Two recent reviews of interventions for families and schools provide useful information, but highlight the need for more robust studies, says Jonathan Haslam
When parents are involved in a child’s education, the child benefits. This much is clear from years of research. Policy makers in both the US and the UK have taken this to mean that, if we can get parents more involved in education, then children will benefit more. Substantial resources have been committed to programs that support this goal. Yet there is a difference between correlation (children whose parents are involved in their education do better) and causation (getting parents more involved will mean their children do better). The picture painted by studies of interventions – what happens when we try to get parents more involved – is not yet as convincing. Two recent reviews of research, one on each side of the Atlantic, have looked at this issue, and provided guidance on the way forward. In the US, MDRC published its report, The Impact of Family Involvement on the Education of Children Ages 3 to 8, in October 2013. The report focused on literacy and mathematics achievement and social-emotional skills.
The authors looked at research published in the last 10 years, considering both descriptive studies (those that describe an approach or activity) and intervention studies (those that evaluated a particular practice or approach). The majority of the 95 studies considered in the report were descriptive.
The research was divided into four main areas:
- Learning activities at home;
- Family involvement at school – activities that family members take part in at school;
- School outreach to engage families; and
- Supportive parenting activities – ways that parents support their children’s wellbeing and preparedness for school.
The report drew two main conclusions:
- Family involvement is positively linked to children’s literacy and mathematics skills in this age group. A few studies also show that it improves children’s social-emotional skills. However, the link between family involvement at school and children’s outcomes was weak.
- When parents from diverse backgrounds are given direction, they can become more involved in their children’s literacy and mathematics activities. Their children’s literacy and mathematics skills increase more than those of children whose parents do not receive support or direction.
Interventions that lasted longer, and that sprang logically from a theory of change, were associated with greater gains in achievement. The authors encourage schools and teachers to take an active role in engaging with parents. Many parents may not know the best way to get involved with their child’s literacy and mathematics activities. Schools should have a coherent plan of how they will guide and support parents.
Only a few of the intervention studies used rigorous, experimental designs, and the report’s authors call for further research. In particular, they suggest that more work needs to be done on which family involvement practices are effective. These studies need to be well-designed and rigorous.
In the UK, in November 2013, the Nuffield Foundation published the findings of a review of the evidence linking interventions designed to improve parental engagement on children’s education with improved attainment.
The review, Do Parental Involvement Interventions Increase Attainment?, considered studies published since 1990 covering preschool, primary, and secondary phases. In total 68 studies were considered. However, the authors found that none of the studies were of a high quality, and only seven were rated as being of medium quality. They conclude that parental intervention looks most promising in preschool and preparation for primary school. However, in other areas there is so little evidence of promise that (if the goal is academic achievement) these approaches can be discounted. These include programs that encourage parents to work with their children at home without giving guidance or training, or those programs that encourage better child–parent relationships. Simply encouraging parents to be interested in their child’s education, or help them with their school work, is not enough, it seems.
The report highlights studies of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (CPC) program. This comprehensive program provides support for disadvantaged children and their parents. It aims to ensure that parents are actively involved in their child’s education, for example by participating regularly in classroom activities. The program is wide-ranging, and also includes specific approaches to classroom teaching, small class sizes, and health and nutrition programs. It emphasizes a child-centred, individualized approach to social and cognitive development. In the US, it is now being expanded in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin with the support of an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant. The report points out that, because the program is complex and wide-ranging, it is difficult to be sure whether it was the family involvement element that was responsible for some, or any, of the improvement.
At primary age, the review found no evidence that parental involvement improved children’s attainment, and some of the better studies suggested that such interventions were harmful. One interesting idea is that the studies showing a negative effect were those where parents were trained to act like teachers. The positive study occurred when parents and other adults were working together in an institution.
There are fewer interventions aimed at secondary age children, and the review found that studies involving these were of low quality.
The review calls for further, high-quality research in this area. Among a number of recommendations, they suggest that such studies should be as simple as possible, testing the value of parental involvement, and not mixing it with other elements of a program (such as teaching approach or curriculum).
It is surprising that, given the amount of research that has been conducted into parental involvement, so little of it is of high quality, or actually tests whether trying to increase parental involvement is beneficial. These reviews suggest that parental involvement may be of benefit for preschool and primary ages, but the evidence is not yet conclusive, making it difficult to make definite recommendations for practitioners.
About the author
Jonathan Haslam is the Manager of Dissemination at the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York.
Gorard S and See BH (2013), Do Parental Involvement Interventions Increase Attainment? A Review of the Evidence, Nuffield Foundation.
Van Voorhis FL, Maier MF, Epstein JL, and Lloyd CM (2013), The Impact of Family Involvement on the Education of Children Ages 3 to 8: A Focus on Literacy and Math Achievement Outcomes and Social- Emotional Skills, MDRC.