Parent Involvement is Smart. Don’t Turn it Into Something Stupid

I have parents.  I am a parent.  I love parents.  So, don’t get me wrong, but what’s up with the rash of stupid ideas on parent involvement in education?

When I was teaching in Utah, one legislator, one of our friends, one of our champions, someone who had fought beside teachers for class size reduction, school computers and reimbursements for supplies that teachers bought out of their own pockets, this guy I adored and respected developed a idea for a state law that would fine parents $5 for missing a parent-teacher conference.

Say what?

He was surprised at my reaction.  He thought I’d be high-fiving him.  He said, “Well, every time I talk to a teacher, they complain about how few parents show to parent-teacher conferences.  We need to hold parents accountable.  This will give them an incentive to show up and get involved, and we’ll empower teachers if they can fine parents.”

That I know of, this man does not take drugs or drink heavily.  So, let’s assume he’s serious and not delusional.  I did talk him out of having a bill produced, but just barely.

I wish I had had a chance to speak to the elected officials in Idaho.  That I know of, they were not on drugs or drinking heavily when in answer to state legislation requiring incentives for teacher performance, some Idaho school districts came up with this head smacker:

A teacher’s pay will be based on how many parents show up to parent-teacher conferences.

I LOVED having a full-house at Back to School Night!  I LOVED talking to parents about their child’s progress at our parent-teacher conferences.  I LOVED parents being involved in their children’s education.  But.


First, too many politicians are still seduced by the simple answer to a complex issue.  Second, they need someone to blame if things are troubling.  These days, teachers have become the serial victims of this type of drive-by politics.

My friend, Idaho teacher Penni Cyr, tried, in a respectful way, to explain why this was stupid.

“Idaho teachers know that parents are very, very important in the education of their child, but there also factors that are outside of a teacher’s control. Is it reasonable for holding teachers responsible for getting parents to a conference or to withhold pay because parents can’t attend conferences for whatever reason?”

Idaho parents aren’t any different from other states’ parents.  Some of them are working two jobs in a bad economy or are single parents juggling increasing family commitments, or don’t speak English and are afraid they might not understand what is being said, or have health issues.

This law is part of that “Corporate School Reform” crowd.  Set your desired “number” and bribe or punish your way to excellence.

Most of the time it’s a test score number they’ve set, thinking the test score means something that research says it doesn’t.  Or in this case, assume if a certain number of parents show up, it means something that research says it doesn’t.

What research does say is that schools that have high parent involvement have kids who do well in school.  So folks who haven’t actually thought this through think the most simple thought possible:  Oh!  So just get more parents to walk through the door on Back-to-School Night and the test scores got up!  Simple.

And simply wrong.  It’s not that the parents showed up.  It’s why the parents showed up.

The parents that show up are concerned.  They have questions.  They want answers about how to follow through at home.  They have expectations and plans and understand they are partners with the school in the success of their student.

This is the goal:  To have parents so excited about their kid’s education that they want to show up.  We can punish or bribe a quota of parents into walking through the door, but to what end?  The purpose of parent involvement is to harness the power of parents as partners.

If we plan elaborate ways to force or trick parents to physically show up just to get a bigger headcount and we haven’t thought about what we’re going to do with them when they come, it won’t make one lick of difference in the quality of the educational experience for students.

Here’s an idea. Why not make parent involvement something that’s systemic and aligned to other goals of the school so that everyone understands why we need parents to be involved and in what ways it makes sense to get them involved.

Teachers, principals and support staff are professionals who care deeply about children.  Of course, we want parent involvement.  We also want people who don’t know what they’re doing to stop turning what we do into a phony number to hit. Parent involvement is more than a bonus for a headcount. It’s more than a fine for not showing up.

Parent involvement is too important to turn it into a numbers’ game.

11 Responses to “Parent Involvement is Smart. Don’t Turn it Into Something Stupid”

  1. Engaging Parents In School… - The Worst Parent Engagement Ideas

    […] Parent Involvement is Smart. Don’t Turn it Into Something Stupid is a post by NEA leader Lily Eskelsen. It’s about Idaho’s plan to tie teacher pay to the number of parents who show up to school meetings. […]

  2. Joe Thomas

    Nicely written, Lily. It’s a shame that so many legislators who attended school for 12+ years feel they are now experts on all facets of public education. If they would only discuss their ideas with teachers and school employees first!

  3. Heather E.

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. This was a fantasic article. I am a parent and my daughter have just started into the system. I’ve been shocked that parent involvement here (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) has been restricted to “reading to the children”. I’ve actually decided not to spend my time with the PIC parent involvement committee since they don’t have any power here and they have already brought my concerns forward in the past and they were struck down by the board. On the Ministry of Education website (Ontario) the role of parents is defined as the following: Parents are responsible for: ensuring their children attend school. Generally speaking, attendance is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. (and that is all that is listed).
    Here in Ontario school boards are actually separate entities, statutory corporations. These corporations are 100 % tax payer funded, the CEO is NOT an elected official and the Ministry of Education is more like the Ministry of Educational material distribution. There is no one with power to ensure that these independent corporations are in check especially in the area of child safety. It took me a little while to fully grasp and realise the Ministry of Education here actually has very few legislative powers over this “corporation”.
    I’ve been told by a School board Trustee to stop doing my “tirade”. School board trustees are elected officials but they are bound by Bill 177, so a bit of a fake board in a sense.
    My daughters started school Sept 2010 and this parent has learned nearly EVERY policy/procedure of a school and the legislative laws as well. I think being a bit older mom I’m less swayed away from making a change towards better and safer policies. thanks again for your blog. There is the EDUCATION aspect of our schools and there is the BUSINESS aspect of our schools.

    @heathertwins (Twitter)

  4. Denise B.

    I appreciate the article and agree that parent involvement cannot be handled like a numbers game. Parental involvement, sadly, is universally a problem. I understand the place of frustration from which such useless ideas as fines and “punishment” for failing to attend parent-teacher meetings is born. However, I disagree with the equally simplistic solution offered of making it systemic and aligned with other goals. That is far easier said than done. The school boards do not have the same objectives as the teachers or the parents. We are operating on an outdated model that serves a type of society that no longer exists – families that have a mom at home to help the kids with homework and where the kids need to be free to help harvest the crops in the summer. Additionally, both-parents-are-working-and-busy-families notwithstanding, no matter how much you are working or how shy you may be about limited English skills, as a parent you should care enough about your child’s education to make the time – however you have to make it. The bottom line is that, in general, our society doesn’t value teachers or education: We underfund schools and teachers, the profession has little respect, parents treat school as daycare rather than a place of learning, employers look down on parents who prioritize their children over their jobs, in fact, corporate america is hostile to the perceived “extra expense” or “lack of commitment” of parents as employees. Until we elevate the importance of education and the value and worth of our teachers, there can never be an alignment of parent involvement and school goals and this will never change.

    • Carol

      Please do not speak for all parents. So.even of us are involved. I must say that my child did very.well all through school and what I came to notice k-12 I always saw tj Ed same parents at activities, open houses, conferences and shows. These were the parents of the other advanced and honor students whom my daughter had classes.with.

  5. Bren Martin

    Thank you. I don’t like the idea of punishing parents either. However, I do like the idea of IDEAS being submitted. We can discuss them openly. Many drivers speed. If police didn’t pull a few over and fine them, I really think there would be more speeding even though it hasn’t ceased. At least drivers know they are doing wrong when they do it. As parents, many are super busy. We have problems getting some in also. But I really think some of them don’t realize that is wrong. Is it fair for students to pay the cost with less grades and less opportunities associated with them? I don’t know all of the answers, but I’m not so quick to dismiss the questions or suggestions. Someone is paying for the lack of parental engagement! And it is usually the CHILD!

  6. Idaho State Department of Education

    This blog post is missing the context and background of how Idaho’s pay-for-performance plan was actually created. We began creating this plan in 2009 with all educational stakeholders at the table, including the school boards, school administrators, business community, and the Idaho Education Association. They each had input on what would be measured at the state level and at the local level. The teachers’ union, in particular, wanted to see multiple measures at the local level and helped the Department create a list of approved measures. This list includes parent involvement.

    Parent involvement is not being rewarded in every district. Every district – in working with local teachers – was given the flexibility to create its own plan for rewarding achievement. Some schools and teachers chose to reward parent involvement. Others chose not to. This was not a state decision, but a local decision. The IEA specifically wanted this to be up to each local district to decide.

    Teachers can earn bonuses for reasons other than reaching student achievement goals, as well. They can earn bonuses for working in hard-to-fill positions or taking on leadership duties. This information is all available on

  7. Joe Hardin (Co-Founder, GradeNinja)

    @Idaho Dept of Ed – the clarification is appreciated and appropriate. However, the clarification strays from the point of this post. The point is that the proposed solution of getting parents to show up will not achieve the desired results.

    Denise B. really hit the key points about the origin and current state of our education system, but like Bren, I think we absolutely must keep open minds about new concepts.

    The norm for educational performance assessments needs to be reconsidered – specifically, that of quantitative analysis. Tying performance or improvement to hard numbers commonly leads to solutions like the one mentioned in this post. Perhaps we could consider, for exampple, a parental incentive (such as a tax credit) based on improvement/involvement that is assessed qualitatively by a person with appropriate accredidation or training. Teachers could recieve bonuses for going above and beyond to attain this certification or training and performing the assessments. Teachers wouldn’t necessarily evaluate the parents of their students, but perhaps another teacher’s students.

    It’s not a full-fledged, perfect idea. Let’s face it – there aren’t any in education. It is, however, an idea.

  8. Barbara Stevens


    I loved this article! Speaking of stupid ideas…. True story: years ago I had a principal (no longer associated with my district) who tried to motivate teachers to have 100% parent conference attendance by letting them win a toaster….yes, I said “toaster.” The winner of the toaster asked the principal to donate the toaster to the faculty room because first of all, said winner already owned a toaster and second of all, realized that it was a highly inappropriate act that took away from the real reason that teachers wanted parents to come to conferences.

    Teachers who see the value of parental collaboration and involvement do multiple things daily to ensure high parental involvement. However, having said that, there are conditions which can prevent high involvement at the fault of no one person. Poverty is an issue which can create educational hardships on many families. Some of these families may not have the ability to help with homework, come to every conference or meeting, nor be a presence in school leadership positions. Some work 2 or 3 part time jobs with no benefits and sacrifice much of their time with their children in order that their children have a better secured future in education. Some of these parents have not graduated from high school. And yet, some of these families DO come to conferences at the risk of losing their jobs. I agree that there is MORE to this issue.

    I am fortunate to be working in a title one school that has heavy parental support. The community here has built this support over the years and are heavily invested in their children’s education. As a teacher, I am weary of outsiders of the school community making quick judgments about what is best for these families. A parent who had been in an accident who couldn’t come to the conference asked for a phone conference instead. Understanding the bigger picture about WHY we have conferences leads to greater support for these children’s families. Having a phone conference to let this parent know how her child was doing in school was not the only communication I had with her. Teachers communicate much more than is required by standards and so do parents. That is why the term “accountability” is becoming a dirty word to my ears… when did people decide that teachers felt no accountability? And why do some people think that giving away a “toaster” or “extra pay” will suddenly make teachers or parents “perform?”

    Like many of my colleagues, I teach all week and teach groups after school as well. I communicate regularly with parents, look at data, collaborate with my colleagues weekly, write and acquire grants for the benefit of my classroom, and SOMETIMES get 8 hours of sleep a night. To top it off, I genuinely care for my students and their families, and they for me.

    My response to those who try and legislate almost every aspect of education is this: “we are not “bubbles on a multiple choice answer sheet” So, please stop treating us as one.” There REALLY CAN BE MORE THAN ONE RIGHT ANSWER.

  9. elfling

    I heard a principal say that his school was very successful in increasing evening parental attendance by having a meal and child care, so that parents juggling their very small spare time would be able to come as a family to the meeting in lieu of making and eating dinner that night at home. I thought that was a pretty powerful idea.


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