> half of those surveyed -- a broad cross section of white,
> black, Asians and Hispanic students -- said they could
> bring home grades of C or worse without upsetting their
> parents. One-third said their parents had no idea how
> they were doing in school, and 40 percent said their
> parents never attended school programs. In addition, one
> in three said they got through the day primarily by
> "goofing off with their friends."
> The study concluded that at least one in four parents
> were basically passive, preoccupied or downright negligent
> of their children. Only one in three students reported
> having daily conversations with their parents, and half
> the parents said they did not know their children's
> friends, what their children did after school or where
> they went at night.
> Other parents said that once a child left elementary
> school, the responsibility for managing the child's
> education shifted to the school.
> Children from immigrant families, the study said,
> performed worse the more "Americanized" they became.
August 7, 1996
Study Finds Parents, Peers Key to Students' Success in School
By MARY B.W. TABOR
Educators have squared off for 30 years over whether the home or school
environment has a greater influence on student academic performance. In recent
years, school-oriented reformers have dominated the debate, and billions of
dollars have been poured into reconfiguring schools, reworking curriculums
and retraining teachers.
Now, a newly completed study of the issue, best on some of the most
comprehensive research to date, argues that the more critical influence on
teen-agers' performance in school is their own parents and peers.
The 10-year study surveyed 20,000 students in 9th to 12th grade and their
families for one to three years. The results have been chronicled in a recently
published book, "Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What
Parents Need to Do," (Simon & Schuster) by one author of the study, Laurence
Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University who is an expert on
families with teen-agers.
Parents, Steinberg contends, have become "seriously disengaged," or
disconnected, from their children's lives. At the same time, he concludes in
the study, teen-ager's friends have become largely negative influences on
their attitudes toward school.
"We think the school-reform movement has been focusing on the wrong things,"
said Steinberg. "The problem isn't the schools, it's the disengagement of
parents and a peer culture that demeans high academic performance."
According to Steinberg, half of those surveyed -- a broad cross section of
white, black, Asians and Hispanic students -- said they could bring home
grades of C or worse without upsetting their parents. One-third said their
parents had no idea how they were doing in school, and 40 percent said their
parents never attended school programs. In addition, one in three said they
got through the day primarily by "goofing off with their friends."
The confidential surveys, conducted at a total of nine California and Wisconsin
high schools, were followed by student focus groups and one-on-one interviews
with hundreds of students and parents. Dr. Steinberg conducted the study with
Bradford Brown, a University of Wisconsin psychologist and Sanford Dornbusch,
a Stanford sociologist.
Although the follow-up interviews supported the general survey findings, the
researchers found that parents tended to view themselves as more informed
and more active than students suggested. But in the book there is no direct
comparison to thew responses of the two groups.
The study concluded that at least one in four parents were basically passive,
preoccupied or downright negligent of their children. Only one in three
students reported having daily conversations with their parents, and half
the parents said they did not know their children's friends, what their
children did after school or where they went at night.
Some parents, the study found, want to be involved but are too busy, even
when both parents are present if both work. Other parents said that once a
child left elementary school, the responsibility for managing the child's
education shifted to the school.
"The tendency for parents," said Steinberg, "is to think there is nothing
they can do, that it's the school's job, or that everything is cast in stone."
Parents have been singled out as well in other recent research, including a
a 1994 study by Child Trends Inc., a private research organization in
Washington, which also found that parents were far less involved when their
children reached high school. In addition, it said, high schools were also
less likely than elementary schools to encourage parental involvement.
Another 1994 study for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. found that half
of the parents surveyed blamed other parents for problems, saying a majority
of them left their children alone too much and took too little interest in
Membership in local chapters of the National PTA, meanwhile has dropped from
12 million parents in 1963 to just over 6 million this year.
Conversely, there has been a growth in programs seeking to bring more parents
into schools, often as volunteers.
"There is no question, if families stay involved through the high school
years, students show better attendance and better grades on report cards and
better behavior," said Dr. Joyce Epstein, director of the federally financed
Center on Families, Communities, Schools and Children's Learning at Johns
But Dr. Epstein and others remained reluctant to point to parent -- or peer
-- attitudes as the most critical problem.
"The reform movement hasn't been focused on the whole picture, that's true,"
said John L. Anderson, president of the New American Schools Development
Corp., a coalition of 500 public schools in 23 states dedicated to bringing
new teaching methods into classrooms. "But to say you can't fix schools until
you fix these other things, that's a cop-out."
John F. Jennings director of the Center on National Education Policy, a
private not-for-profit policy center in Washington, expressed similar thoughts.
"This book is an important part of the debate," he said. "Ultimately schools
will run up against the roadblock of parents' attitudes toward education."
But, he added, problems within schools still must be addressed.
In "Beyond the Classroom," Steinberg and his fellow researchers offer parents
advice, based on their findings. Consistent discipline and constant
communication with teen-agers, they said, work better than dictatorial or
overly permissive approaches.
They also contended -- in what may seem surprising to many -- that attending
school programs and extra-curricular activities was a more effective way to
encourage students than monitoring homework. Parents of successful students,
the study found, "work the system" by consulting with teachers and following
through on their suggestions.
Yet even the best parents, can be overshadowed by peer-group attitudes, Dr.
Steinberg and others say.
In some cases, high-achieving friends encourage each other. But more often
than not, peer groups act as cement shoes, the study suggested.
More than half the students surveyed said they never talked about schoolwork
with their peers. When asked what crowd in school they would most like to be
a part of, one in three said the "partyers," while one in six said the
"druggies." And nearly 20 percent said they did not try as hard as they could
in school because of worries about what their friends might think.
"When I check notebooks, it's an atrocity," said Eric L. Height, 49, .a high
school English teacher in Mahopac, N.Y., about 50 miles north of New York
City. Height teaches 11th and 12th grade students, most of whom come from
white, middle-class homes. "There are virtually no notes. These students lose
their books. They don't bring pens or notebooks to class. When I try to
discipline, some of them just pick up and walk out."
Seeking insight into student failure, past studies have pointed to income,
family structure, even the number of times a family moves between cities, as
the critical factors. But in "Beyond the Classroom," Steinberg concluded that
of all demographic factors, ethnic background appeared to outweigh the others
in determining academic attitudes among teen-agers and their friends.
The study found that Asian students said they spent twice as much time on
homework as other students, were more wary of failure and were rarely accepted
into the social cliques.
White students said they tended just to try to get by. And black and Hispanic
students said that although they recognized the value of high school and
college degrees, they did not greatly fear the repercussions of poor grades.
Children from immigrant families, the study said, performed worse the more
"Americanized" they became.
Despite the powerful pull of their children's peers, Steinberg argued, parents
should not just give up at home or depend solely on reformers' abilities to
"No curriculum overhaul, no instructional innovation, no change in school
organization, no toughening of standards, no rethinking of teacher training
or compensation will succeed," Steinberg wrote in the conclusion of his book,
"if students do not come to school interested in and committed to learning."