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 The Emergence of Parental Involvement as a Distinct Field of Research

The field of study on parental involvement has emerged in the last 3 decades as a distinct domain of research and expertise (K. Cotton & Wikelund, 1989; Epstein, 2001a).  Numerous researchers have conducted studies or offered their opinions on the benefits, drawbacks, and approaches to stimulate the types of parental involvement most likely to lead to improved student learning.  Although the field of research is now recognized as a distinct area of study, Epstein reminds us that it remains relatively young: “Family-school partnership is really a very immature field of study compared to other aspects of education. People talk about thirty years of research and that's very young in terms of a research enterprise” (Epstein, 2001a). 

Given the relatively recent emergence of this field of study, it seems reasonable to expect continued developments in understanding, policy, and practice.  Further, it provides some understanding as to why so much debate continues over the definition and approaches for stimulating helpful forms of parental involvement.

Forms of Parental Involvement That Help Students Learn

In 1989, K. Cotton and Wikelund reviewed 41 research studies, journal articles, and research-based guidelines for setting up programs of parental involvement to draw a set of definitive conclusions about the types of parental involvement most likely to positively impact student learning.  Their findings were both conclusive and compelling.    “The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that parent involvement in children’s learning is positively related to achievement” (K. Cotton & Wikelund, p. 3).

As early as 1989, trends were beginning to emerge from the field of study to indicate different levels of impact on student learning from different types of parental involvement.

Looking more closely at the research, there are strong indications that the most effective forms of parent involvement are those which engage parents in working directly with their children on learning activities in the home.  Programs which involve parents in reading with their children, supporting their work on homework assignments, or tutoring them using materials and instructions provided by teachers, show particularly impressive results

However, considerably greater achievement benefits are noted when parent involvement is active – when parents work with their children at home, certainly, but also when they attend and actively support school activities and when they help out in classrooms or on field trips, and so on. (K. Cotton & Wikelund, 1989, p. 3)

In early 1995, the Royal Commission on Learning (RCL) completed their research and released their final report (RCL, 1995).  The RCL’s report was one of the early Ontario-based reports to identify some of the specific types of parental involvement that research indicated would best support student learning.

Just as the research is clear about the positive impact of involving teachers in school management, so it’s equally strong about the positive role parents can play in their kids’ education.  Nothing motivates a child more than a home where learning is valued.  If parents show a close interest in their children’s school progress, help with homework and home projects, and attend their kids’ various school performances and sports events, their kids are more likely to have higher student achievement, higher aspirations, better attendance, and a more positive relationship with their teachers.  That’s why, for us, this form of parental involvement in schooling takes precedence over all others, and we’ve described it as a priority for every principal and teacher to take active steps to help parents do exactly those things.

In our view, this is a far more productive use of the often limited time and energy of most parents than being involved in sharing management responsibilities with the principal; as far as we can see, only a small minority of parents are actually interested in playing that kind of role, and there’s no evidence we know of to demonstrate that it improved kids’ learning.           (RCL, 1995, p. 49)

            Members of the Royal Commission recognized a range of types of involvement and began to express a preference for active involvement with between parent and child as a way of reinforcing the value of the school and of education to the child (RCL, 1995).  Further, Commission members felt that this was a more direct path to positive outcomes for a student than through activities such as shared management or governance types of involvement. 

In 1995, Epstein summarized a decade of research and the development of best practices in parental involvement in her article School/Family/Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share.  In this 1995 report, Epstein demonstrated six groupings of different types of involvement and mapped the expected outcomes for students, teachers, and parents that occur from each of the different “types” of involvement.  These include:

1.                  parenting

2.                  communicating

3.                  volunteering

4.                  learning at home

5.                  decision making

6.                  collaborating with community

The framework that Epstein presented provided a common language and conceptual organizer to describe, in general terms, the different types of involvement identified in various studies, including those presented by K. Cotton and Wikelund (1989) and by the Royal Commission on Learning (1995).  This framework was a significant development in thinking around parental involvement, not because of the discovery of new linkages between parental involvement and student achievement, but because of the plain language used to describe the parental involvement concepts that researchers and practitioners were having difficulty describing.   With an organized framework, a common descriptive language, and predictable outcomes for each of the types of involvement, the opportunity presented itself for many schools, school districts, states, provinces, and parent-based organizations to begin to develop more systematic approaches for stimulating the different types of involvement. 

In their 1996 article School Councils: Non-Event or Capacity for Reform, Fullan and Quinn refer to the work of Epstein:

Summarizing over a decade of research and development of best practice, Epstein (1995) makes the case unequivocally. 

At least six types of involvement working in concert are needed to make a difference [for student learning]. These include:

1.  parenting skills (improve home environments)

            2.  communication (two-way -- school-to-home, home-to-school)

            3.  volunteering or parent aides (recruit and organize parent help)

            4.  learning at home (specific home tutoring assistance)

            5.  decision-making (involve parents and develop parent leaders)

            6.  coordinating with community agencies (identify and interpret community services).  (Fullan & Quinn, 1996, p. 3)

Variety is a theme that emerges regularly from the research on parental involvement.  It reinforces the point that there is no single type of involvement that can be identified as the only type required to impact student learning.  Based on their review of studies completed prior to 1989, K. Cotton and Wikelund (1989) indicated that variety is one of the keys to success.     

Researchers have also found that the schools with the most successful parent involvement programs are those which offer a variety of ways parents can participate.  Recognizing that parents differ greatly in their willingness, ability and available time for involvement in school activities,

these schools provide a continuum of options for parent participation.      

(K. Cotton & Wikelund, 1989, p. 8 )

Parental Involvement in the Governance of Schools

Recent studies by Corter and Pelletier (2004) and by Leithwood and Parker (2000) have found that parental involvement in the governance of schools has little or no direct impact on classroom practices and little or no direct impact on student learning.  There is evidence that research related to parental involvement in the governance of schools has been arriving at conclusions of this nature since the late 1970s (E. Cotton & Mann, 1995; David, 1994; Davies, 1977; Kannapel, 1994; RCL, 1995; Van Meter, 1994). 

In 1989, K. Cotton and Wikelund concluded that there were benefits for parental involvement in the governance of schools, despite the absence of research evidence directly linking this form of involvement with student achievement.

The lack of evidence linking parental involvement in governance and student achievement should not be taken to mean that parents should not be included in some aspects of school decision making, however. Researchers and others have identified benefits other than student achievement which have been found to emerge from involving parents in governance.  These include:

• The elimination of mistaken assumptions parents and school people may hold about one anothers [sic] motives, attitudes, intentions and abilities

• The growth of parents’ ability to serve as resources for the academic, social and psychological development of their children – with the potential for much longerterm [sic] influence (because of continued interaction with their children over time)

• The increase of parents’ own skills and confidence, sometimes furthering their own educations and upgrading their jobs, thus providing improved role models for their children

• The increase in parents serving as advocates for the schools throughout the community.  (K. Cotton & Wikelund, 1989, p. 7)

Participating in governance activities is one of the six types of involvement identified by Epstein (1995), the one identified as “decision-making.”  Fullan and Quinn support Epstein’s perspective, and suggest that there is a level of skill involved: “Note that involvement in decision-making is only one of the six forms [of parental involvement] (and a skilled one at that)” (Fullan & Quinn, 1996, p. 3). 

In Ontario, school councils have advisory responsibilities, not decision-making responsibilities (Ontario Regulations 612 and 613, 2000).  It may be more accurate to indicate that Ontario’s school councils are more of a tool for dialogue than for governance.  Elected school trustees continue to retain the responsibilities that would be more accurately described as governance.    

The writing of Sarason (1995) may contain some clues as to the opportunity inherent in introducing new voices into either governance roles or dialogue with members of the education system. 

Sarason (1995) argues that the time perspective for viewing real change is longer than most people recognize or are willing to acknowledge.  Changing a social institution as complicated as the education system takes significant time, as many of the “givens” are so deeply entrenched in the culture of the system, and within society in general, that real change may take a generation or more. Too many change initiatives are not given the chance to succeed simply because the change agents take an unrealistic view of the time horizon during which they will implement the change and begin to see the results (Sarason).  This argument suggests that a change initiative such as school councils may take longer to have a real impact than anyone realizes and that measures of success or failure taken too early may not reflect the true impact that they may have over time.

Engaging parents and the community in the school system through the dialogue created by school councils offers the potential to expand the social structure of the system (Kerr, 1999).  Over time, perhaps they have the potential to influence the culture of the educational system such that new arguments may be introduced and debated by educators and noneducators alike.  With a foundation of effective communication between educators and noneducators, there exists a basis for building trust and the mutual respect necessary to arrive at conclusions and resolutions to introduce healthy positive change into the school system gradually and in a manner acceptable to both educators and noneducators (Kerr).

Training and Development for School Council Participants

Early training for school councils focused on the operational basics necessary to establish such a body.  Sessions focused on basic orientation, holding elections, team building, conflict resolution, and some of the essentials of establishing and running a successful team (Kerr, 2000).

There is little indication of a proactive and sustained effort to provide school councils with the skills and knowledge necessary to accept the responsibility for advancing parental involvement within their schools.  In an unpublished study undertaken by the York Region District School Board (2001), school council participants indicated their levels of interest in a series of different training session topics.  Preferences (Table 1) indicate an interest in training that would enable them to operate more effectively as a team and to understand how to advance parental involvement within their schools.  Notice in Table 1 that seminars related to the basics and structural components of school councils are ranked numbers 12 and 13.  This ranking suggests that participants were adequately comfortable with these issues in the year 2001 and were ready and preferred to move on to more advanced topics that might assist in creating more effective school councils.

Without training or at least a connection to resources to provide some guidance on how to foster parental involvement within their schools, it seems unreasonable to expect councils to become effective in addressing this particular responsibility.  Without guidance and leadership, involved parents will slip back into their “comfort zones” and school councils will continue to struggle to move beyond the more traditional roles of parent groups (Kerr, 2000).

Table 1

Indicated Preferences for New Seminar Development


Individuals indicating that they would attend the following training seminars:

  1. Fundraising
  2. Volunteers
  3. Communications
  4. Help from the Community
  5. The Kinds of Involvement That Matter
  6. Council Leadership
  7. Parenting Resource Centres
  8. School Improvement Planning Process
  9. Money Matters
  10. Learning at Home
  11. Conflict Resolution
  12. Structures, Constitutions and Policies
  13. Introduction to School Councils


Note. Based on small sample size, n = 28.  Results provide directional information.


Support and Informational Needs of Parents

Parents seek information to know how they can help their children do better in school every year (Epstein, 1995).  Parents are their child’s “first teacher” (Sullivan, 1998), and they have an interest in seeing their children do as well as possible.  However, as children develop, and as the school material changes, parents have a need for up-to-date information about how they can best support their children.  A finding from the recent Parent Voice in Education Project (PVEP) in Ontario identified that parents need information about how the education system works, where decisions are made, and how to become involved in helpful ways (PVEP, 2005). This conclusion from a province-wide consultation in 2005 echoes the 1995 declaration of the Royal Commission on Learning:  “We believe … that parents must be welcomed by every school in the province and given thorough advice about how they can support their children’s learning” (RCL, 1995, p. 9).

Training and Development for Principals and Teaching Professionals

In 1997, the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) completed a study entitled New Skills for New Schools:  Preparing Teachers in Family Involvement (Shartrand, Weiss, Kreider, & Lopez, 1997).  In the United States, the conclusion was as follows:

School efforts to promote family involvement in children’s education will succeed only if teachers are adequately prepared to support these efforts.  The high standard of professional development that policymakers espouse for teachers of core academic subjects applies equally to partnerships for family involvement.    Teachers -- from prekindergarten to secondary school -- need skills to create the positive family partnerships that result in student success and improved schools.

Teacher preparation in family involvement lags far behind school efforts to promote family involvement.  In 1992, the initial research for this report found that teacher certification requirements in the majority of states did not mention family involvement.  States whose certification requirements did allude to family involvement, however, often defined family involvement in vague terms.  Likewise, most teacher education programs did not offer substantial training in family involvement.  Training that was conducted was often limited in scope of content and teaching methods.  Thus, a serious discrepancy existed between preservice preparation and the types of family involvement activities that teachers were increasingly being expected to perform in schools. (Shartrand et al., 1997,  p. 1)

This study indicates that encouraging and stimulating effective forms of parental involvement is something that teachers are not often prepared for, either preservice or in-service.  Aside from the evidence that indicates the benefits for students arising from parental involvement, some studies indicate that teachers benefit directly through improved teacher and staff morale when working in a school that works well with families (Epstein, 1995; Lasky & Moore, 2003; Olmscheid, 1999).  Achieving a school environment able to work well with families would seem to begin with educator preparation.    


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Last modified: November 17, 2012