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Should developing countries shift from focusing on improving schools to improving parents?

Emiliana Vegas's picture

I travel to many developing countries in the context of my work for The World Bank. I visit schools that receive financial support and technical assistance from the Bank to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of students. Each time, I ask teachers in these schools what they think would make the biggest difference in the learning outcomes of their students. The most common answer is “better parents.” I often wonder if this response is, in some conscious or unconscious way, an excuse to help teachers explain the poor outcomes of their students (especially those from the poorest households) and their low expectations of what their students can achieve. However, both common sense and solid research indicate that parents matter.

A new OECD study using PISA data highlights the important role of parents in the learning outcomes of students, and it has received broad attention from opinion makers (see Friedman's editorial in the Sunday edition of the NYT).  The researchers look into more than the widely documented impact of parental (especially mother's) education level and explore specific parental behaviors. They find that some types of parental involvement are more conducive to stronger learning outcomes in high school – for example, reading to young children and asking them about their school day, is related to higher learning outcomes (as measured by PISA test scores), but volunteering at school or participating in the PTA are not.

But what does this mean for policy makers? What does this imply for World Bank staff and others advising policy makers around the world? In my view, we need to do more from the school-side to counterbalance the role of parents. Because children do not choose their parental quality, in most societies the most disadvantaged children in terms of the households in which they live (poverty, low parental education, low parental involvement) also end up in the most under- resourced (both in material and human terms) schools.

Schools around the world continue to be life changing institutions. But in most countries, more needs to be done to attract the best into the teaching profession, prepare them with useful training and experience, monitor and support their work, and motivate them by rewarding excellent teachers. At the Bank, in the SABER-Teachers project, we are working hard to build new knowledge on what are the most effective policies to ensure that all children have access to great teachers. We are collecting data on the policies of a majority of education systems across the globe, and assessing their progress towards achieving 8 core teacher policy goals (setting clear expectations, attracting the best into teaching, preparing teachers with useful training and experience, matching teachers’ skills with students’ needs, leading teachers with strong principals, monitoring teaching and learning, supporting teachers to improve, and motivating teachers to perform). 

We know that few societies do this particularly well, and children around the world continue to have unequal opportunities to learn and succeed in life. Affecting the quality of parents is important and is a much more difficult task than to achieve large scale improvement in the quality of teaching and learning in schools. While the latter is also unquestionably very challenging, countries like Finland, South Korea, Singapore and Poland have shown that it is feasible to achieve this within a generation.



Submitted by Rowena on
Education of parents helps to educate their children. I obtained a university education as a mature age student, but it wasn't about me. It was about educating my children and lifting the family out of poverty and ignorance - permanently, down the generations. This is my experience: I come from, and married into, a large family mired in generations of poverty and ignorance and all that goes with it. When I was 28 my husband cleared out leaving me with three young children to bring up, the youngest only 1 year old, and I made a vow. I vowed that I would never allow my kids grow up into that world of poverty and ignorance and abuse and alcohol and welfare dependence and all the rest. I vowed to educate my kids, to send them to university, and I would start by setting them an example to follow - the only example they had - and educate myself. I put myself through a science degree by distance education while I worked by day as a gardener to support the family - that took 7 years - then a PhD. The strategy worked. I have attended the university graduations of all three of my kids. I have given to society three educated, employed, productive, confident and capable young people. Now I really believe that if education was more accessible to parents, many of them would obtain qualifications and become educational role models for their children. If mothers who did not finish high school, or even primary school, could have opportunities (ie, free child care) to attend free adult classes and attain their higher school certificate, I believe this would convey the importance of education to their children.

Submitted by Tammy Console on
: I also think that if education was more accessible and affordable to adults it might make a difference in their children’s lives. I am 43 years of age, the youngest of ten and the only girl. I am the youngest of all my cousins too. I am the only one in my family that had graduated from college; this is a very sad situation. I am currently working on my Master’s in Early Childhood Studies, this is a topic that is very important to me, and we are educating the future of our existence. Education has not been easy and I have many student loans, however, I will continue to be a positive role model in a world full of negatives. It is very easy to blame parents, but we have to take into consideration the community as a whole.

Submitted by Anonymous on
i think that a lot of the developing world is undergoing a transition period. FACT: more kids are enrolled in school than ever before. this means that a lot of children now are actually achieving higher educational attainment than their parents - How can parents be expected to help their children with homework when they have never held a pen themselves? or how can parents be expected to become involved in school activities when they have to work in order to keep the children at school? Additionally, a lot of kids in developing countries are not only students - they also work! because they have to contribute to household income. Does "improving parents" mean they have to be better educated? does it mean they have to have higher paying jobs so that their children do not have to work? This is an inter-generational effect that has to be allowed to happen, it is a natural part of social and economic development of any country ... one generation at a time i think!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Submitted by JR on
What about working on effecting change not only through effective school and teaching policies, but also with programs that improve the daily lives--the homes--of the most disadvantaged? A recent proposal by Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske is a good starting point for this discussion...

Submitted by Anonymous on
I share the views expressed in a previous comment. Why just limiting interventions to the school level? or putting so much effort on having parents participate in school boards and manage school budgets-an intervention with little impact on student learning? why not broadening the focus and support other type of interventions with a home/social focus?

Submitted by Offei Okoffo Manteaw on
This is an interesting topic and interestingly, it has come just at the back of a recent publication in a local newspaper in Ghana which suggests that emerging evidence is pointing to a situation where free basic education, as recently started in Ghana, is disengaging parents from their children's education. I guess the key message out of that article is because parents have less to worry about in terms of fees and costs; they have somehow become less concerned or involved in the education of their children. In a sense, let the government do it all. If this story is true, then it has tremendous significance for policy processes as they relate to free education and the roles of parents. And more to the focus of this topic, it also asks the question of how parents could be educated to know and understand what their responsibilities are in their children's education. I believe the focus should be on quality schools and quality education to create children--future parents--who can become better and more engaged parents. The question then becomes until we create that new generation of parents what do we do with parents who are less engaged with the education of the children? It is a fact that the more educated a parent is the easier it becomes for him/her to know and understand their responsibilities in their children's education beyond financial expenses. Using my personal story as an example, I am very convinced that parents should not necessarily be literates to see the essence of playing roles in their kids’ education. My mother, is an illiterate--never went to school, but she is incredibly knowledgeable and educated. When I was a child and a very naughty boy then, my mother used rewards and punishments to challenge me to achieve. She supervised my handwriting exercises and my home work and always let me know that she could report me to my teachers if I did not do things right. All she did was to ask if I had homework and then she ensures that I do it. For her maybe, she was blind to have seen whether I was doing the right thing or not, but i guess her main concern was me spending time alone with a book before me. She taught me how to write even though she could not read or write. Again, for her, she judged my writing ability with how neatly I arranged my letters and numbers on a paper. That was important to her and looking back now I see how philosophical she was. We are six in a family, with Dads who are literate and educated but did not care a lot. Today, all of my mum's children have post graduate degrees or some kind of professional degree; however, our illiterate mum engages us in deep intellectual conversations, particularly as they relate to politics and economics in Ghana. I have to be conscious in having a conversation with my mum on any topic. Thus, the point I am making is, yes, we need to explore ways of improving parenting through education. While the most convenient way is to recreate the next generation of parents, it is also important that we explore ways of educating parents who do not seem to understand education thinking and practice. Yes, teachers may be complaining about poor parenting and how difficult that is for them to really do their job in the schools. The fact is, schools and their teachers, in some instances, could also be seen as part of the problem. They do not reach out to parents and do not engage the. I have in some my writings suggested a School-community Learning-Exchange (SCOLE)--an avenue that I believe could address some of these challenges.

Submitted by Gayatri Mishra Oleti on
Good narration of a problem which exists on the ground. Family based comprehensive approach to development is the key. Challenge is how to change course of development paradigm i.e. from vertical programmes to comprehensive family based interventions.

Submitted by Shahinshah Babar Khan on
No doubt, at present ,parents' role is so important for children education that it was never in the past. There are many studies which show that correlation of parental involvement and success of children. As a teacher, I feel that the children whom parents remain in contact with teachers and check their children study on continuous basis, perform better in learning. Even the children who were careless in their study, when contacted their parents, also improve in learning. In the past, the parents who were illiterate, even then remained in contact with teachers. Today's parents are much busy , but children are most important asset for parents and it is the duty of the parents not only provide them facilities but also spare some time to see teachers and discuss the problems and issues of their children which ultimately affect the performance of the children.

Emiliana, Thank you for writing about this great topic. Research shows that both, teachers and parents have a great impact on supporting learning. Furthermore, research shows that the greatest impact comes from nurturing adults helping children, from their earlier years, to cope with adversity and develop resiliency. Everybody has a role, every daily interaction counts! Infants and children spend their time with their parents, grandparents, older siblings, teachers, day care providers in all kind of community solutions to child care. All these adults have a role. Nurturing interactions that promote self-regulation, positive emotional engagement, circles of communication and problem solving using higher thinking capacities with healthy emotional foundations are essential. All adults interacting with infants and children should receive support on learning how to help children self-regulate, establish warm relationships and together enjoy exploring the world and learning. There is a lot of work ahead of us, a human imperative as Stanley Greenspan would say. Thank you for all that you do to contribute to this!

Submitted by Adeagbo Joseph Olusegun Phd on
I want to support the report on the above stuy. In Nigeria, many parents sees schooling as function of government alone. this has resulted to low value for education among low income earners. i believed that by orientate patents can go a long way in improving standard of education and the place of education toward human resources development. parents roles as partners in progress should be emphasis.

Hi, nice post. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for sharing. I will certainly be subscribing to your blog.

Parent's involvement in their child's education certainly plays a key role in the development of the child. In addition, recruiting the best teachers can be a real challenge when the most qualified people to teach are more likely to pursue more financially rewarding careers. In the U.S. programs like Teach for America and Troops to Teachers have played an instrumental role in recruiting professionals to teaching. Many states offer other alternative paths to become a teacher as well, in an effort to recruit highly skilled professionals who may otherwise find the barrier to entry into teaching too high. More info on those programs can be found here:

Submitted by Shashank Gupta on
In the current scenario, it is indeed a tough time for the parents to cope up with the education of the children. The developing countries are still fighting with the problem of education levels of the parents. In countries like India, the rural families have the issues of educating their children on their own, particularly for the mothers. Nevertheless, it is a genuine approach for the families to have educated parents, and for that, the education for women should be promoted. For the current education trends and complete information about various institutes, colleges, and courses in India, you can visit this resource: thanks Shashank

Submitted by JInu on
I am one among the victims of the Indian educational standards before the developing world transition, as I was lagging enough parental involvement in my studies because of the poverty and low parental education. As a mother of 2 kids, I am able to realize the importance of my involvement in my children’s studies because of quality of education. I could see in this generation a major difference as parents are focusing on their children's studies especially in girls. From the above article we can see the importance of an educated mother in the children's quality education. We can't deny the fact that most of the women's have a low education from the past generation and I would try for a new Generation Education Today is the Womens Day, the importance of Women any way here is the Website for find better colleges

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