NASHVILLE - Educators exasperated by the need for greater parent involvement have persuaded Tennessee lawmakers to sign off on a novel bit of arm-twisting: Asking parents to grade themselves on report cards.
Another Tennessee measure signed into law recently will create parent contracts that give them step-by-step guidelines for pitching in. The report card bill - which would initially apply to two struggling schools - passed the Legislature, and the governor has said he is likely to sign it. Participation in the programs is voluntary.
Only a few states have passed laws creating evaluations or contracts that put helping with homework or attending teacher conferences into writing. Tennessee is the only one so far to do report cards, though Utah has parents fill out an online survey and Louisiana is also considering parent report cards.
The measures are meant to address a complaint long voiced by teachers and principals: Schools can't do it alone.
"It's a proven fact that family engagement equals students' success," said James Martinez, spokesman for the National Parent Teacher Association.
"It's one of the key ingredients to education reform, to turning around schools, to improving our country's children's knowledge base compared to the rest of the world."
Under Tennessee's contract legislation, parents in each school district are asked to sign a document agreeing to review homework and attend school functions or teacher conferences, among other things. Since it's voluntary, there's no penalty for failing to uphold the contract - but advocates say simply providing a roadmap for involvement is an important step.
Michigan is the only state that has enacted a similar measure, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the case of Tennessee's report card proposal, a four-year pilot program will be set up involving two of Tennessee's struggling schools. Parents of students in kindergarten through third grade will be given a blank report card at the same time as the students, and the parents will do a self-evaluation of their involvement in activities similar to those in the parental contract. Parents will give themselves a grade of excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement or unsatisfactory
Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat and the House sponsor of the measures, said the program may be expanded depending on how many parents participate.
"What we're hoping will happen with the parents grading themselves is that they will, at a minimum, become aware of either the good job that they're doing in regards to children's education, or possibly become aware of some areas where they may be able to make some improvements," said Parkinson, adding that educators can review the report cards with the parents if they choose.
Utah recently passed legislation that creates an online survey where parents can evaluate their involvement, but the school does not assign them a grade and it's voluntary. Louisiana is currently considering legislation to grade parent participation, according to the NCSL.
While cajoling parents through state laws is a new trend, the underlying idea is one that few would deny. A 2002 study by the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory found that no matter the income or structure of the family, when parents are involved students have higher grades, stay in school longer and are more likely to go to college.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said he's likely to sign the report card legislation, but like the other proposal he wants to see how it's implemented.
"The spirit behind it is 100 percent right," said the Republican governor. "The question is, if folks could mandate parental involvement, other people would be doing it before."
The state has previously been praised as a leader in education reform by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for other changes in state law including toughening the curriculum and teacher evaluations.
The Michigan measure that created the parental involvement contract also set up a "Parent Engagement Tool Kit" website that provides ideas on engaging parents, said Bob Kefgen, assistant director for government relations with the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.
"That contract language was one really important piece and we've gone much further than that," he said. "It's really about having a host of resources at your disposal because there's really no silver bullet."
Nada Fouani, principal at Iris Becker Elementary School in Dearborn, Mich., said she's noticed more parents getting involved since the measure was enacted in 2001.
"Our PTA has become larger and much stronger," she said.
Nashville resident Christi Witherspoon favors the measures. Despite her busy schedule as a doctor, she and her husband, Roger, spend as much as three hours each night helping their two young daughters with homework.
"I think it's of the utmost importance because I don't think children can be consistently successful without parental involvement," Witherspoon said.
Her daughters appreciate the help.
"I really enjoy my mom going over my homework," said 9-year-old Gabrielle. "If it's wrong, she helps me out with it."
And if mom isn't around, Rachel, 6, knows who to turn to: "I have my dad, or my sister."
Some families, though, face greater obstacles.
Corey Jenkins is a single father of three children ages 10, 12 and 14. The recently divorced 39-year-old just got a new job after looking for work for months. But he said he hasn't let his problems interfere with his involvement in his children's schooling.
"I can make excuses, but there are none that make sense," Jenkins said. "My children are most important in my life and so I make time when they need it. I enjoy attending parent/teacher conferences."
James W. Lewis, president of the National Society of High School Scholars, said that whether parents are single or married, they can make more of an impact when they know ways to help.
"In the state of Tennessee, they'll have to make sure those resources are put out there to allow for fair and equitable distribution of this training for parents," he said. "And if that's done correctly, I think there could be a very positive move toward helping students understand the value of education and also allow the parent to understand the value and the connectivity between education and their students' opportunity for learning."
Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, agrees. The teacher said she's encountered a number of parents in her 30-year career who seem disengaged and need direction.
"There are ways that the schools can promote that parental connection," she said.
The SEDL study identified several ways that schools can assist parents in supporting their children's education. A key way was providing information about how to help their children at home.
Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said he believes the state's parental proposals will be effective because they seek to forge a partnership between parents and schools.
"Parents don't need to go it alone, they need support," he said. "Schools certainly don't need to go it alone, they need support. A parental-school partnership is the ideal environment for improving student achievement."