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Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools

Summary and Discussion

This report has provided new national data on the extent to which fathers and mothers are involved in their childrens schools and the relationship of that involvement to five measures of how children are doing in school. Involvement in school was measured by the number of different types of activities that parents have participated in since the beginning of the school year. The activities are fairly typical of those available in most schools: attending a general school meeting, attending a regularly scheduled parent-teacher conference, attending a school or class event, and volunteering at the school. Parents were said to have low involvement in their childrens schools if they had done none or only one of the four activities. They were categorized as having moderate involvement if they had done two of the activities. They were said to be highly involved in their childrens schools if they had done three or more of the activities. In this section, the major conclusions that can be drawn from the report are presented. Data limitations and suggestions for future research are also discussed.

Major Conclusions

Although some of the specifics of the analyses are lost when generalizations are made, taken all together the results suggest the following broad conclusions.

The involvement of fathers, as well as mothers, in their childrens schools is important for childrens achievement and behavior.

Children do better in school when their fathers are involved in their schools, regardless of whether their fathers live with them. The importance of parental involvement in their childrens education has been recognized for many years. For many policymakers, school administrators, and families, however, this is often assumed to mean that mothers involvement in schools is important. This assumption has some basis in truth, in the sense that mothers are more likely than fathers to be highly involved in their childrens schools, and the extent of their involvement is strongly related to childrens school performance and adjustment. However, fathers involvement is also important.

In two-parent families, the involvement of fathers exerts a distinct and independent influence on whether children have ever repeated a grade, get mostly As, enjoy school, and participate in extracurricular activities, even after controlling for mothers involvement in school and other potentially confounding factors. In father-only families, fathers involvement increases the likelihood that their children get mostly As and reduces the likelihood that their children have ever been suspended or expelled./1 The involvement of nonresident fathers in their childrens schools reduces the likelihood that their children have ever been suspended or expelled from school and that they have ever repeated a grade, even after controlling for the resident mothers level of involvement and other factors.

Fathers in two-parent families have relatively low levels of involvement in their childrens schools.

Many fathers in two-parent families are not very involved in their childrens schools. Nearly half of fathers in two-parent families have participated in none or only one of the four school activities since the beginning of the school year. In contrast, only 21 percent of mothers in two-parent families, 26 percent of mothers in mother-only families, and 29 percent of fathers in father-only families have participated in none or only one of the four school activities. It is not structural factors, such as work commitments, that account for fathers in two-parent families having low levels of involvement because the data reveal that single-fathers with custody of their children have levels of involvement that approach those of mothers. Rather, it appears that two-parent families divide the tasks of their households so that mothers assume greater responsibility for child-related duties, including involvement in their childrens schools.

The low participation rates of fathers in two-parent families, however, offer schools an opportunity to increase overall parental involvement. By targeting fathers, schools may be able to make greater gains in parental involvement than by targeting mothers or parents, in general. Because mothers already exhibit relatively high levels of participation in their childrens schools, there is less room to increase their involvement. The opposite is true of fathers in two-parent families. Fathers in two-parent families, moreover, exhibit a tendency as their children grow older to become or remain involved in two activities: attending class or school events, and volunteering at their childrens schools. Schools could encourage this tendency by offering fathers more opportunities for participation in these two activities. For example, schools could offer fathers more opportunities to coach sports teams, drama clubs, or other extracurricular activities; develop special orientation events aimed at fathers; or ask fathers to talk to students about their work or about specific skills, hobbies, or interests that they have. Because many fathers do not have the flexibility of being available during school hours, opportunities for involvement in the evenings or weekends might also help to increase their involvement, as well as that of working mothers.

Single mothers and fathers are involved in their childrens schools.

Single mothers and single fathers exhibit nearly as high levels of involvement in their childrens schools as mothers in two-parent families. Forty-nine percent of single mothers and 46 percent of single fathers are highly involved in their childrens schools compared to 56 percent of mothers in two-parent families. Studies have repeatedly found that parental involvement is higher in two-parent than in single-parent families. While true, those findings do not acknowledge the extent to which single parents are involved in their childrens schools. When the comparisons are based on parents, as is done in this report, instead of families, the extent to which single parents are involved in their schools is clear. The reason that single-parent families have lower levels of involvement than two-parent families is primarily due to the fact that there is only one parent in the household to be involved.

Children benefit when their nonresident fathers participate in their schools, not when their fathers just maintain contact with them.

The active participation of nonresident fathers in their childrens schools is strongly related to childrens behavior as measured by whether the children had ever been suspended or expelled and whether they had ever repeated a grade. However, children who see their nonresident fathers, but whose fathers do not participate in any of their school activities, do no better on any of the outcomes than children who have not had contact with their fathers in more than a year or who have never had contact with their fathers. The reason that existing studies are inconclusive as to the importance of nonresident fathers for their childrens lives may be because the simple measure days of contact is often used to measure involvement. The results from this study indicate that it is not contact, per se, that is important, but active participation in childrens school lives that matters when it comes to educational success.

School climate is related to parental involvement.

Mothers and fathers are more likely to be highly involved in their childrens schools if the schools welcome parental involvement and make it easy for parents to be involved. Involvement is also higher if classroom and school discipline are maintained and if teachers and students respect each other. School climate influences parental involvement even after controlling for school size and type (public or private).

Limitations of the Data

There are two limitations of the data that need to be recognized. First, the NHES:96 is a cross-sectional survey, and as such, it is not possible to definitively establish the direction of causation for observed associations. For example, fathers may be more likely to be highly involved because their children are doing well, or their children may be doing better because their fathers are highly involved. Second, the information about childrens school experiences and school climate is based on parents reports. It is possible that parents who are highly involved are more positive about how their children are doing and about the schools their children attend, which could account for some of the observed association between parental involvement and student outcomes and between parental involvement and school climate. However, it is unlikely that a tendency for highly involved parents to be more positive about their childrens school experiences or their childrens schools is a major explanation of the findings because the association between fathers and mothers involvement and student outcomes is also apparent for more objective measures (e.g., grade repetition).

Suggestions for Future Research

The limitations discussed above could be overcome by collecting longitudinal data on these topics and by seeking more objective measures of student outcomes and school climate. Such data could support and strengthen the results of this research. Longitudinal data would help to sort out the causal direction of many of the associations identified in this report. By collecting information on student outcomes from schools as well as parents, researchers would be able to determine whether parents participation in school activities colors their attitudes or their assessment of how their children are doing. Such information would be useful to other studies, such as this one, which do not have access to school records. It would also provide a stronger test of the relationship between parental involvement and student outcomes. Comparing parents reports of school climate with schools reports of specific practices that they have to involve parents and schools assessments of their own climate would also be informative for the same reasons.

The results of this report also indicate that it would be useful to develop and collect more discriminating measures of nonresident fathers involvement in their childrens lives in order to understand more fully the relationship between nonresident fathers involvement and childrens well-being. Such data are much needed because existing research is inconclusive about whether the continued presence of nonresident fathers in their childrens lives matters.

In addition to collecting new data, there are other research questions that it would be fruitful to pursue. An important question concerns why parental involvement in school is important for children. There are several possible explanations that are not mutually exclusive. One possibility stems from the notion of social capital. Parental involvement may be important because it makes the childrens worlds more cohesive; that is, it establishes more links among the people and institutions in the childrens lives that most influence them. A second possibility is that parental involvement changes the childrens school environments in a way that makes the environments more conducive to learning. Parental involvement could also influence teachers and administrators so that they intervene early when potential problems in the childrens performance or behavior are noted. A third possibility is that parental involvement directly changes childrens behavior through its concrete demonstration to the children that education and school matter to their parents; that is, childrens motivation and attitudes towards school may change when their parents become involved in their schools. A fourth possibility is that parents who are involved in their childrens schools do other things that benefit children and it is these things rather than their involvement in school that really matters. In exploring this possibility, the authors found that although involved parents were more likely than less involved parents to participate in other educational activities with their children, parental involvement in schools still remained important. Of course, there may be other factors, unexamined in this report, that could explain the association between parental involvement and student outcomes.

Other research questions would be useful to pursue: Is it only the number of activities that parents are involved in that matters, or are some types of activities, such as volunteering, more important than others? Is the intensity of parental involvement important? That is, do children fare best if their parents regularly participate in school activities compared to if they only occasionally participate? Is the influence of parental involvement in schools on student outcomes greater for more educated parents or is it the same regardless of parents education level? If the influence is due to a transfer of human capital through more cohesiveness in the childrens immediate worlds, then one might expect that parents education levels would matter. If, on the other hand, parental involvement changes students own motivation, then the parents education should not alter the association between their involvement and students outcomes.


[1] It must be recognized that fathers who have custody of their children are a select group of fathers. It is still the case that following a divorce or nonmarital birth, mothers typically retain custody of the children. There is evidence in the report that single fathers who were not involved in their childrens schools were involved with them at home. Thus, the reason that there were fewer differences in student outcomes by single fathers involvement in schools compared to fathers in two-parent families may be because single fathers are not representative of all fathers.

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