Blueprints Navigation

You are currently in  

Family and Community

Families1 and the community have a great influence on children's learning. Families are valuable resources in educational reform, and children benefit when schools recognize and encourage parents' roles in reform efforts. Research has shown that a robust, highly interactive network of parents, community members, peers, and educators stimulates a child's learning and development (Bronfenbrenner, 1989).

The task of creating a network to support children's science learning and development is becoming more difficult, however. Changes in social structures and increased economic pressures have reduced the time and energy some families can devote to school involvement: single parents are often working more than one job, and in many two-parent households both parents are working.  Also, many households are changing configuration, as when extended families raise children.

Living Arrangments of Children Under 18 Years Old

Schools have always faced difficulties teaching students who are not prepared to learn, whether because of financial or other hardships.. These challenges are especially formidable as the nation works toward higher educational standards. This chapter discusses the role of family involvement in science education and in science education reform, and offers some strategies for addressing those issues. Some necessary changes-and specific suggestions for implementing them-are identified that can help all parents participate in their children's science education. Every family can have a role by engaging in educational activities with children at home, by being meaningfully involved with schools, or simply by supporting improved science education. Throughout the chapter, we point to specific examples of programs, projects, and resources that exemplify successful approaches to involving families and communities in science education. An annotated list of selected programs is included in Blueprints' Resources. These and other strategies can be used to realize the goal of involving parents in improving science literacy for all.

Some information in this chapter was collected through an extensive review of literature on parent involvement in education and through a series of 12 focus groups, each consisting of five to eight parents and other community members, in the rural, suburban, and urban areas in and around New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Local PTA presidents and school principals in each region selected the focus group participants. Because of their involvement with the PTA, these parents may be especially active in schools and knowledgeable about the education process. Other parents may have alternative points of view.

Current Issues

The following major concerns about science, mathematics, and technology education emerged from the focus groups:

These themes, as developed by parents in the focus groups, are discussed in the following sections.

Quality of Teachers and Teacher Training

One of the most prevalent concerns of parents in the focus groups was the quality of teachers, including the quality of preservice and inservice training that teachers receive in science and mathematics. These parents recognized that their children's motivation and interest in science and mathematics is often teacher specific. When students perceive that their teachers are competent and confident in science or mathematics, they are more apt to become interested in these subjects. Parents of elementary school children were particularly concerned about teacher preparation because teachers at that level seemed to spend more time on subjects in which they feel comfortable-such as reading and writing-than they did on science and mathematics.

Parents in the focus groups proposed ideas for improving instruction, including better teacher education, science specialists in elementary grades, and frequent and relevant teacher development. Despite their high level of awareness and desire for their children to achieve at higher levels, these parents reported that they generally take a passive role in their child's schooling, hoping their child will be assigned to a good teacher rather than demanding that teaching improve or change.

Classroom Instruction

Focus group discussions of the level and type of classroom instruction identified four major needs:

Suburban and rural parents emphasized critical thinking skills. Urban parents called for curricula pertinent to the real life experiences of their children and approaches that help students apply what they learn.

Parents defined the basics as more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. For example, they mentioned the ability to read a clock, count change, and do basic measurements. Parents recognized that science learning should extend far beyond the textbook and the classroom.

All of the focus groups indicated that hands-on activities related to real-life experiences and future career options are important in improving science education. However, they also stressed the need to include critical thinking and opportunities to apply skills to provide context and to engage students' minds.

Parents were frustrated with their limited knowledge of school reform issues. They indicated that they often hesitate to support initiatives that promote nontraditional methods of learning science because they are unfamiliar with them and uncertain about how they would work in the classroom. For example, most of the parents thought that an integrated curriculum sounded like a good idea, but were not sure exactly it would mean. Some suburban parents believed that collaborative learning would cause advanced children to suffer academically and might have a negative effect on their children's attitudes and motivations toward science.

Parents also mentioned the need to incorporate technology into student learning. Discussions focused on equipping classrooms with computers, but also recognized cost constraints and the need for training and technical support. Parents in urban areas found it hard to contemplate computer acquisition when their classrooms lacked books and basic supplies. In some urban and rural schools, the need for equity in technology use is especially critical.

Communication Between Schools and Families

The deep concern that parents expressed about reform clearly indicates that they understand the need to be actively engaged in the educational process. However, many parents-including those who understand that need-are not involved. Parents reported that poor communication creates large gaps in their knowledge of school issues, contributes to suspicion of reform, and results in their accepting current conditions and resisting change.

Parent Attendance at School Events

Communication with parents is especially important as schools continue to integrate technology into their teaching because parents admit to a limited understanding of the potential uses of technology in classrooms. Schools often do not include parents in discussing technology acquisitions and may not inform parents of the technological options available or the rationale for decisions that they ultimately make.

Communication also affects families' involvement in student learning. Parents who are involved in their children's schools reported that they participate mainly in activities peripheral to the learning process, such as chaperoning field trips or planning special events. For better or worse, communities trust in schools to "do the right thing." The reasons for minimal involvement include limited knowledge and uncertainty about curriculum and reform initiatives, a sometimes distant relationship between schools and families, and social and economic factors. For some parents, language differences are also a factor. Not surprisingly, these factors are interrelated. The bottom line is that, although parents may be concerned, they hesitate to discuss these concerns with schools and remain outside the process of improving science instruction.

Although many parents think schools are not preparing students sufficiently, they may not feel responsible for changing these conditions. Many parents in the focus groups who reported that they feel responsible for ensuring that schools prepare their children to reach standards said they felt powerless to change the current system. They felt that their ability to influence the process depends on how receptive teachers and school administrators are to their input. For example, although parents in the groups have some input into decisions such as selecting textbooks, they reported having little opportunity to make a significant impact on those decisions.

Parents were especially uncomfortable with change in science, a subject in which most of them admit having little proficiency. Research indicates that even well-educated parents may be fearful of science and have low levels of science literacy (Kober, 1993). This admitted lack of scientific knowledge leads many parents to view science only in terms of mastering discrete skills, without recognizing that understanding concepts and processes is necessary for intellectual growth and further learning.

These findings have two implications. First, to motivate parents to participate in their children's education, schools need to stress the link between proposed changes and the results that parents desire. Second, schools should design strategies to engage parents in working to reach those results. Because access to and influence on school systems may be limited for rural, low-income, non-English-speaking, and minority parents, schools in their communities need to make concerted efforts to improve outreach efforts.

Societal and Economic Factors

Not surprisingly, the most striking differences among urban, suburban, and rural parents in the focus groups were in how social and economic factors influence their involvement in schools. These factors can influence participation in many ways. Differences in educational levels, cultural background, language, and availability of time, money, and other resources all affect the family's ability and desire to participate fully in their children's education. School personnel can further inhibit family involvement when they act out of sociocultural assumptions that devalue the contributions of poorer, less-educated families; when they use educational jargon that deepens the communication divide; and when they ignore or disparage important economic, cultural, and language differences.

Parents may have low aspirations for their children's school achievement in general, or in science or mathematics in particular, because of their own low achievement in these areas. Some parents attribute success in science and mathematics to innate ability, rather than to effort and perseverance.

In communities where literacy and educational levels tend to be lower, family members who wish to be involved in their children's education may lack the confidence and skill to approach school personnel or to express their interests and opinions. Parents who have had little schooling or negative school experiences may be reluctant to work with educators.

Risk Factors Among Eighth-Graders

Immigrant and minority families have additional language and cultural hurdles to overcome in order to be involved. In areas where immigrant families are concentrated, language differences may pose a substantial barrier to family involvement. These barriers challenge schools to become more flexible, more aware, and more creative in their communications with students and families and in their outreach efforts.

Families from lower income communities often find that survival issues exhaust their personal resources. Many low-income parents work two or three jobs to provide for their families. Crowded living conditions, substandard housing, inadequate nutrition, and minimal health care may have a negative impact not only on children's education but also on the amount of time and energy their parents can commit to educational reform issues. The need for child care for younger children, fear for personal safety, and lack of transportation may be deterrents, as well, that schools should consider in their outreach efforts.

Nevertheless, parents in all segments of society are keenly aware of the importance of education to the future well-being of their children. When schools learn to communicate their vision for students in ways that parents can understand and to accommodate the realities of everyday family life in all kinds of settings, they can create powerful allies in their communities.

As daunting as these obstacles may seem, they can be overcome by using well-designed, research-based programs, such as the Comer School Development Program, ASPIRA's Mathematics and Science Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) Faith Communities Project, and Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork, which are described in Blueprints' Resources, to foster meaningful parent and family engagement in science learning. These and similar kinds of community-based projects have proven successful in reaching parents, regardless of income level, education, or ethnicity.

Strategies for Change

Families and communities can effect changes in science education by being educators in the home, by becoming actively involved with the school, and by advocating for improvements in science education.

Family Strategies

The first place for parents to participate in their child's education is at home. Studies show that when parents are involved in learning activities at home in a particular subject, such as mathematics, their children show higher achievement in that subject (Epstein, 1988). Parents do not need degrees in microbiology or engineering to help their children with science and math. They can start by turning off the TV and making sure homework is done. When parents monitor homework, students complete more assignments, have higher test scores, and improve their grades (Kober, 1993). There is a high correlation between students' mathematics achievement and limited television viewing (Mullis, Dossey, Owen, & Phillips, 1991). Many schools and communities sponsor homework hot lines, tutoring, parent workshops, and programs to help parents assist their children in science and mathematics homework. Some of these programs, which include Family Science, Family Math, Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork, and Project EXCEL-MAS, are described in Blueprints' Resources.

Next, families simply need to encourage children's natural curiosity and watch and learn along with them. Parents can model the pursuit Relationship Between Homework and Mathematics Proficiency of 17-Year-Old Students in 1992of lifelong learning, inquiry, and curiosity by reading, asking questions, discussing science-related articles, and visiting museums and science centers. Comer (1986) reported that many low-income parents participating in a parent involvement program became role models for their children simply by continuing their own education. Exciting mathematics and science materials-such as MegaSkills, Revised and Updated (Rich, 1992) and Helping Your Child Learn Science (Paulu, 1991)-reinforce the value of study while building thinking and problem-solving skills.

Parents can use the radio, TV, activity books, and the Internet to engage in home-based science projects with their children. The AAAS Kinetic City Super Crew radio program engages children in science activities. KidsNet, a project of the National Geographic Society, networks parents, students, teachers, and scientists in exploring vital, real-life, science-related issues. Print materials such as Manual for Teachers: Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS): Language Arts and Science/ Health Interactive Homework in the Middle Grades (Epstein, Jackson, & Salinas, 1992), Learning Science and Math in Your Community (National Urban League, Inc., 1994), and the series Family Connections (Appalachia Educational Laboratory) also provide suggestions for home science activities.

Finally, parents can promote high achievement, no matter where they live or what their income is, by letting their children know they have high expectations, especially in science and mathematics. Parents can convey the importance of high achievement and increase their child's self-esteem by setting short-term goals and providing rewards for achieving those goals.

School Strategies

Outreach and involvement of families and the community naturally extends the boundaries of school. By widening its sphere of influence to include parents, scientists, and other community members, the school can create a supportive dialogue for improving science education.

Percentage of Schools Where Most or All Parents Attend Events

Families and schools must agree on the goals set for the child, and both parties must recognize that each plays a role in the child's educational success. Walberg, Bole, and Waxman (1980) examined a school-wide K-6 program in which parents signed a contract pledging to set high expectations, provide an appropriate study environment, encourage learning by discussing work daily, and cooperate with teachers in matters related to discipline. Walberg observed significant gains in student performance. These results match similar findings by Levin (1987), who has had success in clearly specifying expectations for educators, students, and parents in the form of a contract in his Accelerated Schools.

Schools can increase family involvement by establishing parent advisory councils and involving parents in setting standards and expectations for students. It is especially important for educators to reach out to and involve minority, non-English speaking, and low-income families in developing these partnerships.

Types of Parent Input in Public Elementary Schools

Schools can also involve families directly as both learners and teachers. All parents-not just those few who are professional scientists-can teach by reading a book about science, gathering materials for an activity, mentoring or tutoring children in science and mathematics activities, or helping with a project. Teachers can develop homework assignments that involve family members and enable students to share knowledge of science and its applications.

Community Strategies

Community resources can supplement science learning in classrooms and meet the challenge of improving science education for all children in several ways. Churches, advocacy groups, and youth service agencies (e.g., health clinics, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the YMCA or YWCA) are valuable components of the reform effort, especially as science educators strive to reach an increasing number of low-income and minority students.

The National Urban League, the AAAS Faith Communities Project, and individual efforts such as Luis Moll's work with Mexican-American communities in New York have successfully engaged minority students and their parents in meaningful science learning. Some of these and similar programs are described in Blueprints' Resources.

Schools can use community resources such as museums, nature centers, businesses, and hospitals as sites for out-of-school learning for students and families. These informal arenas can provide an additional context for students to learn and understand firsthand the science concepts they are taught in class. Such venues-from zoos to botanical gardens-exist in both urban and rural settings. National and state parks, NASA Teacher Resource Centers, and Department of Energy Laboratories can also serve as sources of information and materials for families and teachers. Local plumbers, electricians, and mechanics apply science principles in their daily work, which they can demonstrate to students. Utilities, such as telephone switching stations and water treatment facilities, also offer possibilities for scientific inquiry. Businesses can serve as a valuable science education resource by providing science experts to work with teachers on designing instructional programs, offering applied settings for scientific inquiry, or supporting mentoring relationships between employees and students. High-profile support from business can also lead to wider political and community support for educational reform programs.

Although they are not available in all areas, colleges and universities can also be rich sources of scientific knowledge, expertise, and tools. Some of the most exciting science opportunities happen when scientists become involved with students and teachers in science projects. These collaborations provide role models for children and support for teachers. They also build mutual understanding and respect between K-12 schools and higher education. Community groups can play several possible roles to encourage or participate in these partnerships. For example, sponsoring a "university-school" mathematics and science night can provide the catalyst for planning long-term activities.


This set of recommendations requires collaboration among schools, families, and other organizations. Implementing these recommendations independently of other changes in the nation's educational system could be beneficial.  However, the radical reform of science education needed to promote science literacy among all students will occur only if players form all parts of the educational system work together toward shared science literacy goals.  The full and active participation of families, community members, and community-based organizations is a crucial component in effecting systemic change and ensuring science literacy for all students.
References and Bibliography
Chapter 12 Business and Industry

1More and more, grandparents, aunts, uncles, step-parents, and guardians may carry the primary responsibility for a child's education, development, and well-being. In this chapter, all references to "parents" and "parent involvement" include all adults who play an important role in a child's family life.

Blueprints Online
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Copyright © 1998 by American Association for the Advancement of Science