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Alfie Kohn on Parent Involvement in Education

By Marilyn Price-Mitchell Ph.D.

familyThose of us who blog at ParentNet Unplugged believe parents contribute greatly to their children’s social, emotional, and academic development. We know this from our own experiences in schools and from the research in multiple fields of study.

Alfie Kohn, a highly respected leader in the field of education and parenting, believes this too. And through that belief, he has become an outspoken critic of grades and test scores.  Like me and many of my colleagues, he urges parents and teachers to develop children from the inside out rather than focusing solely on external indicators of success.

In his recent two-part article, Parental Involvement in Education: What Kind? To What Ends?, Kohn asks some critical questions about the nature of parent involvement. What reasons should parents become involved in education? Who decides what involvement looks like? How much is enough?

Many schools want to increase parent involvement. But do they want to increase the numbers of parents who volunteer in classrooms? Or the numbers involved in fundraising? So much of the focus on parent involvement has been to ask questions that are quantitative rather than qualitative in nature.

When we focus on numbers, we lose sight of quality and meaning. We lose sight of why parents should be involved in their child’s development and how that occurs over the course of childhood and adolescence.

Alfie Kohn says, “While everyone wants parents to be engaged with what their children are doing in school, what matters more is the nature of that engagement. There’s a big difference between a parent who’s focused on what the child is doing – that is, on the learning itself – and a parent who’s focused on how well the child is doing.”

We must look at education and child development through a systemic framework. That is, we need to see the whole of education and how it relates to all of its parts rather than looking solely at the parts that need “fixing.” In my article at Psychology Today, Will Small-Part Fixes Save Public Schools, I suggest we need to shift the conversation from the quantitative to the qualitative – to start asking the kinds of questions posed by Alfie Kohn and others.

How much parent involvement is enough? How much should schools increase parent involvement? There aren’t good answers to these questions. And, in fact, they aren’t good questions!

As Alfie Kohn suggests, the more important topic is the nature of engagement.

That is exactly why we continue to write articles at ParentNet Unplugged that focus on how parents, schools, and communities create deeper levels of engagement. Beyond grades and test scores, we need to pay attention to the development of the whole child.

Some great examples of this focus include the following articles by former school principal, Rick Ackerly; school superintendent, Steven Constantino; and developmental psychologist, Josette Luvmour. I’m proud to collaborate with these and other youth and family advocates who write here.

I encourage you to read Alfie Kohn’s articles and to reflect on how we currently frame parent involvement.  Is our involvement as parents consistent with our long-term goals for our children’s development? If not, how do we engage with others to change the status quo?

Parent involvement is indeed much more complex than meets the eye. It’s also much more important than many believe.


Photo Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Posted on February 11, 2013 by Marilyn Price-Mitchell Ph.D.

Marilyn is co-founder and president of the National ParentNet Association. A developmental psychologist and researcher, her work focuses on positive youth development, youth civic engagement, and family-school-community partnerships. Follow her blogs at Psychology Today and Roots of Action.  Find her on Twitter and Facebook.


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