Myths that contain mistaken beliefs can be destructive. There are many about education, but I recently became aware of some myths that relate to the role of parent engagement in schools. I write this as an educator and a parent who believes that parents should be partners with schools in the educational process. But the following myths hinder creating these partnerships.
It's important to begin by understanding that parent involvement in school can't be explored as if "parents" are a homogenous entity. Schools should examine parent involvement as they do student involvement: which parents and in what ways? The focus should be on how each parent can be involved in their child's schooling in a positive way.
Myth #1: Joining the PTA
As a parent, the best way to get involved in a child's education is by joining the local parents' organization.
Being a member of a local PTA doesn't ensure effective involvement in a child's learning. Research suggests that the most effective way a parent can help improve student achievement is through home learning activities -- reading to children, having them help with the family budget, or helping set aside time to do homework and projects. There are benefits to joining an organization like the PTA, such as the opportunity to share experiences and information with other parents and the access to PTA resources. Participation in these organizations can also increase parent familiarity and comfort with school personnel. But parents can provide all the necessary support at home for their children to be successful in school without joining a local parent organization.
Myth #2: Teacher Knows Best
The teacher is the sole expert in educating a child. A parent should never question a teacher or staff on school-related issues.
Teachers and parents play different roles in a child's education. A good relationship between a teacher and a parent, based on mutual respect and trust, benefits students. At times, parents may need to ask a teacher or school staff member for clarification about a specific issue or information. Parents should contact their children's teachers or other school staff when they have questions about their children's education. Most school staff members begin to see parents as partners once they know that they'll ask questions when information is unclear and, in courteous ways, let teachers know if their child is having a problem with a class.
There are exceptions. A parent is not effectively involved if he or she immediately calls in a lawyer to contest a student suspension before meeting with the appropriate person at the school to find out the circumstances and seek an agreeable solution. Similarly, no parent has a right to verbally attack a teacher for giving a child a low grade, and helicopter parents, who hover over the student and the teacher, are not positive forces.
Myth #3: Curriculum Input Is Off Limits
Parents should never be involved in the process of developing curriculum.
Teachers should be aware of parents with expertise who can contribute to their curriculum. As an example, a school located near a university may well have parents who are university faculty and represent resources that could contribute to the curriculum development process. Even teaching in a non-university community years ago, I learned of a parent who was a Civil War expert. I not only consulted with him on my curriculum, but also brought him in to teach a lesson.
However, teachers should always have the final say on curriculum and instruction, given their expertise in their fields. Parent beliefs about what is or isn't important in terms of content should not be part of that process.
Myth #4: SES Determines Parent Engagement
Parent involvement in school experiences and increasing student achievement depends on income, education level, and employment status. Lower SES parents are less involved.
A large body of research confirms that family involvement in children's school experiences has a positive effect on children's attitudes toward school achievement, regardless of how much money parents have or how many years of school they completed. More important is the parents' attitude toward learning. Working parents may have less time to be involved at their children's schools, but they can show how much they value education and take an active interest in what their children are learning. Parents at every level of income do this.
For example, a qualitative study discussed and dispelled commonly-held myths about Latino parents' involvement in their children's education. Results indicated that some teachers held negative perceptions of Latino parents. The study also revealed that Latino parents had high expectations of their children's academic achievement and wanted to be more involved in their education, but felt excluded from the school community. This has also been my own experience in working with Latino parents in both Santa Barbara and San Francisco and with Latino, immigrant, and African American parents in the San Francisco Bay area.
Myth #5: Focus on the Teacher
A close relationship between teachers and parents is the most important place for parent involvement.
Although teacher-parent partnerships are very helpful, meaningful, and successful, parents should recognize that other educators and decision makers -- the principal, school board, superintendent, and public officials -- are also participants in their children's education. Parents can influence school board members and public officials by participating in meetings, voting, and engaging in discussions of education matters and child advocacy issues. Parents can also create a close relationship with the press -- particularly important if they feel left out of the educational decision-making process.
I can't emphasize strongly enough that parents' involvement in their children's education is most important at home. This means creating a home environment in which parents can easily discuss with their children what's going on in school and also, where appropriate, provide both academic and relational guidance, including the relationships with both teachers and peers.
Finally, recognizing these myths can keep them from interfering with the shared process of helping students succeed.