The Role of Parents in K-12 Education

Two classmates grow up together from kindergarten. They sit next to each other in homeroom, have all the same classes with all the same teachers, and take the same state-required tests. One does well and one not so much. What accounts for the difference?

The answer depends on who is responsible for a child’s education. The role of parents in K-12 education was so large in the 1980s and 1990s that it hurt student outcomes. Now the reverse appears to be true.

Educator and researcher Rick Hess describes what schooling was like back in the day.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, American education paid a lot of attention to the quality of parenting and far too little to the quality of teaching and schooling. It wasn’t unusual to hear educators declare that certain students were unteachable or that they couldn’t be blamed for not teaching kids who weren’t there to learn.

In the early 1990s, I was supervising student teachers for Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and I’ll always recall one exchange that crystallized the old ethos for me. I was visiting an iconic Boston high school that had seen better days. The bell rang and the social studies class I was observing got started. In a room of 30 or 35 kids, there were maybe a dozen who were taking notes, participating, and paying attention. The rest were passing notes, staring out the window and generally tuning out. My student teacher tried all manner of teaching strategies, but none made much difference.

The class finally ended and the students shuffled out. The student teacher, his mentor teacher, and I sat down to talk. I asked the mentor, ‘So, how’d you think the class went?’

He said, ‘What really impressed me was how engaged the students were.’

I wondered if he was kidding. He didn’t seem to be. I said, ‘Here’s the thing. To me, it looked like maybe 10 students were really involved. Did I miss something?’

What he said next has always stuck with me: ‘No, that’s about right. But he had all of the students who were here to learn. The others, the knuckleheads, well, you just want to keep them in line.’

Times have changed much to the better since the ’90s, but don’t confuse Hess’ recollection to mean that he believes educators alone are responsible for today’s student performance outcomes.

In fact, the push to ensure teachers are responsible for educating ALL students has swung the pendulum to the opposite problem. Parents are now on the back burner, and some are even conditioned to prefer it that way. In some districts “parental responsibility” dare not be uttered for fear that parents will slam teachers for trying to make excuses for poor educational outcomes.

But the role of parents in K-12 education needs to be raised to an even par with teachers. Parents must “do their part” to ensure their children learn. That means making sure that students are prepared when they arrive in the classroom. That means parents must insist their children show respect for their teachers, complete their homework before returning to school, and accept school-mandated discipline without students calling on their parents to argue their way out of a fairly meted punishment. It means parents themselves must be prepared as well for activities like parent-teacher meetings.

If not, then parents are left off the hook while educators take the brunt for poorly prepared students. Hess describes the balance that needs to be struck.

Think about how this works in medicine. When we say someone is a good doctor, we mean that they’re competent and responsible; we don’t mean that they perform miracles. If a doctor tells you to reduce your cholesterol and you keep eating steak, we don’t label the physician a ‘bad doctor.’ We expect the doctor to do her job, but we expect patients to do their part, too. This is the handshake between doctor and patient, and saying so isn’t seen as ‘blaming’ the patient.

When the patient is a child, parents come to play a crucial role. If a diabetic child ignores the doctor’s instructions on monitoring blood sugar, we don’t blame the child or say the doctor is failing. We expect parents to learn what’s required and make sure it gets done.

When it comes to the handshake between parents and educators, though, things have broken down. After all, teachers can’t make students do their homework, turn off their devices, or show up at school on time. Parents can.

Hess isn’t letting teachers return to the days of selective attention, and he acknowledges that raising healthy, mindful children is hard work. But education doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. Turning over students to the school system and then complaining that they aren’t learning hurts educators who are doing a good job against the odds.

It doesn’t take a village to raise a child, but it does take a parent-teacher partnership to educate one.

Read Hess’ article in U.S. News & World Report.

Florida: Study Shows Impact of Marriage on Children’s Graduation Rates

Brad Wilcox at the Institute for Family Studies does some great research, and part of its greatness is that his results force policy makers to confront wisdom that is sometimes hard to hear, but ultimately super helpful in developing action plans.

The latest is a study he did on Florida schools, called Strong Families, Successful Schools, which builds on conclusions reached in a recent MIT study of 1 million Florida school children and found that poor boys are much more negatively impacted than poor girls, even within the same family, when families break up, and more so, that high-school graduation rates see a smaller gender gap when parents are married.

Wilcox and psychologist Nicholas Zill took the MIT study a step further and looked at the relationship between these variables on a macro-level — the county rates of high school graduation versus the number of married households with children in the county, across a five-year period.

Here’s what the researchers started out questioning:

We hypothesize that counties with more married families enjoy higher levels of parental engagement, better parental discipline, and more parental involvement in PTO groups, all factors that would likely redound to the social and educational benefit of children in these counties.”

This is what he found:


Specifically, Strong Families, Successful Schools finds that the share of married parent families in a county is one of the strongest predictors of high school graduation rates in the 67 counties across Florida, as well as recent growth in high school graduation rates in the Sunshine State.

The share of married families also is the strongest predictor of county school suspension rates in Florida in our models. Moreover, the share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida—factors that tend to get more attention in media and policy circles.

The report also finds that parental education is the best predictor of county high school graduation rates in Florida, according to our models (emphasis added). In sum, Florida counties that enjoy strong and stable families also tend to enjoy more successful and safer schools. Accordingly, policymakers, educators, and civic leaders should work to strengthen families—as well as schools—across the Sunshine State.

The study looks at several factors that play bear on high school graduation and suspension levels across the counties,  including marriage rates, adult education levels, income, race, and the size of the child population in the county.

The researchers acknowledge that the report does not look at the quality, character, and spending of county schools as they relate to graduation and suspension rates, and note that school quality obviously is a factor in performance. At the same time, however, the role of the family, specifically the relationship of parents, is a major variable in outcomes.

Click here to read the entire report.

Why Don’t Families With Housing Vouchers Move to Better School Districts?

If you have a housing voucher that you’re allowed to use anywhere, why wouldn’t you situate yourself near a good school for your kids? That’s the question that a new study dives into after learning that “voucher holders do not, on average, use their vouchers to reach better schools.”

Housing choice voucher programs, which have been around for more than 40 years, cost the taxpayers $19 billion a year. They provide assistance to approximately 2.2 million households, which include over 2.5 million children. The program has been in existence for 40-plus years. Studies suggest that kids in housing voucher programs who go to better schools end up better off in the long run.

Obviously, not every voucher holder cares about the school district where they live.

They may instead use their subsidy to move out of overcrowded living situations (Wood, Turnham, & Mills, 2008), write down rent burdens, find larger, higher quality homes (Mills et al., 2006; Rosenblatt & DeLuca, 2012), relocate to neighborhoods with lower crime (Lens, Ellen, & O’Regan, 2011), or satisfy other household demands. Certainly voucher holders without school-age children have little motivation to consider school quality in location decisions. And the long waiting lists for vouchers may, in practice, mean that many voucher holders receive their vouchers after their children have already started school. These voucher holders with children who are already enrolled in school at the time of voucher receipt have to weigh the potential benefits of a new neighborhood against the potential negative effect of school mobility (Chetty, Hendren, & Katz, 2015; DeLuca & Rosenblatt, 2010). Thus, only a subset of households are likely to be motivated by a voucher to move toward better schools: those with young children starting school soon.

So for those families with school-age children, what’s the explanation why their parents don’t move to better schools, especially considering that the vouchers are usually substantial enough to enable them to live in nicer neighborhoods?

Evidently, timing is everything.

We find that families with vouchers are more likely to move toward a better school in the year before their oldest child meets the eligibility cutoff for kindergarten, suggesting salience matters. Further, the magnitude of the effect is larger in metropolitan areas with a relatively high share of affordable rental units located near high-performing schools and in neighborhoods in close proximity to higher-performing schools. To be sure, the effects we find are not large, but they suggest that voucher holders do, indeed, move toward better schools when schools are salient and accessible.

In other words, if the kids are ready for school, then the parents pay more attention to the quality of schools near available rental properties.

Even so, voucher holders with school-ready kids may still neglect the search because better schools are farther away and the area is unfamiliar. For many parents, uprooting kids from their communities may be unpalatable, even for those with kids in lower-performing schools. Another potential barrier is the competition in those housing markets — nicer neighborhoods are in higher demand, and finding an affordable rental is difficult at the price permitted by HUD.

And while the voucher program may intend to help families with children move to higher-performing school systems, targeting those families is tough because the waiting list for vouchers, particularly in metro areas, are so long that kids are no longer at eligibility age by time the family receives a voucher.

The study noted that voucher holders who are not facing the time pressure of locating a place, a crunch that occurs usually for first-time voucher recipients, eventually end up in lower poverty neighborhoods with better schools during subsequent moves.

The research looked at 1.4 million housing choice voucher holders in 15 states, and compared it against data from 5,841 different districts to compare the quality of schools.

Read the housing choice voucher report here.

Online Educational Games Change Principles of Learning

If you’re lamenting that kids are not getting a practical education any more, take heed, technology is leading young people in entirely new directions, with online games that teach kids everything from how to save money in virtual piggy banks to how to run multinational airline scheduling and pricing operations.

TPOH will leave it to readers to try out some of these games to determine their value, but the simple fact is that young people are no longer beholden to classroom models for learning. Simulations, interactive play, and augmented reality offer new ways of problem-solving and development exercises.

The University of Akron, for instance, provides links to all kinds of study materials in the form of games that test not only kids’ motor skills, but math, technology, economics, U.S. history and government, and many other topics.

Most of the games can be played online though some are meant to be app downloads. Many of the games the university lists are for grades K-6, but some of the games on personal finance and entrepreneurship target grades 7-12, which is important if schools are not going to make finance classes mandatory.

Thousands of resources are available online for teaching financial education to young people. provides gaming-based lessons on microeconomics, industrial theory, and of course, game theory. These are higher-level concepts, and the demonstrations would make any college-age student sit up and pay attention.

Even the U.S. Mint has interactive games, including one that teaches youth about the branches of government. It’s a study tool that forces students to consult the Constitution when they get lost. What could be better than that?

Many of the online economics games offer business simulation strategies, and many are targeted at building collaborative efforts with thousands of players at a time. Some sites are agenda-driven, like trying to teach the value of alternative energy or cooperative farming. A lot of them, surprisingly, are free.

In all, it’s a brave new world out there. Students are learning in ways that many parents and older generations may never understand. So put on your virtual reality headset and hang on for the ride.