- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

Parents are more talk than action when it comes to getting involved with their children's schools, according to recent surveys.

Despite overwhelming evidence that parental involvement boosts children's academic achievement, fewer than one-third of parents with children in school now spend time helping teachers in the classroom, according to a national survey done for the Horace Mann Educators Corp., an Illinois insurer.

And only one in four parents is active in a parent-teacher organization, the survey of 1,000 adults showed.

The National PTA's own poll reflects a similar divide between parents' attitudes and actions. While 91 percent of the 800 parents polled agreed that it is "extremely important" to be involved with their child's school, only 38 percent felt they had much input into their child's education.

Enter the federal government. Congress is currently considering legislation that would bolster parent-involvment requirements in the major federal law affecting the nation's kindergarten-through-12th-grade (K-12) schools, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The proposed legislation, called the "Parent Accountability, Recruitment and Education National Training (PARENT) Act," would allow schools to use federal funds to increase parent involvement in a number of ways, including:

* Training teachers on how to effectively involve parents, something few teachers learned at school.

* Using technology, such as e-mail, to strengthen communication with parents.

* Including parent involvement as a measure of a school's success.

The legislation builds on the decades of experience gained from parent-involvement programs that are part of a federal education program known as Title 1. The program, established in 1965, is designed to give extra academic help to low-income children who need it to catch up with their peers.

"The PARENT Act is not a one-size-fits-all federal program, or a costly mandate," said Ginny Markell, president of the National PTA.

"This is a sensible outline for schools to develop stronger partnerships between parents and educators. Research shows that parent involvement matters more to a child's academic performance than parent income or education," Mrs. Markell added.

The PARENT Act, initiated by the National PTA, is sponsored by two Democrats, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California. But the measure has bipartisan support, since even Republicans who adamantly oppose any expanded federal role in education don't want to come out against the idea of parental involvement in schools.

"In the past, we have told school districts that we wish you'd create parental-involvement programs, but you have to pay for the whole thing yourselves. This legislation would let them use federal funds," Mrs. Woolsey said.

She noted, however, that the bill wouldn't necessarily offer additional federal funds for parental involvement programs.

"They'll [schools] have to take the money away from some other piece," Mrs. Woolsey said.

The legislation still faces some obstacles, mainly because it is part of the massive Elementary and Secondary Schools Act. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate are wrangling over what changes to make in that law.

Darcy Olsen, director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute thinks the PARENT Act is the wrong way to increase parental involvement in schools.

"There are already 760 federal education programs right now crowding out parental involvement," Miss Olsen said. "There are breakfast programs, lunch programs, after-school programs, you name it, there's a federal program taking parents' place.

Other education experts, however, believe parents and schools need some help in learning how to forge a new kind of partnership. They welcome the federal help, saying the Title 1 parent-involvement program has really made a difference in student achievement.

"It makes parents more knowledgeable about our curriculum, and it lets parents know how to help their children," said Pat Crawford, a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh public schools.

Robert Clark, the school-improvement leader for East Toledo public schools, says he has to battle resistance from both parents and teachers as he tries to increase parental involvement.

"We're trying to lure people back into the schools, but people are busy, they're distrustful, and they're not sure what their role is," Mr. Clark said. "And teachers and principals have to want to have parents involved. It can be scary for them; they worry about someone coming in with an agenda."

Mr. Clark adds that there are many different levels of parent involvement, from making sure that a child does his homework to becoming president of the school's parent-teacher organization.

"People think parent involvement is being chair of a PTA committee," he said. "But parents should be able to be involved at their comfort level."

Educators cite numerous reasons to explain why it can be an uphill battle to get parents involved. The reasons include the increased number of working parents, who already are scheduled to the max; the large number of single-parent families, and families in which other relatives are raising the children; and the skyrocketing number of immigrant families, who often find the school system intimidating.

Many teachers and principals also seem to prefer parents to stick to their traditional roles as fund-raisers and audience participants at school functions, they add.

In recent years, numerous school districts have adopted the goal of increased parental involvement as one of the measures of school improvement. The National PTA has just published "Building Successful Partnerships" (National Education Service, $18.95), a 237-page guide for increasing parental involvement.

The guide includes examples of creative strategies schools and parent groups have used to expand parental involvement. For example, schools hold "Donuts for Dads" and "Muffins for Moms" early morning meetings with principals, teachers and other staff.

At Mt. Lebanon Senior High School in Pittsburgh, parents run a study center that offers tutoring and other help to students who need it. And at the Chattanooga, Tenn., School for the Arts and Sciences, a K-12 magnet school, parents are required to contribute 18 hours of volunteer services annually.

Mr. Clark, the East Toledo school improvement leader, says getting parents involved is hard but worthwhile work.

"I expected that parent involvement would be the most frustrating part of my job. Instead, it has turned out to be the most rewarding," Mr. Clark said. "I have some parents involved now who can move mountains. We don't have a lot of parents like that yet, but we've got some. Basically, we're building parent relationships one at a time."

Distributed by Scripps Howard

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