Sector Differences in Opportunities for Parental Involvement in the School Context

Author(s): Gail M. Mulligan

Source: Mulligan, Gail M. 2006. “Sector Differences in Opportunities for Parental Involvement in the School Context.” Pp. 181-200 in School Sector and Student Outcomes, Maureen Hallinan, editor.


Studies have shown that parents of children who attend private schools are more involved with their children’s education than parents of children who attend public school. But how much of that involvement is simply due to the school’s willingness to work with parents and facilitate a connection between parents and school staff? Gail Mulligan uses a nationally representative sample to compare how many opportunities parents are given to interact with their children’s school by sector. 

About the Study

Mulligan uses data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K), a nationally representative sample of schools with kindergarten programs in the US. Mulligan draws from a social exchange framework of conceptualizing parent-teacher relationships. Briefly, parent teacher relationships are mutually beneficial, but require effort on both sides. The benefits must outweigh the costs for both parties or the relationship can disintegrate—in this case, parents may think the hassle of dealing with an uncooperative teacher is not worth whatever benefit their involvement could bring to their child, or teachers could view time spent liaising with parents as better spent preparing lessons. Organizational structures of the school may make it difficult or undesirable for teachers to maintain relationships with parents.

From there, Mulligan examines several factors included in the ECLS-K dataset that she believes might indicate a school’s dedication to engaging with parents, which she measures by the number of events per school year to which parents are invited. Descriptive statistics and linear regression techniques are used for analysis. While Mulligan is mainly concerned with the effect of school sector (her main categories are traditional public, magnet or charter schools, religious private schools, and secular private schools), she also examines several other factors which may affect the number of events schools can provide for parents, including school size, school type, school resources, school location, size of schools’ minority student populations, general parental power, and institutional support for teacher-parent contact.

Differences in Opportunities for Involvement

Mulligan measured opportunities for parental involvement by asking school administrators how many events the school offered per year to which parents were invited. Public schools offered significantly more opportunities for parental involvement than private schools (about 20 per year versus 15 per year), and among private schools, Catholic schools offered significantly more opportunities per year (17) than other religious (15) and non-religious (13) private schools. Mulligan posits that greater numbers of opportunities for parental involvement at public schools is most likely due to the fact that public schools are almost always larger than private schools and can therefore offer more extracurricular activities (i.e. drama, sports events, debate clubs) which give parents a reason to visit the school and interact with teachers. Additional funding, also, is more common in public schools than private schools, which might create additional interaction opportunities.

Factors Predicting Opportunities for Involvement

Given controls for school size and type, minority enrollment, school resources, and the other school environment factors mentioned previously, private schools actually offer fewer opportunities for parent-teacher involvement, contrary to Mulligan’s hypothesis. (It is worth noting here that boarding schools, if any exist in the data set, may lower the average number of offered opportunities for private schools as a whole, but as Mulligan makes no mention of boarding schools, it is unlikely that they are numerous enough in the sample to significantly change the results one way or the other.)

In terms of types of opportunities for parent-teacher interaction, public schools offer more PTA meetings, school performances, classroom programs, and parent-teacher conferences than private schools, while Catholic schools provide more fundraiser events than all other school types.

Ideas to Consider

Mulligan admits that perhaps some factors in parental involvement were not included, while some (like overall school resources) were not adequately controlled for. A major limitation of the study is that the research design only accounts for formal, school-wide parent-teacher interaction, while things like individual conferences between parents and teachers and classroom-level communication such as a newsletter are not accounted for. As such, Mulligan calls for future analyses examining whether or not private schools allow for more parent-teacher interaction at the classroom level in particular.

It is also worth noting that because Mulligan focuses just on the school side of the relationship between schools and parents, we cannot fully discern if the social exchange framework is appropriate for this study. Mulligan’s findings about the number of opportunities provided by the school for parents to get involved does not take into account the parental half of the exchange. More research would be needed to examine how often parents actually take advantage of those opportunities, and whether that measure varies according to sector. Based on other research, we know that private school parents report greater frequency of contact with the school and teachers and volunteering in the school. The fact that public schools provide a greater number of formal opportunities for parent involvement may either tell us that formal opportunities are a response of public schools to the relatively low levels of parent involvement or that formal opportunities are generally ineffective in encouraging parent involvement.

Keywords: Parental involvement, public schools, private schools

Sector: Catholic,  Charter,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Family,  School Choice,  School Organization

Date Posted: 2015-10-16