Research Matters / The Power of Parental Expectations - ASCD
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September 1, 2017

Research Matters / The Power of Parental Expectations

Parent involvement starts—and ends—with powerful everyday messages.

Engagement
Social Emotional Learning

In A Hope in the Unseen, Ron Suskind (1998) recounts how Barbara Jennings, a single mother barely making ends meet in inner-city Washington, D.C., spent precious dollars from her paycheck on a sweatshirt for her adolescent son, Cedric. No ordinary shirt, it was emblazoned with the word HARVARD. Jennings intended it to serve as a powerful expression of her hopes for Cedric. This subtle, everyday reminder of her aspirations for him captures the essence of what research tells us about how parents influence their children's academic outcomes, and points to why many schools' parent involvement efforts may miss the mark.

Parent Involvement Matters …

Let's start by stating the obvious: Parent involvement matters—a lot. In a synthesis of factors influencing student achievement, Marzano (2000) concluded that fully 33 percent of the variance in student achievement could be predicted by factors related to students' home environment—far more than the influence of school quality (7 percent) or teacher quality (13 percent). So, in many respects, schools are right to focus on (or at least not ignore) the influence of family involvement.

… But Not Necessarily How We Expect

Yet the kinds of parent behaviors that most influence students' achievement aren't always what we might expect—or the behaviors we seek to elicit through school-based parent involvement efforts. William Jeynes, who conducted multiple meta-analyses of studies on both parent influences on student achievement and the efficacy of school-based parent involvement programs, concluded that theorists and educators alike may have overlooked "the most powerful aspects of parental involvement," which "are frequently subtle" (2011, p. 10), while fixating on more obvious, yet less consequential, parental drivers of student success. Consider these findings:

  • Parental communication of high expectations is key. A meta-analysis of 31 studies (Fan & Chen, 2001) found that the extent to which parents regularly communicate high academic aspirations for their children had a greater effect size (.87) than any other parental behavior, including how strictly they supervise their children's free time or monitor their homework, which had an effect size of 18. Similarly, Jeynes's 2007 meta-analysis of 52 studies arrived at a similar conclusion: Parental expectations had nearly twice the effect on students' achievement that parenting style (like providing a supportive home environment with adequate discipline) did.

  • Bird-dogging homework gets the job done, but doesn't improve achievement. A synthesis of 14 studies examining the impact of school programs to encourage parents to set rules, monitor homework, and ensure homework completion (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008) found these efforts helped students get their work done, but had no effect on achievement. Moreover—no newsflash for most parents—the more parents harangued children about homework, the less kids wanted to do it.

  • Parents and students communicating about school has little impact on student success. Although we might like to think that the tell-us-what-you-learned-at-school dinner conversations encourage student success, research (e.g., Jeynes, 2007) has found few discernible effects of such parent-student communication on student achievement.

  • Parent involvement in school activities doesn't translate into higher achievement. Jeynes (2007) also found that parents' attendance at school activities had no effect on achievement (although it boosted student grades and teachers' perceptions of students).

Distilling the "Magic" of Parent Support

So, on one hand, it appears that many activities schools encourage in the name of parent involvement—like asking parents to sign-off on homework and attend school activities—have little or no impact on student success. On the other hand, school-based parent involvement programs may be giving short shrift to the one thing matters most—parents communicating high expectations to their children. Does that mean educators ought to throw up their hands and simply ignore much of what predicts student success? Should we tell parents to stop checking grades, monitoring homework, or attending back-to-school night?

Not necessarily. We might reconsider, however, what's really happening in home environments that support student success. Perhaps students in such homes aren't being forced into compliance-oriented behaviors like doing homework, but rather, developing an internal desire to work hard, persist, and succeed academically. It's worth noting that a McREL meta-analysis of instructional strategies (Beesley & Apthorp, 2010) found that the amount of time students spend on homework has a relatively weak effect size (.13) compared with the more reflective, intrinsically motivated activity of practicing or rehearsing key skills (.42).

Moreover, as Jeynes (2011) concluded from his meta-analyses of research on parent involvement, the parenting style most correlated with student success combines love and support with structure and discipline. In other words, parental expectations for learning aren't delivered as thou-shalt-go-to-college edicts, but rather, as everyday enforcements of the value of education, sacrifice, and hard work that students come to internalize as high aspirations for themselves.

Doing Unto Parents …

How can we support parents in helping children internalize high aspirations for themselves? We might start by treating parents with kindness and respect, which, Jeynes observes, "may be more important than the specific guidelines and tutelage [schools] offer to parents" (2011, p. 10–11).

Respectful communication helps show that school overtures to engage parents come from a point of mutual concern about students, not from an attempt to get parents to comply with the school's wishes. Jeynes encourages educators to create a "customer-friendly" environment, inviting open communication with parents and visiting them in their homes to show that teachers have high hopes for, and commitment to, students. Ultimately, respecting parents and sharing our high aspirations for their children can model the subtle, yet powerful messages we know help students succeed—akin to the everyday reminder of a collegiate sweatshirt proclaiming our highest hopes for their future.

References

Beesley, A. D., & Apthorp, H. S. (2010). Classroom instruction that works, second edition: Research report. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Fan, X., & Chen, M. (2001). Parental involvement and students' academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 13(1), 1–22.

Jeynes, W. H. (2007). The relationship between parental involvement and urban secondary student achievement: A meta-analysis. Urban Education, 42(1), 82–110.

Jeynes, W. H. (2011). Parental involvement research: Moving to the next level. The School Community Journal, 21(1), 9–18.

Marzano, R. J. (2000). A new era of school reform: Going where the research takes us. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Patall, E., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). Parent involvement in homework: A research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1039–1101.

Suskind, R. (1998). A hope in the unseen: An American odyssey from the inner city to the Ivy League. New York: Broadway Books.

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