Research has shown that students whose parents are involved in their schools are more likely to attend regularly, behave well and earn higher grades. There’s also evidence that all students do better when they attend a school with engaged parents, the kind that not only nag their kids about doing homework but also who show up for parent-teacher conferences and school events. That’s why policymakers often try to boost parent involvement in schools in low-income communities with poor test scores.
But efforts to boost parent involvement in Mexico provide a cautionary tale. Student achievement at 80 schools in low-income areas that provided parents with information on how to support their children’s education was no better than at schools that didn’t run a parent-engagement program, according to a November 2020 analysis by four U.S. based economists.
For a different group of 125 Mexican schools, the results were worse. In addition to information, parents got extra money and some decision-making power. Instead of improving teacher-parent relations, the money seems to have triggered new tensions. Students didn’t do better and parents and teachers lost trust in each other.
The results were a disappointment. One of study’s authors, Vanderbilt University economist Felipe Barrera-Osorio, said he still believes that parent involvement in schools is a good idea. He says this study shows that we need to figure out how to design these parent involvement programs to build stronger school-home relations.
“This is one of the most important areas of research in education, the link between the school and the parents,” said Barrera-Osorio.
Of course, the Mexican school system is very different than the American one. But it’s worth unpacking what happened in Mexico because there are universal aspects to the home-school relationship and perhaps lessons that can be applied here, too. A description of the parent program experiments and its results were published in a working paper, “Promoting Parental Involvement in Schools: Evidence From Two Randomized Experiments,” circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research in October 2020. The research team also included economists from Harvard University, University of California Berkeley and The World Bank.
More than a decade ago, the Mexican government sought to ramp up a parental involvement program in schools with large indigenous populations, which have faced a long history of discrimination and poverty. Educational reforms in four rural states — Chiapas, Guerrero, Puebla and Yucatan — were backed by the World Bank and researchers simultaneously set up two randomized control trials to see how the program was working. More than 15,000 students in grades three through five and their families were tracked across 430 schools.
In one experiment, 80 schools were randomly selected to give parents a five-session workshop in supporting their children’s education during the 2009-10 school year. Topics ranged from key developmental milestones of children and adolescents to how to get more involved in school activities and decision making. The final session encouraged parents to draft an action plan to play a more active role in their children’s education.
Parents in schools with information sessions were significantly more likely to be aware of their children’s school assignments and to help their children with homework compared to parents at schools without the information. The changes at home were most pronounced among indigenous parents. For example, 32 percent of indigenous parents in schools with information sessions helped their children with homework, whereas only 20 percent of indigenous parents in schools without the information did so. The Mexican government’s goal had been to reach and influence indigenous families and by this measure, it was a success.
Changes in parenting behavior at home seemed to be influencing student behavior at school. There were fewer suspensions and expulsions at the schools where the parent information sessions took place.
However, none of this translated into improvements in educational achievement. Elementary school students scored similarly on a national exam, regardless of whether their parents had been offered the information sessions or not.
A second experiment involved an existing parent engagement program in which 250 schools received a small amount of money, up to $700, to collectively spend on almost anything at the school except for teacher salaries. Parents were instructed to discuss how to spend it at parent association meetings and come to a consensus. They also received information sessions about supporting their children’s education.
Policymakers were curious to learn whether extra money would be more powerful and randomly assigned half the schools — 125 of them — to get double the amount, up to $1,400 for the parents to spend. The most common expenditure was school supplies, such as books and writing materials. Health-related items, from first aid kits to cleaning supplies, were the second most popular category.
But extra money didn’t seem to produce extra benefits. The parents didn’t change their behavior at home compared to the families at schools who received only the standard amount of money. Discipline didn’t improve at school. And as with the first experiment, student achievement didn’t budge.
Worse, trust eroded between parents and teachers. Parents at the schools with extra money reported that they trusted teachers less than parents at schools with the standard amount of funds. The increased animosity was mutual; teachers in the schools where parents got more money also trusted the parents less.
“When you give money to the parents, they say where they want this and that from the school,” said Barrera-Osorio. “That can trigger some mistrust.”
The funds and the spending authority had been intended to give parents a reason to attend meetings and talk to each other and to make schools more responsive to what parents want. But the spending decisions can also prompt parents to learn more about the school and discover that they don’t like what is going on. That in turn, can make parents more demanding. Or perhaps teachers and parents had conflicting priorities and ideas about what the extra money should be spent on.
Earlier research on these sorts of “school-based management” reforms has gone both ways. Experiments in Indonesia and Kenya showed better student achievement but that was not the case for experiments in India, Gambia and Niger.
The research in Mexico adds another negative study to the mix but an important one because it involved a large scale national program, not a carefully controlled small pilot test. It remains murky as to whether empowering parents at schools is a good way to get them more involved.
There is a much stronger body of research for the power of arming parents with more information. For example, a San Francisco experiment in texting the parents of Pre-K students with activities, such as pointing out words that start with the first letter of the child’s name, showed a low-cost way to get parents to support literacy at home. Parents were receptive to the cell phone nudges and their children were more likely to learn the alphabet and the sounds of letters. This Mexico experiment, by contrast, lectured parent groups with more general information.
According to Barrera-Osorio’s reading of the research, the more specific and targeted the information is about a parent’s own child, the better. “Information can be very broad,” he said. “When you say to parents, this is the performance of your kid. When you personalize information, parents say, ‘I need to do something.’ That has a very positive effect.”
Right now in America, there’s a lot of tension between parents and schools. In November, California voters rejected a proposal to allow business property tax increases to fund schools. And during the coronavirus pandemic, parents and teachers are often pitted against each other in the debate over whether to open or close schools.
“The war between parents and teachers is difficult,” Barrera-Osorio said. “We need to start thinking how can we make a better relationship.”
Improving parent engagement programs is a good place to start.
This story about parent involvement in schools was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.