child’s education than schools do, a new study shows.

Researchers from three universities compared social capital at home and school and found family social capital better predicted academic excellence.

Social capital is “the connections you have with other people” and how those connections benefit you, said Mikaela Dufur, study coauthor and an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.

For example, she said, “Two parents, if they’re standing on the sidelines at a soccer game for the kids and talking about school, they can talk about which kindergarten teacher is better.”

The information, obligations, and norms adults pass along influence children for the better—and family connections matter more than teacher connections, the study showed.

The team plans to research how schools can substitute for the social capital students lack, Dufur said. Family capital is so important it’s unlikely schools could replace it one-to-one, she said, but further research could help schools do better.

Shifting Reform Efforts
The study should remind education reformers to keep families in mind, said Bill Jackson, CEO of the school information network GreatSchools.

“Don’t forget the family,” he said.

Reformers could shift some of their focus to parent involvement, he said.

“We need to invent new kinds of models to engage and support and inform parents,” he said. “Social entrepreneurs and philanthropic investors ought to be looking out for these kinds of opportunities.”

What Teachers Can Do
To improve home capital, teachers can invite parents in, Dufur said.

“If teachers ask parents to do things, [parents] will usually do it,” Jackson said. “They may not want to set up for the school play, but if you say, ‘I really need you to read to your child at least five nights this week,’ parents will often do it.”

Brandi Brauker, a fine arts teacher at Mount Pleasant Public Schools in Michigan, said she’s seen a strong correlation between parent involvement and student achievement.

“I try to get parents involved as much as possible … because [children's] parents know them a lot better than I do,” she said.

Some of her students have difficult family situations, and she tries to help fill their emotional needs in such cases.

“I do see a lot of those kids. I get kids crying in my office because of what’s happened [at home]. I try to be there as a parental figure for them, if they don’t have anybody like that in their lives,” she said.

Some students call her “mom” a lot, she said.

The study’s findings shouldn’t cause policymakers to make teachers parent, Dufur said.

Parents: Show Up
Parents who want their children to excel academically should be involved in their children’s education.

“A lot of this isn’t advanced, in terms of what parents can do,” Jackson said. “Be involved in your child’s life.”

Parents can build connections with “key people in their kids’ lives,” Dufur said, such as coaches, advisers, people at church, and parents of their children’s friends.

“If all the adults are talking together and on the same page, those norms get reinforced and they affect the students’ behaviors,” she said.

Children will value education if they think their parents do, said Toby Parcel, study coauthor and North Carolina State University sociology professor.

“Anything parents can do to promote discussion about what goes on at school—checking students’ homework, attending school meetings—when parents do that, children see, ‘Oh, my parents think school is important,’ and they internalize that,” she said. “It isn’t a matter of attending one school event or one school meeting; it’s a pattern.”

Parents as Advocates

Parents should advocate for their children in school and ensure their kids are taking the right courses and learning skills at the appropriate time because parents are “better positioned to watch that like a hawk,” Jackson said.

“We need to get the message out that parents need to realize how important they are,” Parcel said.

Learn more:
“Does Capital at Home Matter More than Capital at School?” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, October 2012: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027656241200042X?v=s5

Image by Julie Gibson.

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary Petrides Tillotson is an education reporter for Watchdog.org.  (read full bio)