The Parent Panacea

Gloria Molina has been Los Angeles County's First District Supervisor since 1991, when courts ordered the creation of a protected Latino seat on the County Board of Supervisors. Akin to the mayoralty of the nation's biggest Mexican-American "city," the post has given the former congresswoman a chance to promote her view--widely shared across the country--that greater parent involvement is the key to boosting the academic performance of disadvantaged children.

She's tried dramatic measures, like having the district attorney threaten parents with jail time when children are habitually truant. But last year, Molina explored gentler approaches, having her staff look for examples of successful parent involvement programs that she might introduce to the schools in her community.

To her surprise, the landscape was already cluttered with such programs. At the 800-student Murchison Street Elementary School in Molina's own East L.A. district, her staff found a PTA; parent advisory councils for bilingual and compensatory education programs; a health clinic delivering primary care to parents and children; a family center linking parents to counseling and social service programs; adult literacy classes in English and Spanish; a parent site committee to make school budgetary decisions; a Parent Center, where mothers can get school information and help with activities (like making costumes for school plays); and a "Baby and Me" program to train young mothers to speak with toddlers in a way that stimulates intellectual growth, and to show these mothers how to teach youngsters colors and the alphabet, so they will enter school more ready to learn. Some 40 mothers at the school regularly volunteer in classrooms and on the playground. Teachers hold regular parent conferences to discuss student progress, as well as several school-wide parent meetings annually to explain standardized testing, report card formats, and the importance of homework and regular attendance.

The school also conducts classes in which parents are taught how to prepare their children to read. Bob Bilovsky, the principal, describes a Friday morning class, attended by 18 of Murchison's 500 mothers: "We give them the books and go over them so they can read to their children. Many do not know how to read to their children. We are trying to teach them to establish a set time for reading and say, 'Let's turn off the TV,' and to deal with the problem that the husband wants to watch TV. We are explaining how to preview the book with their children before reading it, asking them to guess what will happen."

Murchison's teachers say all these programs contribute to student learning, but there is no firm evidence they do. Murchison's standardized scores hover around the 14th percentile. At this rate, most Murchison students were scheduled to be held back under the Los Angeles Unified School District's new policy to abolish "social promotion." (Implementation of the new policy was recently postponed because the district lacks space and teachers to accommodate all those slated to spend an extra year in school.) Molina concluded that, despite the school's abundant parent literature (in Spanish and English) and its frequent parent meetings, Murchison's mothers understood little about how they could support student learning.

So she decided to join the informal mothers' meeting held every Wednesday morning at the Murchison Parent Center. Molina's own parents had instilled their 10 children with the value of education. She wanted to see if she could persuade the 15 mothers who regularly attended these meetings to do the same. For four months, she became the mothers' tutor. She asked them to create notebooks to record their children's test scores. She and her staff taught teamwork exercises, to build the mothers' confidence in approaching school officials. She gave the mothers a homework assignment of their own (finding out what books their children were reading in class), but only one participant was able to determine this by the following week. So Molina brought copies of the books to the next meeting and urged the mothers to ask their children questions about them. She emphasized the importance of supervising homework and of reading with children on a daily basis.

By the year's end, Molina was less confident that simple calls for parent involvement provide a solution to urban education's problems. Telling mothers to read to children at home was not helpful for mothers who are semiliterate themselves and have few books at home and little familiarity with public libraries. It was apparent to Molina that these mothers needed, far more than exhortations to get involved, intensive and ongoing instruction in how to do so. Also to be overcome were the difficulties recruiting mothers for such instruction--especially if they had multiple jobs or cared for other preschoolers. After all, the Wednesday morning group attracted only 15, and all told, only about 100 of the school's 500 mothers were involved in any of the various literacy programs Murchison offered.

Molina approached the highly regarded Reading/ Language Arts Institute at California State University, asking that an ongoing program be created for Murchison, incorporating the insights she had gained in her Wednesday meetings. The institute designed a summer tutoring program for 15 children and their mothers. But it was never implemented because the cost, including individual work with each mother, was prohibitive--about $1,000 per student, for only eight weeks of instruction.

As Molina discovered, it is no easy thing to foster parent involvement in low-income, inner-city schools--or, rather, it is no easy thing to foster the kind of parent involvement that actually produces academic gains: conducting literacy activities in the home, supervising homework, and communicating the importance of academic work.

Many people think that the success of inner-city private schools proves otherwise, but they are wrong. It's true that Bob Bilovsky and his staff must persuade parents to enroll in Murchison's parent programs, while private schools can require parents to "volunteer." But at inner-city Catholic schools, many parents, like Murchison's, have neither the skills nor the confidence to provide support for learning. Usually, low-income parochial schools press parents to fulfill their volunteer obligations by engaging in fundraising, not academic participation. And at these schools, standardized test scores are also below grade level. Where Catholic school scores are higher than at neighboring public schools, it's probably the result of the Catholic schools' ability to selectively enroll students whose parents offer more academically effective support. Conventional controls for race and income mask such differences among families.

Across town from Murchison, St. Milton and St. Felipe are parish schools in an impoverished African-American community. (Martin Carnoy, Luis Benveniste, and I promised faculty members anonymity when we interviewed them for a 1999 Economic Policy Institute book, Can Public Schools Learn from Private Schools?, so here I use pseudonyms for them and their schools.) Parents in both parish schools are required to sign contracts to volunteer for 30 hours per year. They are, however, permitted to make small additional financial contributions in lieu of time, such as selling "scrip" for use at local retail stores. Parent volunteering might also include occasional chaperoning of field trips, janitorial upkeep of school facilities, or helping with clerical tasks.

Staff and parents often blame each other for the disappointing test results. Parents say they've paid the tuition, and it is the teachers' job to boost academic achievement. Teachers complain that without parental support for the academic program, there is little they can do to improve performance.

The staff has much the same complaint at a public school in a Los Angeles working-class white community where well-paying longshore jobs requiring little education have been plentiful. In a poll at Mashita Middle School, teachers said that lack of parental support was the school's most serious problem--specifically, inadequate parent involvement in supervising homework and communicating to children that they should come to school prepared.

One Mashita teacher complains that she spends an hour a week telephoning parents whose children are doing well and whose children are not, but gets little response from either group. Another notes that 180 students are in her six science classes, yet only three parents attended open house.

Three years ago, Mashita established a focus group of parents and teachers to develop ways to increase parent involvement. The group developed plans for parent training, but there was almost no parental response. The group disbanded.

Mashita parents may undervalue education because of a misplaced faith that good jobs will always be available on the docks for high school dropouts. At other lower-income schools, different preconceptions, even culture, may contribute to parents' failure to give the kind of support children need for academic success. Some parents, even when making an effort to promote academic growth at home, are not comfortable interacting with children conversationally. Instead of a "how do you think it should be done?" approach, the dominant mode of many less-educated parents is a "watch me and copy" instructional style. Encouraging inquiry, however, contributes more to intellectual development.

Other cultural characteristics also influence parent involvement, although the sensitivity of race relations makes these difficult to discuss. Perhaps a historical reference can make it easier. In the early twentieth century, there were dramatic differences in educational attainment among the children of various immigrant groups. For Italian Americans, for example, it generally took three generations before college attendance was common. For Greek Americans, it took four. Such differences are difficult to explain without acknowledgment of cultural differences in parental assumptions, expectations, or pedagogical styles.

The St. Felipe and St. Milton schools provide a more contemporary example. They are operated by the same religious order, and several nuns have served both parishes and can compare the two. African-American parents at St. Felipe mostly have origins in the American Southeast. According to Sister Cecilia, the principal, they tend to be more suspicious of the faculty and more defensive about its judgments regarding academic work or discipline. Yet because parents come so quickly to their children's defense, Sister Cecilia feels she has access to parents and can facilitate relationships that later become more constructive. At St. Milton, on the other hand, African-American parents are either recent immigrants from Belize or have origins in Creole-speaking Louisiana. More willing to defer to faculty judgments about academic and disciplinary matters, they also have less confidence in their ability to help their children learn. Less suspicious of school, they are more reluctant to get involved.

l Gore has proposed funding preschool for all three- to five-year-olds whose parents want it, but even if this campaign promise were adopted, it holds little hope for any quick solution to the problem posed by differences in the academic support parents can provide to their children. Gore's idea is to place very young children in the hands of professional educators, to offset the inability of many low-income parents to prepare children for learning. But the cost, at least $50 billion over 10 years, is high (Bill Bradley, probably accurately, insists the cost would be much higher), and even were money available, Gore has not indicated where he would find trained teachers for this massive expansion of public education, when teacher shortages in low-income communities are already great. An incremental effort, of course, would be a step forward, especially if combined with the kind of intense parental tutoring that Gloria Molina and the Cal State Reading/Language Arts Institute proposed. But even preschools cannot by themselves fully equalize achievement between poor and more advantaged children.

One recent study, for example, found that parents with professional occupations directed an average of 2,153 words an hour to children between one and three years of age. For working-class parents, the average was 1,251, and for parents on welfare, only 616. If we can assume that the language toddlers hear plays an important role in their later intellectual development, then by the time preschool begins, there is already a lot of catching up to do.

As Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips noted in "America's Next Achievement Test: Closing the Black-White Test Score Gap" [TAP, September-October, 1998]:

Parenting practices almost certainly have more impact on children's cognitive development than preschool practices. Indeed, changing the way parents deal with their children may be the single most important thing we can do to improve children's cognitive skills. But getting parents to change their habits is even harder than getting teachers to change. Like teachers, parents are usually suspicious of unsolicited suggestions. This is doubly true when the suggestions require fundamental changes in a parent's behavior... . As a practical matter, whites cannot tell black parents to change their practices without provoking charges of ethnocentrism, racism, and much else. But black parents are not the only ones who need help. We should be promoting better parenting practices for all parents... .

One of the initiatives that earned Bill Clinton a reputation as a reformer when he was governor of Arkansas was HIPPY, his Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters. Paraprofessionals visited homes of welfare mothers on a weekly basis, introducing lessons the mothers could teach infants and toddlers and reviewing the previous week's assignments.

More than a decade later, Gloria Molina can't find the resources to try something similar at even a single school in East Los Angeles. Until such programs are universally funded, the demand for greater parental involvement in the schools is likely to be only an empty slogan. ¤

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