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October 2, 1997





Historically, researchers have paid considerable attention to issues concerning mothers and their children --such as the effect on their children when they work, when they stay home, or the special challenges of being a teenage single mother. Much less attention has been paid to fathers and to their role in their children's education. When researchers and analysts have focused on fathers, they often have concentrated on one set of fathers: nonresident fathers. Such research has focused mainly on these fathers' payment or lack of payment of child support and on the extent to which they see their children.

All the while, roles for fathers were changing, either in the two-parent family where fathers might be expected to share more of the care taking duties along with their working wives or as the nonresident father. About 3.4 percent of the children in this country are being raised by only their fathers. That last figure has tripled since 1970. However, we didn't know very much about how these changes affected fathers' involvement with their children's schools, nor even the more basic question of whether fathers' involvement actually influences their children's learning.

This new National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools, contains such information. Data for this study come from interviews with parents and guardians of almost 17,000 kindergartners through 12th graders. The information was gathered as part of the National Household Education Survey between January and April 1996.

Previous research documents that parents' involvement in schools is a strong indicator of children's academic success at school. In this study we wanted to learn first how much fathers are involved, and second whether their influence mattered in their children's academic success. Low involvement was defined as participation in none or no more than one activity at school over the course of a year, moderate to be two activities, and high involvement to be three or four activities. The activities include attending a regular school meeting, a parent-teacher conference, a class meeting or event, or volunteering.

The findings from this study show that fathers of more than half of the kindergarten through high school-age children in the country participate at their children's school at a moderate or high level. While such involvement of fathers in school in two-parent families is much less frequent than that of mothers (52 vs. 79 percent), it is far from uncommon. What is particularly interesting is that when fathers have sole responsibility for raising children, they are almost as likely to be highly involved in school activities (46%) as mothers in either two-parent or single-parent families (56 and 49% respectively). In fact, the study's findings indicate that the involvement of single-parents (fathers or mothers) in their children's schools approximates that of mothers in two-parent families.

Those fathers who are more actively involved in their childre-n's schools share a number of other characteristics as well that research suggests are related to better outcomes for their children. For example, they are more likely than low-involvement fathers to have visited a library, museum or historical site with their children, and more likely to have high educational expectations for their children.

How is the involvement of parents at school related to student success? The study used a number of school outcome indicators including earning mostly A's in school and ever repeating a grade. Overall, children are most likely to be successful when both parents have high involvement in their children's school, and far less likely to succeed when there is low involvement. These relationships were found even after other factors that might influence children's success, such as race and ethnicity, parents' education, and family income, were statistically controlled.

With respect to fathers in particular, the results show that children are more likely to get mostly A's if their fathers are involved in their schools. This finding is true in two-parent families even after controlling for the involvement of the children's mothers and other factors. When looking at this particular outcome, fathers' involvement seems more important than mothers. In single-father families, children are twice as likely to get mostly A's if their fathers are highly involved in school.

The report also presents some detailed findings on the activities of non-resident fathers in their children's schools. School-aged children in 1996 were more likely to have at least some contact with their fathers who were not residing at home than were children 15 years ago. While these fathers are much less involved in their children's school than custodial fathers (only 31 percent of them participated at all in any school activity), when they are involved, they make a positive difference, particularly for older children (those in the 6th grade and beyond). Again, these children are more likely to get mostly A's if their fathers are very involved at school. They are also less likely to repeat a grade.

In sum, this survey finds that children do better in school when their fathers are involved in their schools, regardless of whether their fathers live with them, and whether their mothers are also involved. It shows that single fathers and single mothers have high levels of involvement in their children's schools, almost as much as mothers in two-parent families. And when the level of school involvement by both parents is low, no matter what the makeup of the family, this study documents that the chances of student success in school are dramatically reduced.

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  • Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools