Parental Participation in Public Inner-City Schools: An Unenforced Opportunity and Dilemma

Authored By 
Craig Holloway
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

Parental involvement in education has long been considered a crucial contributor to the educational outcomes of children.  A number of state educational agencies (SEAs) and local educational agencies (LEAs) implemented plans to engage parents in their children’s schooling. Yet this has so far been a voluntary approach, and it’s time that federal funding for SEAs and LEAs be tied to parent’s participation in their children’s education. Including parents in the educational process is especially important in inner-city schools, where substandard educational, social, and economic outcomes are consistently beneath the nation’s radar.

The importance of parents’ involvement in their children’s education is widely considered to be both a strong predictor of and a key factor in students’ academic success. To add to this consensus, education scholars have produced an extensive body of literature on the positive effects of parental involvement in education on behavioral and social outcomes.Yet stakeholders don’t entirely agree on how to effectively increase such involvement, particularly in inner-city school environments.

Getting parents to become active participants in their children’s schooling isn’t just about reading and homework. In inner cities, and particularly in poor and working class black households, many children are being raised by single mothers with low levels of education and low-wage jobs. Even two parent households are often faced with precarious positions in the labor market, holding multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Thus, getting inner-city parents involved in their children’s educations requires grappling with their economic plight as well as with the drugs, violence, and teen pregnancy that plague many urban communities.

Section 1118 of No Child Left Behind, the massive education reform law passed in 2001, exclusively addresses parental involvement in education. Parental involvement is defined as “the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities.” That sentence marks the first time in the history of federal education policy that parental involvement was clearly defined. Along with this definition, Title I school districts and Title I schools (those with at least 40 percent of their students coming from low-income households) are required to construct, in conjunction with parents (and with their approval), formal, written parental involvement policies. Each plan must demonstrate a commitment to meeting the needs of the parents and children in the relevant district. Unfortunately, with no enforcement provisions attached, nothing happens to schools that don’t construct or implement the required parental involvement policies.

Thus, in addition to incentivizing schools to develop parental involvement plans, the federal government must also determine what types of plans are best for inner-city schools and districts. Given that these are mainly Title I schools, a significant percentage of the student population are from low-income households, creating additional challenges in reaching parents with (often many) full-time jobs. One suggestion is that federal funds be appropriated (or perhaps redirected) to support additional staff who will serve as parental coordinators for schools. These coordinators’ would work within schools to understand the needs of the students and staff as well as how struggling parents can be assisted in becoming involved in their children’s education. While budget hawks might question the need for additional federally-supported staff in public schools, the work of these coordinators would be invaluable in schools and school districts that have struggled to meet benchmarks for student success and for whom greater parental involvement might pay large dividends.

Institutions are not known for making a practice out of what is an ideal or a right. Parental involvement will become more of a reality than an abstract goal when the federal government can develop both carrots and sticks for encouraging SEAs and LEAs to prioritize parental involvement in education. Such efforts must go hand-in-hand with initiatives to address the economic and social challenges that make parental involvement such a difficult reality to achieve.

Area of study