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Top-down Parental Involvement

Another federal education boondoggle?

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By MARY GRABAR
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The conference drew dozens of vendors, many of them nonprofits. There was Building Positive Families, Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students), and groups promoting health, art, and the prevention of drug abuse. Some paid a vendor fee to put on a workshop. At Family First’s workshop, “Increasing Male Involvement and Engaging Dads in Schools,” Andy Mayer described the group’s services for schools, such as “All-Pro Dad” breakfasts and exercises that get dads (or father figures) “connecting,” with prompts like, “I’m proud of you because. .  .  .” Increased PTA membership is deemed a meas-ure of success. The PTA is the primary booster of the Family Engagement in Education Act of 2013, which would provide no new funding but lots of new instructions for how to spend it—in the words of a PTA backgrounder, “a roadmap for investment in sustainability of practice in family engagement in education” by schools, localities, and states.

The Athens conference was funded by nonprofit and for-profit vendors and exhibitors, as well as sponsors and registrants, according to Michelle Tarbutton Sandrock, parent engagement program manager for the Georgia Department of Education. Schools and districts, however, used Title I funds to send representatives to the gathering. 

Georgia College economics professor Ben Scafidi says the costs to the public for parental engagement personnel and activities are difficult to isolate. What is clear, as he noted in his 2012 report “The School Staffing Surge,” is that the United States spends more than other nations on nonteaching staff. Between 1970 and 2010, nonteaching staff positions increased 138 percent nationally, while teaching positions increased 60 percent and student enrollment rose only 7.8 percent, according to the Heritage Foundation. How much did it help? Between 1992 and 2008, math scores for 17-year-olds remained constant, and reading performance declined. 

Amid all the presentations and exhibits, conspicuously lacking was research establishing that government-sponsored parental involvement improves learning. When I asked Tarbutton Sandrock about this, she referred me to Karen Mapp of the Harvard Family Research Project and Anne Henderson, senior consultant for community organizing and engagement at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Both are advocates for government-funded parental engagement.

Fifty years into the War on Poverty, a vastly expanded, federally funded bureaucracy works to manage parents’ involvement in their own children’s schools. Meanwhile, educational attainment stagnates and poverty grows. 

Mary Grabar is a writer in Atlanta

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