On parents, better to coax or coerce?

Ask Sally Wiggins to describe her role in her daughters’ education, and she starts at the beginning.

“My pregnancies were intentional,” she said, embarked upon after her marriage had proven stable over a period of years. Her prenatal care was top-notch; Wiggins, a nurse by profession, took pains to make sure her nutrition, exercise, rest and medical care were all by the book.

And once Julia and Claire were in the world, Wiggins gave up full-time employment and made her daughters her job. They received close attention, starting with baby classes and structured play dates and continuing through supportive help at every level of their schooling. Claire and Julia’s mother not only attended conferences and supervised homework, but volunteered at extracurricular activities and oversaw fundraisers.

It seems to have paid off, at least in academic achievement. Claire is attending the University of Michigan in the honors college, and Julia, a senior at Okemos High School, already has been admitted to U of M and Michigan State.

If every parent could do it the way Wiggins did, there’d be little need for Sharlonda Buckman’s work with the Detroit Parent Network. But most can’t.

“There are so many challenges (to being involved in education), and so many parents work hard to make it right, but we’ve failed to help them,” said Buckman, executive director of the organization, which seeks to help parents take a more active role in their children’s education. The majority of public-school parents don’t have Wiggins’ time, income or training. But, she said, it doesn’t take much to be a better supporter of a child’s education.

Parents are eager to help their children – and help teachers help their children, according to survey results in a new report, “The Public’s Agenda on Public Education,” released this week by the nonprofit Center for Michigan.* Large majorities of more than 7,000 Michigan residents consulted via townhall meetings and scientific opinion polls said they want to expand learning opportunities for preschoolers and boost help for teachers in exchange for improved performance.

The data have been clear for years on the effects of parental work: Successful students are highly likely to have involved parents, at every level of education. But getting parents involved, and helping them direct their efforts to be most productive, isn’t always easy.

Network reaches thousands of parents

Around 30,000 parents have been served by the Detroit Parent Network, which holds regular workshops on such topics as how to start a college-application process, filling out financial-aid requests and preparing a “homework space” where children can work after school. The idea, Buckman said, is to “educate parents first, support them, and then model what success looks like.”

That approach, she said, will produce better results than a new state Department of Human Services policy that would reduce cash assistance to welfare recipients if their children are chronically truant. The policy, implemented Oct. 1, 2012, hasn’t been in place long enough to generate data on its effectiveness, said DHS spokesman Dave Akerly. Other states are experimenting with parental-accountability measures, including grading parents (Florida), fines for truancy (Alaska, California, Texas) and contracts (Georgia).

But Buckman believes such measures are insensitive to what life can be like for poorer parents.

“When you have a parent relying on a transportation system that’s not working, when you have a bus system where a child has to be sent out the door at 5 a.m. – these are things that impede success,” Buckman said. “I’d love to put a mom catching the bus with three or four children in the same room with the people who are affected by their policies.”

While there may be some parents of chronic truants who might change their ways under such a policy, far more would respond to more carrot and less stick, she said.

The key is “to create conditions that allow parents to be more involved,” and not to make the burden of involvement rest entirely on the parent, Buckman said. Many poor parents had bad scholastic experiences when they were students, which may make them hesitant to get involved.

And even so, “what has school done to make it right?”

Buckman cited the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, which started in California as a way to increase involvement and communication between students, parents and educators. Teachers actually visit their students’ houses for informal talks about expectations – on both sides of the relationship.

“And the teacher will ask, ‘What do you expect of me?’” she said. “That’s a very powerful question.”

*The Center for Michigan is the parent organization of Bridge Magazine. 

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Peter Eckstein
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 10:05pm
I completely agree with the desirability of the kind of upbringing that Ms. Wiggins provided for her daugthers. I am sometimes disturbed, however, by too-easy conclusions drawn from a correlation between parents' involvment in their childrens k-12 education and child academic performance. The suggestion is often made that if only parents could be persuaded to attend parent-teacher conferences once or twice a year, the kid's grades would be higher. It can't be that simple. Much more likely it is that parents like Ms. Wiggins provide a rich pre-school experience and then also show up at conferences (and monitor homework, etc.) This would produce a strong correlation between grades and conference attendance but completely miss the more important parts of the picture.