Educational Contracts for Parents

A metaphorical proposal for schools’ expectations of the home role by C.R. BELFIELD AND HENRY M. LEVIN
Privatization of education has become an increasingly common reform idea for America’s schools. Usually people think privatization means private-sector management of schools or voucher programs or even tax credits. Yet at its core, privatization in education refers to family effort—the private choices families make about how to educate their children.

Studies consistently find that variations in family circumstances, not variations in school quality, make the difference in children’s educational achievement. This is hardly surprising: More than 90 percent of the waking hours of a child from birth to the age of 18 are spent outside school in an environment that is heavily conditioned, both directly and indirectly, by families. In this sense, U.S. education already is heavily privatized.

The role of families should be taken more seriously. We propose considering families as contractual partners in education—that is, having contractual obligations on behalf of their children. For parents, these contracts are equivalent to the policies and programs implemented in schools. To a large degree, the idea of a contract is metaphorical because our society permits families to raise their children in diverse ways using a wide latitude of practices.

However, one still can view the family unit as a common denominator for all children and consider what practices could be imposed that would maximize the educational success of these children. Ours is not the first attempt to focus on the family to improve educational achievement. Yet we attempt to do more than propose specific programs. We identify the knowledge base that links family behaviors to educational outcomes and codify that into a metaphorical contract.

The Parental Role
Before the 1960s, differences in school resources and other characteristics were thought of as the dominant explanation for differences in achievement and years of schooling. But the “Coleman Report,” a massive study requested by Congress under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and published two years later, concluded that differences in family background characteristics were overwhelmingly more important than school characteristics in explaining differences in student achievement. Although sociologist James Coleman’s work was attacked, in part, for using a statistical technique that overstated the impact of families on achievement, its overall finding has been replicated in virtually every study in the ensuing decades. Both families and schools matter, but families clearly matter most.

While the importance of families is readily recognized in the academic literature, it is less emphasized in educational policy. The main focus of educational policy has been on institutional reforms within schools—in teaching practices, curriculum modifications, organizational changes or conventional privatization reforms (school choice or vouchers).

Almost all these policy reforms recognize that families do play a role. Advocates argue that school choice, among other benefits, will energize parents to become more involved in the education of their children. But the issue is one of proportion. The substance of parental involvement has been marginal relative to the possibilities represented by families for improving the education of their children. Rather, school policy for improving educational outcomes has been far more preoccupied with pressuring schools to change than inducing change in families.

One way to observe this emphasis is to compare the formal restrictions placed on schools with those placed on families. The schools that our children attend are subject to a sheaf of laws, rules, regulations, directives, guidelines and policies that are far too extensive for enumeration.

In contrast, the formal requirement for family participation in education as embodied in law is trivial. Basically, there is a single requirement: A child must meet compulsory attendance requirements (or meet participation requirements as set out for home schooling). But if better educational results are to be achieved, it is obvious that schools cannot do it alone. Changes in family behavior will be necessary as well. Of course, families are not the property of the state, whereas schools, more easily regulated, are public agencies. At issue is how to induce families to make these changes.

A Metaphorical Design
Our suggestion is to develop a family contract, setting out the practices that families could use to raise educational achievement and attainment. This is a distinctively different approach to that found in the literature on school-induced parent participation, which emphasizes small-scale programs at the margin of traditional education delivery.

We call this a metaphorical contract because we do not have ready mechanisms to enforce such a contract, and some of the terms of the contract may require resources that go beyond the capacity of some families. However, identifying the behaviors of families whose children exhibit educational success is useful. It is a necessary first step before seeking to induce change. We need to know what changes to make.

A knowledge base exists for what schools need to do to educate children effectively, and this is translated into financial support, resources and procedures. This knowledge base is always expanding on the basis of experience and research, although it is hardly unequivocal.

Paradoxically, the knowledge base concerning the family practices that have educational consequences is more clearcut than the knowledge base for schools. But it has been rarely used to affect educational policy. Nonetheless, it should be possible to draw on such evidence to set out behaviors that families could, if they so choose, use to increase the educational success of their children. In this case we are asking: If a family contract were developed setting out the responsibilities that must be met by families to maximize their contribution to the education of their children, what would such a contract contain?

Family Status
A wealth of literature exists documenting the strong ties between a family’s socioeconomic status, or SES, and children’s educational performance. SES is an important predictor of cognitive development, school readiness, school achievement and school completion, as well as other measures of child and adolescent well-being.

Three specific pathways have been identified through which the influence of SES is clearest: home environment, out-of-school time and parental involvement.

• The home environment of high-SES families is more conducive to educational advancement. The strongest effects are through the parent-child interactions, such as the creation of “school-like” homes, stronger language and literacy relations and less conflict within the home. High-SES families have better health and nutrition and follow a more structured daily routine.

In terms of the local environment, high-SES families reside in more socially organized neighborhoods, and they are less likely to move to a new home that would require their children to change schools. This pathway is the most important, and yet the one most neglected in current policies and school practices.

• High-SES families use out-of-school time (including summertime) in a more educative way. They enroll their children in preschooling and day-care centers, and they spend more time on reading. These differences are evident in the widening of educational performance over the summer period. Low-SES students have been found to fall further behind during the summer months.

• High-SES parents are more involved in their children’s schooling. They are more likely to have exercised a direct school preference and to be involved in school-based activities. High-SES parents monitor the performance of their children’s schooling more intensively and more effectively, and they assist their children with homework. It is this pathway that has received the most attention in terms of policy reform (and has been promoted by school choice advocates), and yet it is a relatively weak pathway to educational advancement.

Collectively, the three pathways of influence suggest a substantial educational advantage for children of high-SES parents—not including the more general economic, social and behavioral advantages that may accrue from living in a wealthy family. Some of these behaviors are only possible with higher family income while others require only positive behavioral changes. At least to some extent, these pathways allow us to identify specific practices and behaviors that parents can employ to improve educational outcomes.

Devising a Contract
Some schools have established contracts with parents, but these are brief and tend to focus on highly specific and functional contractual terms—for example, the time the student should arrive at school, the number of hours the student should spend in school, student comportment and parent volunteer requirements. They are certainly highly incomplete specifications of behaviors that parents might exhibit to maximize the educational performance of their children. We are unaware of any enforceable contracts that reflect the desirable activities.

Unfortunately, just to take what we know about the potential of the family for contributing to educational success and encapsulating that into a contract does not ensure change. The real challenge is to alter family (and school) practices by implementing the provisions of the contract. This seems daunting because of the inability of the state to monitor and enforce family behavior, particularly given the subtleties of behavior on child development. Yet a metaphorical contract at least permits us to conceptualize the purposes that such a contract might serve, even in the absence of strict enforcement.

The initial introduction of a metaphorical contract for parents to enhance the education of their children may take the form of an information bank. Much of the information on good practices to improve the educational prospects of children is not common or widespread in a form that spells out specific actions that families can take. Moreover, families are socialized by their experiences and circumstances to behave in certain ways and not in others.

The important work of the prominent sociologist Melvin Kohn, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, demonstrates that families are shown to prepare their children for occupational success by transmitting the values and behaviors of their own occupations. For example, a working class adult often will emphasize conformity, obedience, following rules and reluctance to challenge authority or seek alternatives. Children of professional parents are taught to challenge authority, negotiate and consider options. Each is preparing its offspring for success as the parents understand requirements from their own occupational experiences.

We can call this a knowledge constraint, but it also may be a capacity constraint in that some families, even if informed of practices that will improve educational outcomes for their children, may not have the capacity to act on that knowledge. Nevertheless, there is scope for parents to be made more aware of effective educational practices.

Families have a deep interest in the success of their children both in school and in life. If they can be convinced that feasible and practical actions will improve their children’s chances of success, they will be motivated to undertake these actions within their abilities and resources. We believe this incentive is a very powerful one, and it may be stimulated if more and better information is made available.

Simply knowing what is exemplary serves an important function as parents make decisions about their children. Many of the activities are feasible for almost any family, such as setting aside reading time for children, rewarding good school performance, discussing school experiences, reviewing a child’s schoolwork, taking children to the library on a regular basis, guiding television viewing, and so on. We believe there are many activities that parents would be willing to undertake both at home and in conjunction with schools if they knew these activities would have a positive effect on their child’s education.

The metaphorical contract could contain other responsibilities that parents cannot do alone because of a lack of resources. For example, students may need help with homework that parents are unable to provide. In this case, school or community-provided homework assistance or tutoring will be necessary, even though it will be up to parents to monitor their children’s needs and to make appropriate arrangements. Such assisted activities represent an intermediate range of activities where parents can take responsibility if they have assistance.

Some activities may require substantial assistance from parents to be able to fulfill the contract. At one extreme are such basic necessities for human and educational development as decent housing in safe neighborhoods, health care, employment opportunities and adequate income to provide amenities. In addition, they may include quality preschooling, summer schools, tutoring centers and afterschool programs and the provision of summer jobs for students and test preparation courses, including those for college entrance exams.

External support may entail longer school years and school days for children to accommodate educational enrichment. Both assisted and externally supported activities likely will entail a variety of providers including schools, other governmental organizations, philanthropic groups, community organizations and faith-based organizations.

Next Steps
Our contribution here has been modest: Our idea for a family contract is just that—an idea. To develop this idea would require a consensus on what families should be doing to improve the educational outcomes of their children. Our review of the evidence, which is not comprehensive but powerfully illustrative, suggests that a robust knowledge base relating family activities to educational success could be established. From this, we could establish a metaphorical contract that would set out categories and specific types of activities to which families would commit themselves on behalf of their children.

More difficult is the question as to whether there are any grounds for enforcement of any part of the contract. Enforcement requires both monitoring and sanctions. Monitoring of family behavior, particularly the more subtle components, is not likely to be appropriate or feasible, and sanctions for most family behaviors are unlikely to be available. We suspect there must be greater reliance on incentives, of which better child performance is primary. Other incentives should be in place to encourage student achievement, consistent attendance and school completion. Perhaps, welfare can be contingent on families’ compliance.

Issues of compliance and enforcement place the burden on families to ensure that their children make educational progress. However, that is where the burden has always lain. Even as we seek to improve our schools from within, it is important to recognize the fundamental roles that families play.

C.R. Belfield is associate director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, Box 181, New York, NY 10027. E-mail: cb2001@columbia.edu. Henry Levin is director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.