In today's tough economic times, some parents may take a second job and many others will work longer hours to make ends meet, which could result in less time helping their children with school. These circumstances may feed a misperception that low-income parents are not interested in their children's academic success. The opposite is true.
A new national report - "One Dream, Two Realities,"commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - reveals that parents with less education, lower incomes and children in low-performing high schools are the most likely to see a rigorous education, and their own involvement, as critical to their child's success.
These parents want to be more involved, but are frustrated when schools do not provide them with good information or opportunities to participate more fully. If Barack Obama and John McCain are looking for a group of potential activists on a great social cause (addressing educational inequities) they should rally these parents.
The stakes are high. We know the more parents are involved, regardless of family income or background, the more likely their child will succeed in school, attend college and find productive work. Many of the 1.2 million students who fail to graduate on time every year want more parental involvement in their education. Parents see the challenges and want to engage.
Parents with only a high-school degree feel most strongly that what children have to learn today is more demanding than it was when they were students. Furthermore, 92 percent of African American parents and 90 percent of Hispanic parents consider college for their children very important, compared to only 78 percent of white parents. Parents with children trapped in low-performing schools are the most likely to say their involvement as educational advocates is critical.
Only 15 percent of parents of students in low-performing high schools feel school is doing a very good job of challenging students, compared with 58 percent of parents of students in high-performing schools. While half of parents with students in good schools believe their child is developing a special talent and confidence and will be ready for college and the workforce, less than two in 10 parents of students in poor-performing schools share that view.
Unsurprisingly, low-performing schools are almost half as likely as high-performing schools to communicate with parents about their child's academic performance or inform them of the requirements for graduation and college admission. The majority of parents with children trapped in failing schools want to become more involved, while nearly seven in 10 parents in successful schools are already actively involved.
What's to be done? Schools should provide parents with better information and tools to enable them to help their children succeed academically. Schools should promptly notify parents if students are having academic or other problems, skipping school or cutting classes.
Homework hotlines, incorporating parents into some homework assignments, providing flexible schedules for parent-teacher conferences, and sharing good information on requirements for graduation and college admission would go a long way to bridge the parent-teacher divide.
Efforts can be made at the state and national levels, with panels of parents and teachers discussing ways to prevent high-school dropouts at the 100 summits in all 50 states over the next few years. The federal Department of Education should test and share best practices for parent engagement through Parent Information Resource Centers, and foundations and governments can provide challenge grants to schools and community organizations that engage large numbers of parents in the academic achievement of students trapped in low-performing schools.
America has two school systems - one that is largely equipping children for the demands of high school, college and the workplace and another that is failing them; one that is engaging parents in the education of their children and another that is not.
Such a landscape is inconsistent with America's promise of equal opportunity and with our national need for an educated workforce. Schools and parents have clear pathways to improve one element we know can have a dramatic impact - the sustained engagement of parents who play vital roles in educating their children and nurturing them into the future.
John M. Bridgeland and John J. DiIulio Jr. are co-authors of "One Dream, Two Realities: Perspectives of Parents on America's High Schools."
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