Parenting only one factor in student learning


Hardly a week goes by without someone writing a letter to the paper to say that what is really wrong with the Rochester City School District is poor parenting. The writers imply that city kids will achieve if their parents did a better job of raising them. To me there is an implied and not so subtle message in these opinions: The writers are better parents. If city parents did as good a job as them then the kids would do better in school.

I wish I had their confidence. I know that I have been and continue to be an imperfect parent in helping raise my two children now 20 and 17. As a principal I ran a school of over 900 kids but I am still never sure when to nag or back off my own kids. It remains a tough job and my wife Linda and I are luckier than most because we are blessed with the resources of a job, house and decent income, unlike many city parents.

I wondered what  the research on parenting and schools tells us about this issue. So I took a deeper look and referred to the best resource I know on the topic:  educational researcher John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analysis relating to Achievement.

Here is a quick and simplified tutorial: A meta-analysis takes the results of multiple studies on a topic and synthesizes them by assigning a value up to 1.0. The higher the value the more effect: a value over .40 could be regarded as making a difference while values of less than that would have to be considered more carefully. While a meta analysis is not perfect, it does provide context and is considered one way to make educational research coherent for practitioners.

One of the highest effects on student achievement, one controlled by teachers, is known as “formative assessment” (.90), which is feedback given to students that informs them what they have done incorrectly and/or what they need to change to make it correct. For example an effective teacher will point out where a math student made the error in a formula or what they could do to make a piece of writing clearer to their audience. On the other hand the effect of homework has been found to be .29 and would indicate that it has a much smaller effect on student achievement. Hattie’s work is fascinating and it is easy to lose yourself in reading the effects and the studies.

So how much can we blame parents for their kids’ achievement? Would kids do better if they were parented better? Let’s see if the research backs that up?

• The highest effect across all variables related to parents and achievement was parental expectations and the home environment which included stimulation for children — like reading to them, trips to museums, vacations and enrichment activities that are part of middle class child rearing. It was .80.
• The link between achievement and socio economic status is .57.
• Parental interest in schoolwork including homework had a moderate effect of .38.
• Parental supervision of things like cell phones, TV and video games has a low effect of .18.
• Parental monitoring of student grades — using opportunities to check on their kids’ progress — has a    close-to-insignificant effect at .12.
• Controlling parenting actually had a negative effect on student achievement at -.09.

Hattie’s work and his analysis help provide some clarity and show us that there are many variables contributing to effective schools and student achievement. He writes that parents can have a significant effect on their children’s achievement in terms of encouragement and expectations, however lower socio economic parents struggle to understand the language of learning and are disadvantaged in the methods used to encourage their kids to achieve. He concludes that many poor children are asked to live and work in two worlds. And that is one more than many of us have had to manage.

Jeff Linn teaches educational administration at the state College at Brockport and he is a member of the GS4A leadership team.