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Just What Do We Mean By 'Parent Involvement'?

David Ruenzel

Parent involvement can make for better schools and improved student achievement, but only if teachers and parents have a shared sense of what that involvement means. This happens all too infrequently.

For teachers, parent involvement often means unwavering support for their efforts—they want parents to goad their students into doing homework and behaving in class. For parents, on the other hand, it frequently means narrow-minded advocacy—they want what they perceive as best for their child and will do whatever it takes to get it.

These competing visions of involvement can lead to painful conflicts, as I know from personal experience at a number of schools over the years.

Once, for example, a sophomore turned in an essay on a Robert Frost poem that was clearly plagiarized from the Internet; he received an "F" as a result. But the student's father, an acclaimed lawyer, challenged both me and the grade, parsing the sentences of the plagiarized essay and arguing that the words and phrases were very much in the public domain. While he lost his appeal, he extracted a measure of revenge by withdrawing his child from the school and then attacking the school on a parents' web site.

Another time, a mother went apoplectic when I gave her son a B- as a mid-term grade. She questioned my qualifications and attacked me in a vituperative 5-page single-spaced letter to the administration. She went away only when the student passed out of my class.

These cases, while extreme, are not unusual. They are most prevalent at highly competitive schools because parents fear that a single blemish on their child's academic record will derail their chances for admission into a top college.

Fortunately, my school decided to take action a couple years ago. First, they showed to groups of teachers, students, and parent the documentary "Race to Nowhere," which details the sometimes debilitating stress students endure when faced with overwhelming academic pressures. Discussions ensued, from which emerged a general meeting of minds. Faculty saw the need to assign meaningful homework but less of it, and to foster more intensely on a curriculum focusing on depth rather than coverage. Parents, for their part, perceived that unrelenting stress could tempt their children to cheat and undermine their creative and intellectual pursuits.

These sorts of meetings with parents continue to occur at potluck dinners and the like, and while misunderstanding between parents and teachers still occur, they are much less frequent.

In essence, we have come to think of parent involvement not as a battle of competing interests but as an on-going all-school dialogue about the ultimate goals of education. What should be at stake, after all, is not so much grades and SAT scores, but the emotional and intellectual growth of the student.

David Ruenzel is an English teacher at the Athenian School in Danville, Calif., and former senior writer for Education Week Teacher.

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