By the time her daughter started kindergarten in the early 1980s, Anne T. Henderson had worked for years to reform schools around the country by increasing parent and community involvement. But she still encountered resistance when she tried to become more involved in her child's education.

"It was the old attitude of 'You decide what to do at home, and we'll decide what to do at school,' " Henderson recalls. "It was time for a new relationship between families and schools."

Henderson first began crusading to dismantle the fortressed bureaucracy of some public schools in the 1970s, at a time when groups like Common Cause and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen were pushing for government to be more responsive to citizens. "I went to public schools all my life and always felt that experience could have been better," she says. "I could have been treated with more respect, and my parents could have been more informed."

Throughout her 30-year career, Henderson has worked to improve public schools and make them more responsive to parents. From her office in Washington, D.C., Henderson now works as a senior consultant for the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University and as an independent consultant with parent and community groups, school districts, foundations, and national organizations. Recognized as a top expert on parent involvement, she frequently receives calls from federal policymakers with questions about research and trends, and she works with groups like the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, which she helped found, to advocate for legislation that protects the interests of parents.

Henderson has documented the benefits of parent involvement in education in numerous publications, including A New Generation of Evidence: The Family Is Critical to Student Achievement, which she coedited. According to A New Generation, students with involved parents earn higher grades and test scores, have better attendance, get more homework done, and graduate at a higher rate. They are less likely to be placed in special education, and they are more likely to pursue education beyond high school and have more positive attitudes and behavior.

Tying Involvement to Achievement

So just what does Henderson mean by "parent involvement"? It's more than going to school spaghetti dinners and PTO meetings. In fact, several studies have concluded that the typical PTO activities of volunteering at school, going to events, and making connections with other parents have—in and of themselves—little effect on student performance. The kind of parent involvement that most benefits students is tied to what they're learning in the classroom.

That doesn't mean parent leaders who spend hours coordinating office volunteers and fall festivals should give up those activities. The key is to find ways to link them to improving achievement, Henderson says. For a PTO, being involved in education may mean inviting students to perform at schoolwide events or giving parents tips for helping with homework. It could be as simple as asking students to organize an exhibit of their art work to be displayed at a pancake dinner or as involved as analyzing the school district report card required under the No Child Left Behind Act.

PTOs can play an important role in helping parents understand the school district report cards, which vary widely but may include data about teacher quality, funding, attendance, and discipline referrals in addition to student achievement. When a problem area has been identified, parents can work with school leaders to address it. For example, if students need to improve literacy skills, a parent group might publish student writings and host an author reception, extending an invitation to parent authors.

Because schools are under pressure to make adequate yearly progress, administrators who may have bristled at parents getting involved in academics are learning to take all the help they can get, Henderson says. "It's one thing to know your child is behind in math and another thing to know the whole class is or the whole school is," she says.

Any activity a parent group undertakes can have an educational component. A landscaping project could become a biology lesson. Students could research which plants are well-adapted to local conditions and could design the planting arrangement, Henderson says.

She recommends that parent groups examine how their existing events can help improve student achievement by asking the following questions:

  • How is this activity going to help people know what their children are learning, what the standards are, and how students will be assessed?
  • How will it help promote high standards for student work?
  • How can the PTO give people tools and information to help their children at home?
  • How can the group promote discussion in the school community about how to improve student progress?
  • How can the PTO help parents understand effective approaches to teaching and how they differ from when they were in school?

It's important to keep academic programs fun, friendly, and nonthreatening. Focus them around children to create greater interest among parents and offer translators to extend the welcome to all parents, she says. To make a big event feel more welcoming, divide participants into smaller groups to facilitate conversation. "The thing to avoid is an adult up in front of a room full of people droning on about some academic topic," she says.

Because parent involvement is so important to student success, Henderson recommends that PTOs offer parent-leadership training to familiarize families with how the school district works and where to turn when they need help. Its especially important to reach out to immigrants, whose children make up 20 percent of the school-age population in the United States and who may not know how to navigate the education system.

"All parents should feel honored and respected when they come to school," she says.

Anne Henderson's Top 5 Tips for Parent Group Leaders

1. Foster personal relationships. The level of personal relationships among parents and school employees is a strong factor in parent involvement. PTOs can do a number of things to promote personal relationships, Henderson says. Consider collecting classroom contact information to make it easier for teachers to reach parents. If your school receives Title I funds, ask that some money be used to have aides cover classes when teachers need to meet with parents, she suggests. To familiarize parents with school staff, create a handbook with job titles and photos of each staff member.

2. Rethink "cattle herd" events. "The usual back-to-school night is like a cattle herd, and parents leave not really having had meaningful contact with anybody," Henderson says. She recommends holding separate back-to-school nights for each grade. Parents could spend more time in their child's classroom, and teachers could take the time to explain their instructional approaches and classroom features that parents may be unfamiliar with, such as learning centers or math manipulatives. Consider following the back-to-school event with a classroom-visit day so parents can see how the classroom works.

Instead of a traditional open house, Henderson recommends organizing a themed educational night for the whole family. To boost math achievement, a PTO might organize or assist with a school math night, where children play games that reinforce math skills while teachers talk with parents about academic standards and provide tools for helping children with math at home. For a science night, students could display their science fair projects and teachers could talk about course material. Whatever type of event you choose, be sure to offer fun activities for the whole family. Tie in the event to what children are learning at school, and keep the tone friendly and nonthreatening.

When planning an evening event, ask families what it would take for them to attend. Some schools have drawn large attendance by scheduling programs right after the work day, offering a meal, and providing an after-school program or child care, Henderson says.

3. Ask families first. Before plotting all the ways you can get parents more involved, find out what topics are most important to them and what questions or concerns they have about school issues. Conduct focus groups, interviews, or home surveys to ask what kinds of programs are needed, and ask parents what meeting times and locations would be most convenient.

Safety is often parents' top concern. If parents are worried about the routes children walk to school or a dangerous street crossing, work to find solutions to those problems. "Responding to those issues really builds trust," Henderson says. "Then you can start working on achievement issues."

4. Look at the numbers. Obtain your school's standardized test scores and the school district report card, and look for any problem areas. If you find that third-graders lag behind in reading or that there's an achievement gap for minorities in math, talk to families and teachers to find out whats going on.

Ask the school counselor what the school needs to address the problems, then approach the principal and offer to help. "Every school is under the gun to improve achievement," Henderson says. If a group of parents goes to the principal and says they want to focus on student achievement so the school can make adequate yearly progress, she says, their offer of help is likely to be accepted.

5. Assemble home learning kits. Put together learning kits that teachers can send home with students. These may include updates of what the class is learning and "family" homework to reinforce the lessons.

If a child is having difficulty with math concepts, the kit could include a game for family members to play together and advice for parents on using it to teach math.

If the school needs to improve literacy levels, a learning kit could include a zip-top bag with a book, a cassette tape, and instructions for parents. A parent could sit with the child and the book, follow along as the child reads, and ask questions. "It's great for families where literacy levels are low," Henderson says.