When I saw the headline in the New York Times—“Parental Involvement is Overrated”—suggesting that parental involvement doesn’t make a difference in a child’s education, my skepticism was immediately on high alert. After spending the past two decades at various times as an education reporter, a parent and even a teacher, I had seen too many instances of parental involvement either improving a child’s performance or changing the way a teacher treats a child for me to buy such a conclusion. But when I actually opened up the story and started reading, my skepticism flew off the charts.
After earning a bachelor’s in psychology and spending more than 25 years as a journalist and author, I’ve read literally hundreds of research reports. I think I have a thorough understanding of the scientific method. But sometimes the scientific method can lead you astray, bringing you to conclusions that defy logic and common sense.
That seems to be what’s happening here.
If you’ve ever sat down and read a book to a small child, soaking in the indescribable delight on their faces, watching the thrill course through their bodies like an electric current—and then observing them pick up a book on their own and try to mimic your reading—you can never doubt the incredible effect it has on a child to be read to by a parent. I can vividly recall the joy we brought to our children’s lives when my wife and I introduced them to the world of books—a world in which we have been blessedly immersed our entire lives. That joy was quickly transformed into passion as they each became avid readers. You can’t tell me there was no connection, that our involvement, our introduction, didn’t matter. To have some researcher come along and tell me such experiences don’t have an effect on a child’s performance is virtually laughable.
But that’s exactly what’s happening here.
The Times piece was written by Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a professor of sociology and African and African-American studies at Duke, adopted from their book, “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education.” The tagline for their piece on the Times website was simple: Most of what we do for our kids at school doesn’t matter.
As far as taglines go, you can’t get much more sensational than that. It was sure to pull in plenty of eyeballs—just like it instantly grabbed mine.
“Most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement,” the authors write. “In some cases, they actually hinder it.”
In describing their method, there was a lot of vagueness. While they say they analyzed longitudinal surveys of American families from the 1980s to the 2000s, they add that they “obtained” demographic information on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, academic outcomes and “information about the level of parental engagement in 63 different forms.” At least in the Times piece, they don’t specify how they obtained the parental involvement information. Was it by observation or was it by self-reporting—because those two methods are enormously different in terms of reliability. Parents know the entire education industry has put a premium on their involvement in their kid’s education. Ask them how involved they are, they will be as generous as they can to themselves—even if that necessitates some lying. This can have a huge impact on a survey such as this one.
The researchers culled through numbers and drew conclusions—but didn’t pass those conclusions through the bullshit meter. It would be like studying the statistics on traffic accidents, surveying the population and asking people whether they ever drive drunk—then concluding that drunk driving wasn’t leading to traffic accidents because most people say they don’t drive drunk.
However, one Saturday night hanging out at a local bar, getting in the passenger’s seat and letting one of your drunk bar mates drive you home—swerving and wandering all over the road along with the other drunk drivers at 1 a.m.—would be more than enough evidence to lead you to throw your scientifically derived results in the trash can where they belonged.
The authors say going to school to talk to your child’s teacher doesn’t affect student performance. Anyone who has ever observed a child who knows his father or mother could show up in the teacher’s classroom at a moment’s notice would see the folly in such a statement. You can’t tell me discussions with my son’s teachers had no meaning to him, didn’t motivate him to keep his butt in the chair and focus. And that’s not even discussing the profound effect the parent visit has on how the teacher treats the child for the rest of the schoolyear. My wife and I saw that one this year, over and over again, with the teachers in my daughter’s high school. Oh yeah, teachers are acutely aware of the grades they mark down on the sheet when they know the parents are watching just over their shoulder. I’m sure there are many parents and teachers out there who can say Amen to this one.
Again, conclusions not vetted by the bullshit meter.
But even more disturbingly, the authors draw race-based conclusions about parent involvement. They say regularly discussing school experiences with your child seems to positively affect the reading and math test scores of Hispanic children, to negatively affect test scores in reading for black children, and to negatively affect test scores in both reading and math for white children (but only during elementary school). And then they say regularly reading to elementary school children appears to benefit reading achievement for white and Hispanic children but it is associated with lower reading achievement for black children.
In other words, there is something “different” about little black children that makes them impervious to improvement when a parent reads to them—or even talks to them about school. So before you decide whether you will read to your child, first determine whether the child is black, white or Hispanic before you have any expectations about it making a difference.
Sounds stupid, right? Rather than going back to their numbers and trying to figure out what were the real factors affecting the results they were seeing, the researchers decided to key the results to skin color. The shade of the child’s hue must be the determining factor. If your child is white, it will make her do worse on her math and reading tests if you have regular conversations with her about school. So be careful what you say to her—unless she happens to be Hispanic, in which case it’s okay to talk about school.
To me, this borders on ridiculous, nonsensical “research” that most parents should quickly discard and pretend they never even read. As I said before, I have a lot of respect for the scientific method. But sometimes, the method produces something you’re likely to step in when traipsing through a pasture in the country: bullshit.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.