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Nancy Hill, Amy Baker, and Kevin Marjoribanks discuss the present state and future direction of family involvement research and evaluation, from the perspectives of developmental psychology, evaluation, and education, respectively. (See the end of the article for their affiliations.)

What is the present knowledge base of and future directions for family involvement research and evaluation?

Nancy Hill: The most important findings to date include the consistent evidence that parents and families matter for children’s achievement across developmental levels from preschool through college; identification of the multiple dimensions of family involvement, such as involvement in academic activities at home, volunteering at school, and participating in school governance and communication between parents and teachers; and socioeconomic and ethnic variations in family involvement in education and its impact on achievement.

A recent study found that, across socioeconomic status (SES) levels, parental involvement in seventh grade was positively associated with students’ educational and occupational goals in eleventh grade.¹ However, the mechanisms of this relationship differed across SES levels. For the higher SES families, family involvement in the seventh grade was associated with eleventh- grade educational and occupational goals through its influence on school behavior and academic performance. In contrast, for the lower SES families, while there was a strong direct relation between family involvement and educational and occupational goals, family involvement was not associated with academic behavior or achievement. These findings suggest that while parents from all backgrounds may understand the importance of involvement, and may indeed become involved, they vary in their effectiveness across SES. The research on ethnic differences in parental involvement demonstrates differences among Whites, African Americans, and Hispanics on the types of involvement strategies engaged in, their mechanisms of influence, and their effectiveness. These findings across demographic backgrounds are important for translating research to programs and policies.

Website to Watch

The newly created Family Strengthening Policy Center (FSPC), a program of the National Human Services Assembly, seeks to make family strengthening a priority among human services organizations. Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, FSPC is also a part of the Foundation’s Neighborhood Transformation/Family Development and Making Connections initiatives. A series of FSPC policy briefs includes articles on the role of parent involvement in education and on child well-being, as well as on the connections among families, schools, and community resources brought about through school-linked services.

Additional research is needed to identify mechanisms that explain ethnic and socioeconomic variations in family involvement in school. Although the literature is consistent about mean-level differences in involvement and about differences across SES and ethnicity in the effectiveness of involvement, we still need a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of these differences that would inform intervention programs.

Additional research also is needed to better understand developmental variations in appropriate family involvement between elementary and middle schools. Although some research finds that parental involvement declines between elementary and middle school, family involvement still matters for adolescents. Much of the research, theory, and program development for family involvement in education are based on elementary-school based models, including a single teacher with whom to develop a relationship and a welcoming environment. Current theory and research do not include aspects of family involvement that are unique to middle school, such as involvement in course and track placement. It is these types of involvement strategies—those unique to the middle school level—that open or close doors of opportunity for adolescents when they graduate from high school.

With regard to evaluation, scientists and practitioners need to pay particular attention to the effectiveness of programs for families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic minority backgrounds. Impoverished families are less likely to become involved in schooling than wealthier families, and schools in impoverished communities are less likely to promote family involvement in education than schools in affluent communities. Disadvantaged families need more information than their more affluent counterparts. Intervention programs, therefore, may be more effective in promoting and enhancing parental involvement for more affluent families than for lower SES families. Differential effectiveness of an intervention program for enhancing family involvement could, consequently, result in an increase in demographic gaps in achievement. It is therefore important for intervention studies to investigate how to reach out to disadvantaged families in order to promote involvement among families from all backgrounds.

Amy Baker: Decades of developmental theory and basic research have documented that parental involvement in children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development is of paramount importance for children’s well-being and attainment of positive long-term outcomes. Nonetheless, applied evaluation research has been much less successful at making the case for the effectiveness of specific parent involvement programs and practices.

Although this “evidence gap” is generally attributed to the inability of educational and evaluation researchers to employ random assignment designs, other methodological limitations are equally problematic. These include the use of nonobjective measures and inconsistent definitions, and failure to isolate the effects of parental involvement from other components of intervention programs or parenting practices. It is likely, for example, that the effects of parental involvement are mediated by ecological and contextual factors, such as the quality of the parent-child attachment relationship, educational philosophy of the school, practices of specific teachers, children’s individual learning styles, and variation within parent involvement programs and practices.

However, too often evaluation research is insufficiently theory driven to measure these contextual variables. Moreover, the small samples typical of evaluation studies tend to prohibit a thorough analysis of within-group differences on outcomes due to preexisting characteristics or intervening experiences. The multisite evaluation of Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters is illustrative.² The impact of the program’s parent-child educational activities on children’s academic achievement was found to vary both within and across sites. However, the significant intervening factors could not be identified, because the sample size did not allow for analysis of interaction effects and mediating processes.

A further challenge for the field is that although policymakers call for increased parental involvement, practical and valid guidance is generally not available to help schools, teachers, and parents realize this goal. Qualitative research has demonstrated that, despite sharing the belief that parental involvement is a worthy objective, parents, teachers, and school administrators have very different ideas about what parental involvement means in the day-to-day life of schools and families, and about how to achieve it. Far too little attention has been paid to facilitating this process on the front line.

Parent involvement research needs to take better advantage of evaluation science, be more theory driven in selection of measures and testing of hypotheses, and be more willing to incorporate the perspectives of children, parents, and teachers. Only with the combined strengths of scientific rigor and practical applicability can the promise of parental involvement be achieved.

Kevin Marjoribanks: Research and evaluation suggest that parents have a major role to play in their children’s learning and in creating educational opportunities. We know that an academically oriented family environment for elementary school children tends to be one where parents have high aspirations for their children, provide stimulating reading and other learning experiences, have an understanding of the importance of schooling, and have knowledge of their children’s schoolwork. We also know that high school students benefit when parents provide, or are assisted in providing, a family setting in which they encourage their children to stay on at school, talk about the importance of schooling, praise children for schoolwork and homework, show interest in what their children are doing at school, and have high aspirations for their children. However, we also know that for some families, supportive learning environments do not translate into children’s school success. Students from certain cultural and social groups receive fewer rewards for their interactions with parents and other adults than do students from other groups.

School organizational and academic structures can create constraints on the educational opportunities of students, depending on family background. Although programs may be developed to assist parents with the enrichment of learning experiences in the home, it may be just as important for parents to be actively involved in decisions that schools make about their children. The placement of students into certain schools or in ability groups within schools, for example, may relate as much to family- -background considerations as to children’s academic potential. Parents may need to become more socially and politically active to ensure that their children receive school experiences that are related to meaningful educational outcomes.

Family involvement research and program practice have tended to concentrate on individual-family factors, such as encouragement, support, opportunities, and aspirations. It is likely, however, that for children from certain family backgrounds there exist group-family factors, such as group sharing of economic resources for children’s education, the premium placed by the group on education, and group solidarity, that are of major importance; these factors must be better reflected in research and practice.

Parent involvement programs are unlikely to reduce substantially family-background inequalities in educational outcomes until they enhance individual-family factors, incorporate group-family factors, and involve parents meaningfully in school decisions about their children’s educational experiences. As such, intervention studies need to consider parent involvement programs in light of those family-background characteristics that influence children’s life chances.

¹ Hill, N. E., Castellino, D. R., Lansford, J. E., Nowlin, P., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J., et al. (2004). Parent academic involvement as related to school behavior, achievement, and aspirations: Demographic variations across adolescence. Child Development, 75(5), 1491–1509.
² See

Nancy Hill is associate professor of psychology at Duke University. Contact: Duke University, Box 90085, Durham, NC 27708-0085. Tel: 919-660-5755. Email:

Amy Baker is director of the Center for Child Welfare Research at the Children’s Village. Contact: Child Welfare Research, The Children’s -Village, Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522. Tel: 914- 693-0600 ext. 1596. Email:

Kevin Marjoribanks is head of the School of Education at the University of Adelaide. Contact: University of Adelaide, School of Education, Education Building, 245 North Terrace, Adelaide SA 5005, Australia. Tel: 011-618-830-35628. Email:

Holly Kreider, Project Manager, HFRP

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