Parent Engagement vs. Parent Involvement: What’s the Difference?

All schools want involved parents. Or engaged parents. Is there a difference between “parent engagement” and “parent involvement”? And, if so, does it matter?

Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher and education blogger, has written extensively on the topic of parental engagement and is the co-author of the 2009 book Building Parent Engagement in Schools.

His take is that “engagement” goes well beyond “involvement.” Ultimately, you want to get to a place where parents are contributing a lot of ideas and energy to the process and becoming part of a joint vision for the school. Involved parents may merely be irritated, says Ferlazzo – “pushed to do something staff might perceive as important” – but engaged parents are “agitated – challenged to do something they feel is important.” [Emphasis added.]

Parent involvement is bad?

Earlier this month, there was a predictably controversial piece in the “Opinionator” section of the New York Times on this issue: Parental Involvement Is Overrated.

Authors (and college professors) Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris conducted a study spanning three decades on 63 different forms of parental engagement. They concluded that “most forms of parental involvement…do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.” Parents, said Robinson and Harris, “should set the stage and then leave it.”

It’s important to note that Robinson and Harris’s study looked at some forms of “parent involvement” that could be considered less than helpful by many educators – such as helping (too much?) with homework and being involved (again, too much?) in deciding a child’s high school courses.

And there’s the rub: There is, as with almost anything in life, a point where “involved” crosses over into “meddling.” Readers commenting on the online version of the New York Times story weren’t shy about pointing this out, either. “Alexandra,” a teacher from Hawaii, noted:

As a teacher, the “involved parents” are the ones who keep me up at night. They enable their children to abdicate their homework to the adults in their lives, and intervene when the child needs to learn to handle his responsibilities and relationships himself. 

And “Miss ABC” from New Jersey said:

“Setting the stage” [as advocated by Robinson and Harris] requires a tremendous amount of constant parental involvement.

So who’s right?

It could be that everyone is, in fact, on basically the same page here. Parents who are deeply involved and engaged in their children’s education are the ones who respect the value of learning and do everything they can to facilitate a positive environment for their child in this aspect.

They are not, however, the parents who try to game the system, fight their kid’s battles, or hover over (and pass judgment upon) every move their child’s teacher makes. The correct word for this behavior would probably be something other than “involved” or “engaged.” Annoying? Helicoptery? Something unprintable? Probably all of the above.

What do you think?

Parents, teachers, what say you? What do you think the key distinctions are between “parent involvement” and “parent engagement”? We’d love to get your thoughts in the comments!
And if you haven’t already grabbed your copy, click here to get our brand-new ebook, 9 Effective Strategies for Parent Engagement at Your School.