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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/ 1/2010

Why paying parents to attend school events is wrong

By Valerie Strauss

The following piece was written by Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He writes a blog for teachers and is the co-author (with Lorie Hammond) of "Building Parent Engagement In Schools." He is also a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Larry Ferlazzo
In the past week, two school districts have announced plans to start paying parents to attend school events such as parent-teacher conferences. A small-scale effort is planned in Delaware, while a $1.5 million program was announced in Houston. (The Houston plan includes the discredited idea of paying students for increased test scores. These comes four months after New York City admitted failure and ended a project that paid parents to, among other things, attend school events.

There is no question that schools should try hard to connect with parents. Studies have found that students are more successful academically when there is a strong parent/school connection. Research last year found that schools would need to increase spending by $1000 per student in order to gain the same increase in student achievement that comes from successful parent engagement. The methodology of that study, in fact, was even reviewed and validated by the Washington Post’s expert pollster, Jon Cohen.

But as Daniel Pink has shown in his book "Drive," providing financial incentives may work in the short term to motivate people to do mechanical tasks (such as showing up for a meeting), but it will do little to stimulate more cognitively challenging work (such as making it a priority to ask children about their school day or helping them with their homework).

In fact, it can actually further reduce motivation for doing those more challenging tasks. And when the incentives are gone, everyone is worse off than before.

What should be done instead?

Schools can organize home visits to families to learn what is going on their lives, what their hopes and dreams might be, learn from parents what has helped their children be successful in the past, and help connect parents who have similar interests/concerns.

Over the past four years, teachers and other staff at our school, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, have made 1,500 home visits. Teachers and staff receive professional development credit for attending home-visit trainings prior to making visits and are paid a stipend for each visit they make.

As a result of these visits, parents have helped to initiate an internationally recognized family literacy project, and they have planned and participated in a school-based Parent University that offers resources and needed information to help entire families be more successful.

Data collected on the effect of these home visits—especially during key transitional times—show positive outcomes for student success. Schools throughout our district and across the United States are expanding these home visits with the help of the nationally recognized Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.

Schools can recognize the difference between parent “involvement” and parent “engagement” and see that, while “involvement” is good, “engagement” is better.

During my 19- year community organizing career, a key topic of discussion was the difference between irritation and agitation. The dictionary defines "involvement" as "to envelop or enfold — take over." The definition of "engagement" is "to interlock with — mesh."

With "involvement," ideas and energy tend to come from the school’s "mouth;" with engagement, the energy comes from schools using their "ears" to listen to parent ideas and concerns and to build genuine reciprocal relationships.

With the notion of "involvement," we tend to irritate more, with schools telling parents what they they want them to do to help the school. Officials do a lot of one-way "communicating," sending to parents flyers, computerized phone calls, newsletters. Community partnerships that schools develop through parent involvement tend to be narrow; for example, someone will get a police officer assigned to the school, or ask the local business partnership to sponsor a scholarship.

With "engagement," we agitate by challenging parents to act on concerns they have voiced and there more of an emphasis on two-way "conversation." The purpose of parent engagement is to improve the entire community, and partnerships are broad and deep; for example, instead of simply getting an officer assigned to the school, the focus would be on neighborhood safety overall. Businesses and government would provide support so that all high school graduates could attend college.

Schools that emphasize involvement tend to believe that power is a finite pie -- if parents get some, then schools will have less. Parent engagement takes the approach that the more people who participate, the bigger the whole pie gets and the more possibilities for positive change are created.

Schools in Texas and California who are working with the Industrial Areas Foundation, and its member religious congregations and community groups, recognize the importance of that kind of community organizing. They have had some successes, such as bringing health care services to local schools and getting traffic lights placed at dangerous intersections.

The Annenberg Institute For School Reform has found that this approach used by schools and community groups throughout the United States increases both parent engagement and student academic success.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama administration can encourage schools to expand parent “engagement” efforts and recognize many different schools that have successful parent engagement models.

The administration should be applauded for proposing a substantial increase in funding for what it calls parent “engagement” efforts. It should go further and support all of the policies and funding described in the Family Engagement In Education Act, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Todd Russell Platts (R-PA), which details several specific policies to support parent engagement on the national, state, and local levels.

In addition, the Department of Education has been very public in its recognition of parent engagement programs at charter schools. These charters should be recognized for their great work with parents, and many are also able to be more selective about which students attend and include parent involvement requirements.

Many non-charter public schools with challenging student populations and who do not have the ability to require parent participation have, nevertheless, been able to generate very successful parent engagement efforts. They, too, should be held up as models of what schools and parents can do together.

Yes, we need to be more creative about how schools can develop and strengthen a parent connection. But we do not need to bring an inappropriate and ineffective financial incentive idea from economic theory into the equation. Perhaps we could support schools doing something a little more “old-fashioned” instead – like build relationships?


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 1, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo, Parents  | Tags:  daniel pink and drive, larry ferlazzo, parent university, paying parents, paying parents and schools  
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I am shaking my head that our society has come to a point where some areas are paying parents to attend PTA meetings. I guess the only good thing about it is that it points to the desperation being felt.

Thank you for pointing out what is REALLY needed is working on the relationships with parents. The home visits approach sounds terrific.

Another practical solution may be to offer some basic child care during the meeting for parents of pre-school children who are often too exhausted and frazzled to collect the toddler(s) and get out the door. Some grocery stores do this, and both parents and kids love it.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 1, 2010 7:36 AM | Report abuse

Some good PTSAs I have known organize good child-care and homework-monitoring to minimize the cost of remove yet another barrier to parent participation in meetings. That's especially valuable to low-income and single parents.

Posted by: incredulous | September 1, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

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