My View: Advice for parents who want to be partners in their kids’ education
October 15th, 2012
04:29 AM ET

My View: Advice for parents who want to be partners in their kids’ education

Courtesy Lisa MacerBy Sam Macer, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Sam Macer is a PTA dad and foster parent. As the immediate past president of the Maryland PTA and the current president of the Maryland Foster Parent Association, he uses his 30 years of PTA experience to support Maryland’s foster parents as they strive to provide the youth in their care with safety, permanency, wellbeing and educational support.  He was recently honored at the White House as a PTA “Champion of Change.”

 (CNN) - As a PTA parent, grandparent, uncle and foster parent to over 40 children I have gained valuable experience in the area of parent engagement. I have had children who absolutely hated school and children who loved the challenge of being the best they could be. As a PTA leader, I have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts, experiences and perspectives with all parents concerning their efforts to raise and sustain academic achievement and build a strong home/school connection.

There are four basic suggestions I share with parents: Make  the commitment, make a plan, determine  expectations and coordinate effective parent–teacher conferences.

One of the first things I share with parents is the need to make the personal commitment to be involved and engaged the entire school year. I have never had an "easy" school year. Many times I have had to remind myself why I am engaged and why I need to stay engaged. There are many challenges to being an effective support for the children and their teachers and every once in a while I have to remind myself of my commitment. Commitment keeps you in the game. Once a parent loses commitment, things sometimes go by the wayside, the child can begin to drift through the school year and the teachers feel less supported.

Please don’t be that parent who comes to school in March to sign your child out early and when the secretary asks you for the teacher’s name, you don’t know it. Don't give the school a reason to ask, "Where have you been all year?"

Next, I always suggest that parents and caregivers lead the effort to make a basic "flexible plan" for the school year. Customize the plan according to your family’s lifestyle and the child’s educational needs. The plan needs to have goals and expectations created by the child and the family. From kindergarten to the 12th grade, everyone should know what is expected during the school year in the areas of grades, attendance, homework, behavior at school, watching TV and playing after school and other items that are relevant to the household and the processes during the week. After consultation with the teacher, part of the plan should include how the parent and teacher will communicate.

I made the mistake of not having a very basic plan during my early years of parent engagement and the children simply did not understand the expectations for their school year. As a result, we sometimes stumbled our way through.

I share with parents my personal view concerning academic expectations. The prevailing thought is that expectations should be set high. For me, this is a relative concept. Every child is different. I meet the child at his or her current educational level and make plans to raise that current level to proficiency in math and reading; we can usually build from that point.

It is not realistic to expect that the struggling child will consistently bring home A's and B's. These are expectations that could set the child up for failure. Expectations for a struggling child may be to have at least a C grade average while the parent and the teacher provide additional resources and a plan to raise the child’s level of academic performance. Expectations can be adjusted enough to challenge the student to reach the next level but not so high as to act as an unrealistic burden for a developing student.

Parent-teacher conferences can be an effective tool to support academic achievement. There are some basic considerations for having a productive conference:

• Request a parent-teacher conference each quarter. Do not wait for the general conferences coordinated by the school. The teachers usually have a very limited time to speak with each family during the general parent-teacher conference night.

• From kindergarten to the 12th grade, include the student in the conference. Parent-teacher conferences are an excellent opportunity to build and maintain the home-school connection and to introduce a young student to the idea that the teacher will be working closely with the family.

• Make certain to engage the student in the conference dialogue. For middle school and high school students who have not attended a conference it may take a special effort to get them to attend. The older students need to be there to be a part of the planning process to address any educational  weaknesses and strengths. No matter what the age of the students, they feel empowered, included and accountable.

• To be better prepared, create a list of pre-conference questions and submit them to the teacher three to four days prior to the meeting. This will allow the teacher time to prepare and offer comprehensive comments to address issues and concerns.

• Parents should have knowledge of the learning expectations for the year. Make the at-home support efforts align with the learning in the classroom.

• Identify areas in need of improvement.

• Create a short-term improvement plan before the conference is over; set goals and determine follow-up efforts.

The above “universal concepts,” when applied, have helped some of the most challenging children stay in school and eventually come up to grade level. It has also helped average students feel supported and connected at home and at school. These are just some of the numerous parent engagement tools, concepts and best practices we can use as members of the educational team.

Educators encourage parents, caregivers and families to be partners in the educational process and the above suggestions helps support that partnership. I encourage you to share your best practices by offering your comments below. It is great to have high-level policies and laws in place to support parent engagement, but it is the parent, caregiver, and family who provide the grass-roots assistance needed to raise and sustain academic achievement.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sam Macer.

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Filed under: At Home • Parents • Practice • Voices
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Jamil Khan

    I think that every single child of this world should be blessed with the education. First base of a person is education. Every child has a hidden talent inside. If a child would get an educational atmosphere, Indeed he would get involved into that. Especially the girl should be educated, In order to live this country. After a girl gets married, If she will be educated then naturally she would educate her children as well in future.

    October 20, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  2. Engaged parent

    I agree 100% and then some. The primary problem with education today, is not the school system, it is the lack of parental involvement. I always considered it MY responsibility to educate my children, not the schools. Too many parents drop their children off at schools and wash their hands of the process. If parents invested as much time and resources in their children's education as they do in Little League and AAU and other sporting activities, the US would not be lagging behind other developed countries in test scores. My children's education began at home, long before they started kindegarten and was nutured each and every day. Learning was made fun and exciting a public education was considered a huge priviledge, not something they had to do. Summers were spent reading and learning the next year's curriculum. There are too many free resources in the public libraries and schools themselves for people to use the excuse of lack of resources. It isn't easy, it does require sacrifices and adjusting your priorities, but, always remember, you reap what you sow. Lastly, I strongly disagree with the teacher that stated parents should back off in high school.. Shame on you. These years are paramount in a child's future, and yes children hopefully by this time know the ropes and do need to learn to start making reponsible decisions on their own, but the parents must still stay connected and enthusatic even through the college years as your children's educational journey transitions. My children were both Valedictorians of their HS, one was the Valedictorian of her undergraduate University and a current Medical Student. The other is thriving as a honors student freshmen of the University of her first choice. Your child's future is too precious to leave in the hands of anyone than yourself. Parent-up, take responsibility for your most precious commodity. Staying engaged in your child's education and teaching them to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and to appreciate and be excited about learning and attending school is a must, if you expect their educational process to be all that it can be.

    October 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  3. AnotherAnnie

    I agree with Mary Leonhardt, that by middle and high school, parents should be communicating more with their child and forcing the child to take on more responsibility for communicating with the teacher. For example, when my 6th grade daughter didn't complete a major project correctly, she received an F and was failing the class. I made her redo the project correctly, and then she approached the teacher with the work. I coached her in what to, which essentially was this: I'm sorry I didn't put more effort into this assignment. I thought I could get by with doing less, but now I realize I was wrong. I did the project over so that I cold show you what I'm capable of, and I hope you will take a look at it. Even if you decide not to change my grade, I am glad I did the project over because I learned a lot. Her teacher appreciated that she took responsibility, and she both accepted the project and changed the grade. Most importantly, my daughter learned to be accountable for her own behavior. No need to lie or make excuses; just tell it like it is, take responsibility, and suffer the consequences – good or bad – of your own actions. Parents who teach their children these concepts and hold their children accountable for fixing their own mistakes tend to have successful students. Parents who excuse their children's mistakes and put the responsibility for those mistakes on themselves, or on the teachers, tend to have students who underperform.

    Additionally, I agree with the article that not every student is realistically able to earn an A when all work, projects, quizzes, and tests are averaged together. Parents need to be realistic about where their children are and how much improvement each child is feasibly able to make each year. However ALL students can, and should, be expected to complete ALL of their assignments. So many of my failing students were failing because of a combination of zeroes AND low test scores. When a student completes an assignment, I can tell by his work if he "gets it" or not. Lessons and tutorials can be established as needed for struggling students long before the end of a unit. When a student doesn't complete and turn in work, it is impossible for me to properly evaluate his skill level prior to a quiz or a test. Parents need to hold their children responsible for completing all work.

    October 16, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  4. Guest

    Yep, my child's kindergarten teacher became a murderess & the 4th grade one was impeached for nepotism. According to this writer everything is the parents fault. Blaming only one side is why our schools do not work. Bring on the vouchers!

    October 16, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • ollie

      By your response, you really have no idea what actually goes on during the school day for any child, K-12.

      October 16, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  5. Roger Lockett

    It sounds like Mr. Macer has what I call a mixed family like mine; I am also a foster parent. I have 2 children of my own and 3 foster youth. Those of you who are foster parents probably know foster youth are almost always coming from terrible situations where school was not a priority. The children are often poor readers and have poor math skills. Some have not attended school very much over a period of months. I think the article is correct when Mr. Macer points out that we should not to set expectations at too high of a level initially. Foster parents cannot place their own expectations on a child in terms of school performance due to the child’s poor educational and life experiences. A good foster parent or any parent knows that improving academic achievement is a slow process. I like the fact that he has what I call “adjustable expectations” that rises as the child slowly builds their foundational skills. The concept of “A” and “B” grade expectations imposed by parents can actually be a barrier to the child’s foundational development if pushed too hard by the parent before the child is ready for the next step. If Mr. Macer has a mixed family like mine, I am sure he does not have low expectations for his own children but has already gone through the expectation process for his children over time. The challenge he has is to help the foster youth come up to par. If he is a PTA leader and a foster parent I am sure he is truly dealing with and managing two different worlds, using a variety of parent involvement skills.
    No, my children do not necessarily need quarterly parent/teacher conferences but from the high school on down to the elementary school the schools expectations are that my wife and I attend conferences each quarter and that can be challenging with 5 children. My high schoolers are right there with me when we meet with the teacher. With many of my children that come through my home there could be as many as 6 meetings a year if that what it takes to be supportive of a particular child. I can actually say that I have never had any teacher give me a hard time about the frequency of my meetings. I guess they know me at the school and also not many high school parents attend the meetings.
    In general Mr. Macer’s advice is good and can work for many children and families. I already do many of the things he suggested. Because a committed foster parent may sometimes deal with numerous children and educational experiences over the years we sort of develop special parent involvement skills to assist and help even the most challenging children.
    The bottom line is, children are children and we need to help them get the best education possible. I see that Mr. Macer is President of MD PTA. Maybe I will make the connection and share other ideas.
    Roger from Ca.

    October 16, 2012 at 2:52 am |
  6. Marie

    The part of this article that I disagree with is setting low standards for struggling students. I want my kids to aim high. I have three boys ages 10, 9, and 7. Why would I say to my straight A student you did excellent and then to my struggling student who gets D's and C's you did excellent? I have the same standards for all of my kids. I want them to all get straight A's. Some kids are just naturally intelligent some have to work their butt's off for it. I want my struggling son to want to get those straight A's and to stop at nothing to reach his goals. I know that every kid can get straight A's if they do all that is expected of them and have plenty of help to get there. That is backwards. In my own school life I struggled my way through elementary school and through out middle and high school had to study and work hard to get straight A's but I did it and even challenged myself with A.P. classes my junior and senior year. I did and my parents never told me anything other than we know you can do it if you are willing to work for it. The child must be empowered and must want it. I could not have done it without them breathing down my neck . Because of them I pushed myself and because of them I did well. Lowering your standards for struggling kids is like saying well you are too stupid to get A's but I think if you work really hard you could be able to pull off a C. That is not empowering at all.

    October 15, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Mitzi

      Marie, the reason you set achievable goals is so that children can know success. Success breeds more success. If a child has gotten C's or D's for 4 years in a row, it may be appropriate to set the bar at getting a B for one or 2 quarters. Once she/he has success in that, he/she will have the confidence to keep working even harder and go for the A in the next semester.

      Also, you don't want to destroy your relationship with your children over grades. You want your children to see you as their cheerleaders as well as butt-kickers, as setters-of-goals and limits. You do not want your children to see you as somebody who is always disappointed in them. If they feel they can never meet your goals, they will stop trying, and they will stop trusting.

      If you set goals too high, children (and adults) can become frustrated and begin to assume that they never will achieve. Positive reinforcement works by helping students achieve smaller goals and then raising the bar a little higher to the next achievable goal. There is a lot of research around the efficacy of positive coaching.

      Some students have serious learning challenges such as dyslexia, or vision problems. These can often go undiagnosed. If you set an expectation for a 9th grader that he will go from being a D student in reading to an A student in one semester, he will likely not think that’s possible. But if you tell him, "I think you can get a B by the end of this quarter, and I'm going to work with you every day," he'll be encouraged by your faith in him, and your commitment.

      Go back and read Sam’s article again. He writes from the experience of helping 40 foster children, all with different approaches to learning. Your method helped you as a student, but it might not be right for other kinds of learners.

      October 15, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
      • cass

        Mitzi, I agree 100% with you. I think some parents push too much and kids are not always able to meet the straight A expectations. I don't care how hard a child is pushed, doesn't mean they will get straight A's, only get burnt out and frustrated instead.

        October 15, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
      • Marie

        Mitzi I did read the article I just don't agree with it or you. Lowering standards and accepting less than the best is never the answer. You can disagree with me as well and I will not fault you for it. You are free to have your own opinion as am I. I understand the author was a foster parent and most of what he says I agree with just not that part. I also think people like him are amazing and rare and I applaud him for what he has done.

        October 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  7. Bruce

    Being "engaged" has been different for each of my kids. I had essentially no parental engagement at school and not even at home, so being an engaged/involved parent was my goal.

    While I've always aimed my kids to achieve high in school, that didn't always connect with my kids. One loves to achieve (all "A"s) and the other looks at all classes as pass/fail (just wants to pass, minimum effort only). Both excel at things they want to do (my "low" achiever is an advanced Scuba diver for example). My overachiever does so in part because she is a writer and wants to understand all this stuff so she can use it in stories (and likes the notoriety of being smart and knowing things). Both kids tested "gifted" in elementary school but have taken their own paths, for their own reasons.

    What was missing in this article was the notion to understand your kid and what motivates them. While it appears to be heresy, I don't buy the notion that we all must get the highest grades possible and it is the grade that is important.

    To be an engaged parent, to me, is to first know your kid and then help them travel through "our system" and find a good path for them. One part is school academics and grades. But education includes a lot more – a lot more at school: how to handle both the good and bad teacher, how to learn something you have little interest in, how to find something interesting in something thoroughly boring, social skills, etc.. One key engagement I've committed to them is if they need to get somewhere or want be part of something (team, club, event, etc.) , I'll help them get there (transportation, money, parental approval forms, etc.) but they are responsible for knowing what, when and where.

    Good article, but with so much emphasis on grades and test scores these days, I think we have skewed away from a more holistic approach to being an engaged parent.

    October 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  8. Miguel Pettus

    I love the process of bridging the gap, and making it full circle! It takes a community to raise A child.

    October 15, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      While I do agree that you need the entire community to help raise the child, the first level of responsibility belongs to the parents. As a PTA parent, I also see that the students who do best appear to be the parents who are the most connected with what is going on. This does not mean a parent who goes to every PTA function and gets under the teachers' feet, but the parent who is engaged with the teachers about what their children are being taught and how they can help reinforce those lessons at home.
      Conversely, the parents who are not engaged are usually the ones with the students barely holding on. They are the ones where the children are reading and performing below grade level, and the resulting frustration on the children's part usually results in behavioral problems, too. While community mentoring and other in-class support can help, unless the child sees a positive reaction on his or her parents' part to their improvement, any progress that had been achieved will be lost, and even regression could occur.
      The thing is, even if the emotional needs of the child are not being seen to, as long as the child appears to be fed, clean, somewhat appropriately dressed, and reasonably healthy, there is no state agency that can intervene and advise the family on better parenting. However, I am not, and refuse to blame this on the parents without looking at every aspect. For all we know, the parents are disconnected because they are too busy working to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. Often they are working 12, 14 or 16 hour days, six or seven days a week, so they cannot be there for the child. That is when Miguel is correct and the community must be their for the children.
      Find out about mentoring programs and get involved with them. Help tutor in your neighborhood school, or be a reading or math coach for those kids. Run after school activities for them.

      October 15, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  9. Poltergeist

    You have to, have to, have to, have to be involved in your child's education if you expect to raise anything smarter than what the television will produce. And if you don't, then they can serve burgers to the foreigners that did when they grow up.

    October 15, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  10. christian

    I get what they are saying it is ture

    October 15, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  11. Mary Leonhardt

    As a high school English teacher for over 35 years, I can agree that most teachers welcome parental involvement and support. I also really like the idea of students being involved in any parent/teacher conferences.

    But I guess here is where I disagree. By the time children are in high school, I think parents should be standing back a bit. Teenagers need to start being responsible for their own learning, or how are they going to make the transition to college? Plus many, probably most, high school teachers teach around 150 students. Expecting a teacher to have four lengthy conferences a year for every child simply isn't reasonable. Some high school students, especially those on ed plans, do need this kind of support, but most don't.

    October 15, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I agree that parent teacher conferences with every teacher 4 times a year would be serious overkill. Frankly, Now that my two daughters are in middle and high school, I rarely have or need much direct interaction with their 14 teachers. However, when I do perceive a need to, I do not hesitate to contact a teacher about my daughter's progress.
      OTOH, I keep up with my children's schoolwork on a daily basis. I expect my kids to behave in school and do the best work they are capable of. No more, no less.

      October 15, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
      • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

        Mark, the school our daughter attends has two parent-teacher conference days per year to evaluate performance. Plus, her school Principal maintains an open-door policy for parents to observe how things are done. This can be a pop-in, too, so you don't get special staging. Add to that we have numerous parents and grandparents of kids in our schools that are reading and math coaches to help struggling kids, as well as parent volunteers in the Cafeteria and Recess Playground. So in our school, at least, our parents can be involved all year long in cooperation with the teachers and administrators.

        October 15, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Marie

      I think it is still important for parents to be involved at the high school level. Yes kids need to be prepared for college and be held accountable for their academic success. High school kids still need that crucial guidance and to feel like they have people in their lives that care whether they succeed or fail. I realize that the teachers might find it hard to address each child, but if they would address the issues with the parents as needed instead of just at conference time, it would be easier for them to interact with all of their students parents. I think that even teachers sometimes aren't great at communicating their students needs with the parents. It is not just the lazy parents who don't support them. Communication is a two way street.

      October 15, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
      • Mary Leonhardt

        Ah yes, Marie, but here is what I found. The students in my high school English classes who did the really outstanding work rarely had parents who interacted much with me. They interacted with their children, and trusted that their children would tell them how they were doing, and that their children would come to me if they needed extra help.

        When parents were still very involved in teacher discussions in high school, I found that their kids showed less initiative, less creativity, and just less enthusiasm overall. I understand that there are often situations when parents do need to be involved, but on the whole I found that my students did better when they were allowed to be independent.

        Being very involved with your child does not mean you have to be directly involved with the teacher. Let your child be the one who is involved with the teacher.

        October 15, 2012 at 7:03 pm |