Educator examines quality of parental involvement

Borenstein says that 'more' does not necessarily mean 'better'

Marci Borenstein

How do schools involve parents? 

This question should not necessarily mean, “‘How do schools get more parent involvement?’ but ‘How can schools change the model for parent involvement?’” says Marci Borenstein, director of Brandeis’ Office of High School Programs.

Speaking at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education’s May lunch seminar, Borenstein shared frameworks and findings from an 18-month ethnographic study of immigrant parent involvement in two elementary schools in New York City. 

Beginning in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act required programs such as Head Start to provide for parental involvement, Borenstein explained. In order to receive federal funding, programs had to document parent visits and parent participation in school activities.  Over the years, she said, these requirements encouraged the view that “more is better” as schools assiduously documented the number of parents attending school functions.

But schools send contradictory messages to parents about their involvement, Borenstein said, highlighting the role of organizational factors, including space, time and policies, in shaping and constraining parental involvement.

For instance, spatial organization positions parents as outsiders, she said. There is no place in the school for parents to congregate. Parents are only allowed in at specific times and in New York, as elsewhere, must be buzzed in or cleared by a guard. While principals announce at the beginning of the year that parents are always welcome, teachers have little time to meet with parents.  Even parent-teacher conferences are limited by time constraints to 10 minutes at the two schools studied.

Parental involvement has both benefits and challenges.

For example, everyone benefits when parents get children to school on time, fed and rested, when they support education, and encourage learning and homework. Borenstein found that immigrant parents may be “ideal parents” in that respect. In many cases they have come to the United States to give their children a better education, so they are extremely supportive of school. Another benefit is the fundraising that parents and PTAs can provide.

A downside to parental involvement is that it creates more work for teachers. Also, when parents spend time in schools, they may be more disposed to criticize or question what they see. Borenstein even found complications regarding differences in the way that teachers and parents dress. In one of the schools she studied, teachers were asked to dress conservatively out of respect for the Islamic population, but the school could not ask parents to do so.

“The goal has been, ‘How can we change parent behavior to get parents and families more involved?’ but this is only part of the question,” Borenstein said. “Any restructuring should take into account the organizational structures that influence involvement.” She recommended that the question of parent involvement in schools be framed as a shared responsibility for children’s education.

Sharon Feiman-Nemser, director of the Mandel Center, observed that “this probably works best when schools and parents have similar visions of schooling and similar goals for children’s education.” 

The Mandel Center hosts a monthly spring and fall lunch seminar series open to the public and featuring researchers from inside and outside the Center. For more than 10 years, the center has been promoting thoughtful uses of educational research to strengthen the practice of Jewish education.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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