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Solving the Parent Problem

Anyone who has spent time in a high need school knows one of the most difficult, and often frustrating, variables to control in the student achievement equation is parent involvement. Beyond anecdotal proof from our own experiences, research also supports the (rather obvious) idea that parent involvement is central to student success.*

But recognizing the importance of parents doesn’t make it any easier to get them involved. For a number of reasons — demanding work schedules, cultural barriers, mistrust of administration and/or political institutions in general — getting parents involved in high-need communities is an ongoing challenge. So, what’s the solution? When in doubt, offer incentives.

That’s the thinking behind a new Detroit Public Schools program. “Under the program, parents are encouraged to register at one of the city’s Parent Resource Centers, where they can attend workshops and find other ways to get involved in schools,” the Huffington Post reports. “They earn points for their involvement, which can be used for reduced prices at 15 businesses.” It’s a novel idea, and I’m anxious to see the outcome.

I’m also curious to what extent, if any, my own school should try to adopt a similar model. Parent engagement has been a major focus of my school’s administration. Our school hosts almost weekly workshops for parents on topics ranging from changes to the state reading exam to child nutrition. Still in spite of constant outreach, turnout is limited, and the goal of improving parent involvement has a prominent place in our school’s Comprehensive Education Plan. So should we be trying to offer incentives to encourage more involvement? With parent teacher conferences coming next week, I’d be willing to try almost anything to get full participation.

I can imagine many, teachers and parents alike, will balk at the idea of offering rewards for parent participation. Why should we offer rewards for something that should be a natural, non-negotiable obligation of parenting? I don’t have an immediate answer, but I do know with what’s at stake, the ends justify the means. If coupons and gift cards are what it takes to get 100 percent (or 75percent) parent participation, let’s make it happen.

*To be clear: this is not a “Blame the parents” post. Schools and teachers have an obligation to help students succeed regardless of the school-home connection. However, getting parents involved is a vital component of student learning and a goal every school works toward regardless of the surrounding community.

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