The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education

Author(s): Keith Robinson and Angel Harris

Source: Robinson, Keith and Angel Harris. 2014. The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Robinson and Harris’ book came to our attention on the heels of their New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Parental Involvement is Overrated” (4/12/2014). The piece is polemical in tone claiming to refute conventional knowledge and many policy initiatives that see benefits in and seek to improve parental involvement in children’s education. The authors end their piece with an answer to the question of the role parents should play: “What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it.” However, their book makes more nuanced and attenuated claims.

In their larger work, Robinson and Harris seek to evaluate claims that increasing parental involvement will help students academically. The authors use NELS and CDS longitudinal surveys spanning three decades (80s-00s) because of their wide variety of parental engagement indicators, academic outcome information for children in elementary, middle, and high school, and basic demographic information.

Parental Involvement
Robinson and Harris define parental involvement as “practices that entail parent communication with their children about education, beliefs or behaviors parents hold or engage in with the exclusive aim of increasing academic outcomes, and parental engagement with schools and teachers” (4). They do not include indicators of parental involvement with their children in general—such as taking children to museums—only behaviors directly related to education. They ultimately use 63 different indicators of parental involvement and aim to cover all measures that have been used in research before.  The researchers are skeptical of the common sense linking of parental educational involvement with positive academic outcomes in children because they see previous studies as largely inconsistent and difficult to generalize to the larger population.

Differences by social class and race
The authors find that parents with higher social class backgrounds are more involved in their children’s schooling than those with lower social class backgrounds and that minority parents tend to have lower involvement than non-minority parents at their children’s schools. These findings back up conventional knowledge. However, Robinson and Harris do not find a clear cut link between increasing parental involvement in children’s education and positive educational outcomes for the children. They ultimately find that some forms of parental involvement work well for some groups of children but not others and that many forms of involvement are actually linked to negative outcomes. The authors then outline the kinds of parental involvement that might be helpful across groups—parents who have conversations with children about their post-high school plans and parents’ who express strong educational expectations for their children do seem to positively impact student achievement. Helping with homework or setting rules about homework or grade point averages are less productive forms of involvement overall.

Setting the Stage
Despite their extensive statistical analyses, the authors caution that their findings cannot definitively confirm or deny the ability of parental involvement to improve student outcomes. The findings strongly suggest that policies aimed unilaterally at increasing parental involvement in children’s education without specifying the types of involvement or providing guidance on what works are unlikely to make a positive difference.

The authors go beyond their statistical work to make suggestions about ways that parents can matter. Drawing from focus groups with college age students, Robinson and Harris find recurring themes from successful student narratives: 1) parents who students find supportive but not oppressive 2) parents who students think made efforts to get them into good schools 3) parents who conveyed the importance of school and education and 4) parents who helped students take on an academic identity. The authors suggest that these sorts of practices work as “setting the stage” for successful educational experience for students and are more important than parental involvement activities.

From a religious schools perspective, these recurring themes suggest that a parent’s involvement in the act of choosing a school can help shape students’ academic goals. Taken further, the parental choice to enroll a child in a religious school itself may be an important mechanism for Catholic and religious school effects on academic outcomes. Additionally, as school choice programs expand nationally these themes support the importance of providing choices in schooling, particularly for disadvantaged students and families.

Beyond that, are parents of religious schoolers particularly effective in improving student academic achievement? We don’t have direct evidence of this yet. Lower educational expectations or reticence to foster an “academic identity” that may overshadow a focus on family and religious community may hinder academic achievement within some religious school families. On the other hand, the authoritative, rather than permissive or authoritarian, parenting that is common among evangelical Protestants may provide the right balance of encouragement and structure without creating an “oppressive” environment for students.

Along with the authors, we caution against interpretations of this research which could cause parents to pull back from their involvement levels. Instead, we find this research to be convincing in saying that more work should be done to figure out what types of parental involvement are most effective in aiding academic achievement. We need to understand how and why parental involvement varies by social class and racial groups before policy makers recommend increased involvement without clear understandings of the mechanisms that might be at play.

Keywords: parental involvement, student achievement

Sector: Catholic,  Charter,  Jewish,  Muslim,  Other Protestant,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Academic,  Family

Date Posted: 2014-06-09