Angel Harris (Duke University) and Keith Robinson (formerly at University of Texas) affirm the importance of parents to their children’s academic success. But Harris and Robinson note that researchers disagree on the type of parent involvement that is most helpful. Is it helping with homework? Reading to children? Engaging children in home learning activities? Teaching social skills? Communicating with teachers? Attending meetings and events at the school? Being involved in school decision-making?
None of these are what really make a difference, say Harris and Robinson: “We argue that traditional measures of parental involvement fail to capture the fundamental ways in which parents actually help their children academically… [T]he mixed results observed in previous studies indicate that parental involvement does not operate through the typical channels posited by researchers, educators, and policymakers.”
So what does boost student achievement? According to the authors’ research, it’s stage-setting. The analogy is to what a theater’s behind-the-scenes workers do so actors can perform successfully in the show. “Thus,” say Harris and Robinson, “a good performance can be characterized as a partnership between two critical components: (1) the actor embodying his or her role, and (2) the stage-setter creating and maintaining an environment that reinforces (or does not compromise) the actor’s embodiment of the role. Likewise, many parents construct and manage the social environment around their children in a manner that creates the conditions in which academic success is possible.”
The most effective parents, say the authors, set the stage for their children’s academic success by the life space and messages they orchestrate:
- They provide a secure home and neighborhood environment so children don’t have to worry about food and shelter and getting to and from school safely.
- They make strenuous efforts to get their children into good schools.
- They are supportive of academics, but also of non-school activities like ballet or piano lessons.
- Their support comes across as caring about children’s overall success, not pressure and micromanaging to get an A in math. This can be conveyed indirectly, for example, by a desk rather than a TV in a child’s bedroom, and lots of books and magazines in the home.
- They convey the critical importance of academic achievement to future options and life success.
- They show confidence in the child’s intelligence and ability to do well in school, fostering a positive academic identity and a sense of responsibility to not let the family down.
All this produces a strong academic self-concept in young people. Harris and Robinson note that it’s possible to have that, but not a positive overall self-concept – and vice-versa. The best outcome is both – a strong academic and general self-concept.
Harris and Robinson’s big point is that it’s parents’ stage-setting, not being super involved in school activities, that makes the difference. “Whereas traditional forms of involvement comprise any number of parental activities,” they say, “stage-setting requires that parents focus on only two factors: messages and life space. Certainly, parents can be traditionally involved in their children’s schooling in some ways to accomplish each of these factors. However, stage-setting aims can also be achieved without employing any traditional forms of involvement. Thus, a busy parent with a demanding career can be a successful stage-setter with minimal direct involvement in his or her child’s schooling.” This hypothetical parent’s influence is at work under the surface, subtly shaping the children’s self-concept, aspirations, and future possibilities. By not micromanaging students’ homework and school activities, parents may produce more autonomous children who are better equipped to make their own way through the challenges of middle and high school.
How much of this is related to socioeconomic status? Harris and Robinson note that in more-affluent communities, a variety of factors make it easier for parents to set the stage for academic success. In poorer communities, the opposite is true: weaker neighborhood institutions and public services, fewer college-educated adults in the home and neighborhood, less access to museums and other enriching experiences. In addition, say the authors, “over the course of a year a majority of the poorest families experience at least one of the following deprivations: eviction, crowded housing, disconnection of utilities, no stove, no refrigerator, or housing with upkeep problems… These conditions inhibit the development of educational skills, depress school achievement, and discourage teachers… Thus, stage-setting is not a proxy for social class but a mechanism that explains the link between social class and achievement.”
Harris and Robinson note that African-American and Hispanic families have an uphill battle in this area because stereotype threat – internalizing negative societal messages about intelligence and ability – makes it more difficult for children to adopt a positive academic self-concept. In addition, schools with a high percentage of black students are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, a higher rate of teacher turnover, and may be less successful at reaching out to parents. Thus, say Harris and Robinson, “black parents have a particularly unique challenge in effectively setting the stage for their children’s academic success.”
Studies show that parents of all SES levels have high hopes for their children’s school success. What matters is how those hopes play out day to day. Harris and Robinson suggest four possibilities:
- Parents don’t convey the importance of education and don’t provide an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces low achievers.
- Parents convey the importance of education but don’t create an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces mediocre or average achievers.
- Parents don’t convey the importance of education, but there is an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces average achieving students.
- Parents convey the importance of education and create an educationally supportive home environment – This usually produces solid high achievers.
Clearly some parents succeed in making these messages more central to their children’s frame of reference and creating a positive life space, thereby broadening children’s horizons, enriching their psyches, and setting them up for academic success.
The major conclusion Harris and Robinson draw from their research is that “stage-setting explains a greater share of the link between social class and achievement than traditional forms of parental involvement.” They believe that conventional home-school activities are not the most-effective drivers of students’ academic achievement, while the underlying stage setting – messages and life space – are what really makes a difference. It’s only because stage setting is so closely correlated with social class that it appears that SES is determining student achievement.
“To be clear,” say the authors, “we acknowledge that affluent parents are more involved than their less-advantaged counterparts. It is also true, however, that many educators find the anecdotally observed relationship between parent involvement and high achievement too appealing to ignore and thus promote parental involvement as the answer to most of the problems within K-12. We propose instead that affluent parents have created a space that sets their children up for success largely independent from their involvement… What contributes to the effectiveness of these positive factors within the life space, however, is that messages about the importance of schooling have a more lasting effect on the children of affluent parents because there are fewer threats in their lives that could disconnect their academic self-esteem from their global self-esteem.”
“The stage-setting framework suggests that the concept of parental involvement needs to be conceptualized differently in policy and practice,” conclude Harris and Robinson. Rather than pushing parents to be more involved in traditional school-based activities, educators should help parents understand and shape the factors that truly make a difference in their children’s academic success – messages about academics and certain home conditions. Schools should also address the ways they may be exacerbating economic and racial achievement gaps, including tracking and access to effective teaching. And by providing high-quality classroom experiences for all students, say Harris and Robinson, “schools can affect academic achievement independent from the life space parents create in the home.”
“A New Framework for Understanding Parental Involvement: Setting the Stage for Academic Success” by Angel Harris and Keith Robinson, The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, September 2016 (Volume 2, #5), http://bit.ly/2eDmCro; Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Spotted in Educational Leadership, September 2017 (Vol. 75, #1, p. 8), “Research Alert”