Not Your Cupcake Sale: Parental Involvement that Drives Learning


Arina Bokas

The recent story of Dee Heinz – a Texas mom who came up with a humorous flyer asking families to donate money in lieu of time-consuming fundraisers for her school’s PTA – has created many headlines, praising her creative approach to the school fundraising business. Admittedly, the language is very funny. What makes it almost satirical, however, is the blunt truth behind it – to support their children’s education, parents spend so much time on running fundraisers and events that they prefer to write a check just to free up this time and spend it with their own kids.

The rational for being involved in their kids’ schools is clear to most parents. For close to two decades, we have been told in a number of ways that children of engaged parents do better in school academically and socially. The evidence is consistent: families do have a large impact on children’s achievement in school and later in life (Henderson &Mapp, 2002).

To be sure, American parents are very involved. According to Parent and Family Involvement in Education, from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2012, 87% of parents reported participating in a parent-teacher organization or association (PTO/PTA), 42% volunteered, and 58% participated in school fundraising. There are many positives to participating in such activities, of course, including creating memories for children, promoting a sense of community, and putting extra cash into classrooms. But realistically speaking, does such involvement affect developing critical thinking, understanding multiplication, or decoding reading material in our kids?

In her book The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley reveals some baffling data: the PISA survey, given to parents of students who took this highly-regarded international assessment in 14 countries, as well as other research within the United States, showed the same dynamic – volunteering in schools and attending events has little effect on how much kids learn. Moreover, on average, kids of parents who volunteered in extracurricular activities performed worse in reading than kids whose parents didn’t volunteer (2013, pp107-108). What could be the problem?

Most parents know that giving children a gift of their time and being involved in their schooling will benefit them in life. However, there seems to be a lack of clear understanding as to what type of parental involvement should take priority when it comes to education. While many parents in America put a lot of time into kids’ extracurricular activities – which do reap social and emotional benefits – this often comes at the expense of time for reading to them or talking about their learning.

In almost all other nations, including educational superpowers, parents are not expected to volunteer or to fundraise for schools. There is general understanding that parental involvement in education matters most at home.

What type of involvement really affects learning?  Reading is one. As trivial as it might sound, reading to and with your children matters. According to the same PISA survey, students whose parents had read a book to them  “every day or almost every day” or “once or twice a week” during the first year of primary school have substantially higher reading scores than students whose parents read with them “never or almost never” or only “once or twice a month”  (OECD p.1). Interestingly, there is also a correlation between how much parents read on their own and how much a child enjoys reading.

Talking to children about their learning, asking them about their interests and school activities, and discussing movies, social and political events are other ways to help them academically. “Students whose parents discuss political or social issues with them either weekly or daily score 28 points higher, on average, than those whose parents discuss these issues less often or not at all.”(OECD, p.3)

We have to admit, there are very few parents nowadays who can meet the demands of working, fundraising, extracurricular activities, and their children’s learning. The overwhelming support for Dee’s PTA fundraising idea suggests that time is a precious commodity.

There is no doubt that children benefit from countless hours that parent-volunteers annually invest in schools to supplement their budgets from various fundraising activities and to create memorable experiences for all kids. And if time allows to do this, contributing to such experiences is very honorable. Historically, though, Parent Teacher Association, PTA, has seen its main purpose in making “every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.” Above all, PTA advocates for excellence in education, and this advocacy starts at an early age and at home.

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Arina Bokas is the Clarkston PTA Council president in Clarkston, Mich., and the host of the Future of Learning television series on Independence TV.

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