The Parent Factor in Education

A new OECD study shows that parental involvement in education is pivotal for the success of children throughout their school years and beyond. It says that being involved in their child’s education is the most important investment a parent can make.

It shows that many types of parental involvement are associated with better student performance, including reading books to young children, talking with adolescents and involvement in school. Even just reading at home benefits children, because it shows them that reading is something that their parents value.

Children whose parents are involved in their education in these ways are generally found to be more receptive to language; they are also more adept at planning, setting goals, initiating and following through in their studies and individual projects. Essentially, children who have mastered these kinds of skills have learned how to learn – and that will help them not only during their years in education, but throughout the rest of their lives.

The study is based on findings from a questionnaire distributed to parents of children taking the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) in 2009 in 14 countries.

Reading to young children
The results show that by far the strongest relationship is between reading to a child during his/her early years and better reading performance when the child is 15. PISA found that, in all but one of the countries and economies involved in the study, students whose parents read books to them as they entered primary school are more likely to have higher reading scores at age 15.

The relationship is particularly strong in New Zealand and Germany, where students whose parents read to them in their early school years show higher scores on the PISA reading test – by 63 and 51 points, respectively – than students whose parents had not read to them. To put that in perspective, in PISA, 39 score points is the equivalent of one school year. That means that 15-year-olds whose parents had read to them when they were just starting school read at least as well as their peers one grade above them.

Often, the relationship found between certain parent-child activities and student performance simply reflects the family’s socio-economic background and the resources available to the family. PISA found that more socio-economically advantaged parents are more likely than socio-economically disadvantaged parents to have read to their children regularly, sung songs, talked about what they had done during the day, and read signs aloud to their children. This difference is found consistently across the countries and economies examined.

On average, socio-economically advantaged parents are 14 percentage points more likely to have engaged in the kinds of activities that are associated with positive outcomes for their children, such as reading books to their very young children. An analysis of PISA results suggests that this involvement may be one of the reasons why students in these families tend to perform better in school later on than their disadvantaged peers.

On average, about 75% of parents across the countries and economies examined reported reading books to their children. This percentage is especially high in New Zealand and Denmark, where over 90% of parents reported that they read to their children. It is relatively low in Hong Kong-China and Macao-China, where 51% and 54% of parents, respectively, reported so.

Valuing reading
The report found that since parents are a child’s most important role models, it is crucial that parents show their children the value of reading by reading with their children when they are young and demonstrating positive attitudes towards reading.

On average across the PISA countries and economies that measured parental involvement, only 4 out of 10 parents regularly read at home for enjoyment. In all countries and economies, those parents who read at home for enjoyment are more likely to be socio-economically advantaged, and this partly explains the differences in reading performance between students from an advantaged background and those from a disadvantaged background.

Children whose parents are more inclined to read and hold positive attitudes towards reading are better at reading than children whose parents do not share those positive attitudes. In all countries and economies assessed, the children whose parents do not think reading is a waste of time or who spend more time reading at home for enjoyment have significantly higher scores in reading.

For example, in Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Panama, Portugal and Qatar, children whose parents think that reading is a waste of time score more than 50 points – or more than one full school year – lower in reading than children whose parents do not think reading is a waste of time. Similarly, in these countries, children whose parents spend time reading for enjoyment at home score more than 30 points – the equivalent of nearly a full school year – higher in reading than children whose parents do not.

Talking with adolescents
Some parents believe that once their child begins formal schooling, only teachers are responsible for educating them. But education is a shared responsibility; and results from PISA show that even older students benefit when their parents are actively engaged in their education. And, as it turns out, that involvement does not even have to be directly related to school work.

In general, 15-year-olds whose parents show an active interest in their lives and thoughts are more proficient in reading. As with parent-child activities when children are very young, some types of parental engagement with older children are more strongly associated with better reading proficiency than others. For example, talking with 15-year-olds is more beneficial than going to the library or to a bookstore with them.

Students seem to benefit particularly from discussions with their parents about political or social issues. In all countries and economies, students whose parents discuss social or political issues with them perform better than students whose parents do not. This relationship is strong in some countries, including Italy, where the difference in PISA scores between those students whose parents discuss these kinds of issues with them and those students whose parents do not is 42 points.

Having open discussions with adolescents about social and political issues, books, films, music and other cultural expressions and events allows children to develop informed opinions and helps to improve their critical thinking. The study also found that students who discuss political and social issues with their parents enjoy reading more than students who do not.

On average across the countries and economies that participated in the study, about half of the parents reported that they discuss social or political issues with their children. Around two-thirds of parents in Denmark, Italy and New Zealand discuss such topics with their 15-year-old children, but only around a third of parents in Korea and Macao-China do. On average, advantaged parents are around 20 percentage points more likely than disadvantaged parents to discuss political or social issues with their children.

Being involved at school
Parents can also be involved in their children’s education by participating in activities at school, such as meeting with teachers or school principals or volunteering at school. Research has shown that this type of parental involvement, which is often well-structured, is associated with greater student engagement in school. These types of activities show students that their parents value learning and education.

Surprisingly, the study found that students whose parents are involved in activities at school tend not to perform as well in reading as students whose parents are less actively engaged in school activities. It attributed this to schools waiting until students begin to struggle to meet with their parents; and parents waiting until they see their children struggling with homework before playing an active role in their schooling.

System support for parent involvement
The study notes that in most schools, initiatives to encourage family engagement depend on the good will of individual teachers or on the leadership and vision of individual school principals. Working directly with parents as partners is not usually covered in teachers’ formal professional training and development. As a result, most teachers either do not feel that it is their role to foster family engagement or they feel ill equipped to do so.

It says that education systems can help teachers and other education professional develop family-outreach programmes by:
• Identifying milestones and expected outcomes that teachers/school administrators/other education professionals should aim for with respect to engaging families;
• Providing training, both initial and development, in how to build strong partnerships with families;
• Assessing what resources are needed to meet objectives on family engagement and allocating
• Adequate resources to meet those objectives;
• Developing partnerships, or granting individual schools autonomy to develop partnerships, with non-governmental organisations, civil society groups, and non-profit organisations to increase the capacity and diversity of available staff; and
• Evaluating teachers and schools on the basis of their skills and competencies in working with families.

Trevor Cobbold

A more detailed analysis is provided in an OECD working paper:
Francesca Borgonovi & Guillermo Montt, Parental Involvement in Selected PISA Countries and Economies, Working Paper No. 73, OECD, May 2012.

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