Children learn best when the significant adults in their lives -- parents, teachers, and other family and community members -- work together to encourage and support them. This basic fact should be a guiding principle as we think about how schools should be organized and how children should be taught. Schools alone cannot address all of a child's developmental needs: The meaningful involvement of parents and support from the community are essential.
The need for a strong partnership between schools and families to educate children may seem like common sense. In simpler times, this relationship was natural and easy to maintain. Teachers and parents were often neighbors and found many occasions to discuss a child's progress. Children heard the same messages from teachers and parents and understood that they were expected to uphold the same standards at home and at school.
As society has become more complex and demanding, though, these relationships have all too often fallen by the wayside. Neither educators nor parents have enough time to get to know one another and establish working relationships on behalf of children. In many communities, parents are discouraged from spending time in classrooms and educators are expected to consult with family members only when a child is in trouble. The result, in too many cases, is misunderstanding, mistrust, and a lack of respect, so that when a child falls behind, teachers blame the parents and parents blame the teachers.
At the same time, our society has created artificial distinctions about the roles that parents and teachers should play in a young person's development. We tend to think that schools should stick to teaching academics and that home is the place where children's moral and emotional development should take place.
Yet children don't stop learning about values and relationships when they enter a classroom, nor do they cease learning academics -- and attitudes about learning -- when they are at home or elsewhere in their community. They constantly observe how the significant adults in their lives treat one another, how decisions are made and executed, and how problems are solved.
All the experiences children have, both in and out of school, help shape their sense that someone cares about them, their feelings of self-worth and competency, their understanding of the world around them, and their beliefs about where they fit into the scheme of things.
These days, it can take extraordinary efforts to build strong relationships between families and educators. Schools have to reach out to families, making them feel welcome as full partners in the educational process. Families, in turn, have to make a commitment of time and energy to support their children both at home and at school.
The effort involved in reestablishing these connections is well worth it, as many communities across the country -- including those we work with -- are discovering. Our experience is that significant and meaningful parent involvement is possible, desirable, and valuable in improving student growth and performance.
A Starting Point
The communities in which we are involved -- mostly inner city neighborhoods -- tend to start with relatively poor relationships between schools and families. Many of the parents experienced failure during their own school days and are reluctant to set foot inside their children's schools. Teachers commute to work and often know very little about the neighborhood outside the school. Before they can develop effective partnerships, educators and families in these communities first have to learn to trust and respect one another.
Although it is less obvious, the same is true in more affluent communities. The lack of trust and respect can be seen in the growing numbers of parents choosing to enroll their children in private schools or educate them at home, and in the growing reluctance of voters to approve school-bond issues. At the same time, relatively few schools have open-door policies allowing parents to visit at any time, and parents who insist on playing an active role in their children's education are often branded as troublemakers.
The starting point in any community is to create opportunities where parents and teachers can learn that they both have children's best interests at heart. We applaud the growing trend to decentralize decision making from central offices to individual schools because it creates opportunities for parents and educators to work together, making decisions about school policies and procedures. Some may see this arrangement as shifting power from school staff to parents, but it's not power shifting; it's power sharing. It is empowering all the adults who have a stake in children's development.
Participation on school-based planning and management teams gives parents a chance to learn about the professional side of schooling -- to understand the inner workings of curriculum and instruction. It also allows them to educate school staff about the community and demonstrate that parents have much to offer if provided the opportunities to do so.
Working together as full partners, parents, teachers, administrators, businesspeople, and other community members can create an educational program that meets unique local needs and reflects the diversity within a school without compromising high performance expectations and standards. They can foster a caring and sensitive school climate that respects and responds to students' differences as well as their similarities.
A Wide Variety of Roles
Besides participating in governance, parents can be involved in schools in many roles. There are the traditional ways: encouraging children to complete homework, attending parent-teacher conferences, and being active members of their school's parent-teacher organization. Other roles, however, require more commitment: serving as mentors, teacher aides, or lunchroom monitors, or providing assistance to schools and students in myriad other ways.
At a time when schools are adopting curricula based on real-world problems and information, families can make a valuable contribution by sharing first-hand information about work, hobbies, history, and other personal experiences, either in person or via a computer network. Perhaps most important, parents can simply take the time to go to their schools and observe, learning about what their children and their children's teachers are doing.
The hectic pace of modern life can make this kind of involvement seem out of reach for many parents. But there are positive signs that it is becoming more feasible. Employers, concerned about the quality of the future workforce, are starting to adopt policies that allow parents time off to participate on a school's planning and management team or volunteer time at regular intervals. And more schools are offering either day care or preschool, which makes it easier for parents with young children to spend time at an older child's school.
This level of parent involvement in schools allows parents and staff to work together in respectful and mutually supportive ways, creating an environment in which understanding, trust, and respect can flourish. At the same time, students get consistent messages from the important adults in their lives. When children observe that home and school are engaged in a respectful partnership for their benefit, they are likely to develop more positive attitudes about school and achieve more, compared to situations in which school and home are seen as being worlds apart.
Better Lines of Communication
Regardless of a parent's direct involvement in school activities, it is vital for parents and teachers to communicate effectively with one another. Each has a piece of the picture of a child's development, and each can be more effective when information is shared. Constant communication helps ensure that both schools and homes are responsive to students' unique needs and therefore support children's overall development.
Some of this interaction should be face to face, either at the school, at home, at a parent's worksite, or at another convenient location. It must be considered an integral part of schooling, and adequate time must be provided during regular working hours for school staff to carry it out. At the same time, this communication must be recognized as a critical part of parenting, and parents must make the commitment to meet periodically with their children's teachers.
Technology can allow educators and parents to be linked into a sturdier web of mutual support than ever before. Schools and homes can be connected through computer networks that allow them to freely share information, via email and bulletin boards, twenty-four hours a day and year-round.
It's not hard to imagine a time in the near future when all parents will be able to quickly call up information such as a student's schedule for the week, current assignments, and suggestions from teachers about what they can do to support learning goals at home. They'll be able to review what the child has been doing by looking at actual samples of schoolwork that have been collected in an electronic portfolio.
To ensure that everyone, regardless of income or other circumstances, has equal access to such electronic tools, some schools work with businesses and other partners to create computer-lending programs for families. All schools should consider creating similar programs. The needed computers should also be available to parents at a variety of public settings such as schools, libraries, and government buildings, and there should be free or low-cost classes to teach educators and parents how to use them to foster learning.
The establishment of computer networks linking schools and homes fits neatly with another positive trend we've noticed: More and more schools are broadening their mission to provide educational services for their entire community.
Lifelong learning is rapidly becoming a requirement for success in the modern world. Parents and other community members can either attend classes at a school or study at home using distance learning technologies, with content supplied by their local school or by one far away. Through these networks, parents can not only advance their own education but also demonstrate for their children that adults need to keep working at learning, too.
But the biggest winners are the children. When we walk into a school and see parents and teachers working together, in all sorts of roles, it's a sure sign that the school challenges the very best in students and helps all, regardless of race, class, or culture, realize their fullest potential.
James P. Comer is Maurice Falk Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, associate dean of the Yale Medical School, and director of the university’s School Development Program.
Norris M. Haynes is an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center and Yale University’s Department of Psychology and director of research for the university’s School Development Program.