Engaging parents to help their children succeed at school

The French Ministry of Education has expanded a parental involvement program to all public schools in the country on a voluntary basis

Structured group meetings between parents and school leaders motivated parents to engage with their children’s education

Engaging parents to help their children succeed at school is a low-cost strategy to improve educational outcomes. Research by J-PAL affiliates Marc Gurgand and Eric Maurin along with Francesco Avvisati, Dominique Goux, and Nina Guyon has shown that a program of structured group meetings between parents and school leaders increased parents’ involvement in their children’s education, which in turn improved student behavior and reduced dropout rates.

The Policy Influence

Based on evidence from the randomized evaluations, the French Ministry of Education has encouraged schools to foster parental involvement during decisive moments of their children’s schooling. In 2015, the Ministry made a parental involvement program available to all French public schools wishing to participate. The program is implemented at three key stages: in grade 1, when students enter primary school and start learning to read; in grade 6, when students enter middle school; and in grade 9, when students choose their high school track. The Ministry provides schools that wish to participate with discussion guidelines and supporting materials.

The Problem

Parental involvement in their children’s education is widely believed to bolster student performance, but many parents face barriers to supporting their children’s schooling.

Education is an important mechanism for improving disadvantaged children’s chances for success as adults. However, problems of poverty, absenteeism, and disengagement among students can contribute to many schoolchildren in industrialized societies graduating from school without mastering basic skills. In addition, poverty and low levels of education among parents are strongly linked with lower academic achievement among their children.

Better educated parents tend to be more involved in their children’s education, have a better knowledge of how school is structured, and have more educational materials at home—all of which can support a child’s schooling. If disadvantaged parents are unaware of the school’s structure or unsure about how to support and monitor children with homework and schooling decisions, then parental involvement programs could improve educational outcomes. Can parental involvement be fostered by schools, and used as a lever to improve student outcomes in disadvantaged areas?

The Research

Engaging parents to help their children succeed at school increased parents’ interactions with schools, improved student behavior, and reduced dropout rates.

From 2008 to 2013, J-PAL affiliated researchers and colleagues conducted a suite of randomized evaluations in France to investigate whether a series of structured group meetings between parents and school leaders could motivate parents to engage with their children’s education and improve student performance. The program consisted of three two-hour group sessions, open to all parents of grade 6 students. Discussions were generally facilitated by the principal, drawing upon precise guidelines designed by the district’s educational experts. Facilitators showed a DVD explaining the role of different school personnel, available in ten languages to reach parents who were not native French speakers, and distributed documents explaining the functions of the various school offices. The facilitators encouraged parents to become involved in their children’s education, explained the school’s structure and processes, and provided practical advice on how to support and monitor children with homework.

Researchers found that parents who attended meetings became signficantly more involved in schools: they were more likely to make individual appointments with teachers, participate in parents’ organizations, and be involved in their children’s education at home. This increase in parental involvement caused a large improvement in student behavior. The children of parents who participated were less likely to be absent or sanctioned for disciplinary reasons, and improvements were seen even in classmates whose parents did not attend meetings.

In a follow-up evaluation, researchers evaluated a similar program that aimed to help parents navigate the school system and get involved in their children’s schooling decisions during ninth grade, when students choose their high school track. Principals invited parents of low-achieving grade 9 students to attend two group meetings where they discussed the education options for their children. Where applicable, principals provided targeted information on alternatives to grade repetition or dropout, such as vocational high schools and apprenticeships. The program helped parents and their children make more realistic educational choices, reducing dropout rates from 20 percent to 15 percent.

“[The program] is based on the principle of shared responsibility: parents are responsible for their children’s education, schools are responsible for children’s education, and it is by working together that they will succeed.” French Ministry of Education. June 2012

From Research to Action

Based on these evaluations, the French Ministry of Education expanded the program to all public schools wishing to participate.

Based on the findings published in the final evaluation report, in 2010 the French Ministry of Education issued a circular1 to announce the expansion of the program to all grade 6 classes across 1,300 public middle-schools. The findings of the grade 9 student study encouraged the government to include the program in its 2014-2017 plan to reduce school dropout.

At the start of the 2015 academic year, the Ministry made the program available to all public schools. The program is encouraged at three decisive moments in a student’s schooling: in grade 1, when students enter primary school and start learning to read; in grade 6, at the beginning of middle-school; and in grade 9, when students choose their high school track. The Ministry has made the program materials available to all schools and included guidelines for running the sessions on the Ministry’s website.

In 2013 the program was replicated by The General Motor Foundation for South Africa (GMFSA) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and evaluated by J-PAL affiliates and colleagues (results forthcoming).

1Circulars are issued by government departments with the purpose of providing guidelines on new legislation, on codes of practice and/or background information on legislative or procedural matters.