Parents as Emergency Teachers? The Research Offers Cautions and Opportunities for Schools

Leaders must consider unequal opportunities and stress on families

By Heather C. Hill & Susanna Loeb

With the COVID-19 school closures, districts and schools are relying on parents to carry out educational activities in their homes. How can districts help parents make the most of this learning time? And are there alternatives to parents as surrogate teachers?

In this series, we have been drawing on high-quality research to answer real-world questions. This is a new world, though, so existing research does not speak directly to the question of parents as educators of school-age children. Still, work both on tutoring and on programs to support parenting can shed light on useful approaches.

Most of us would prefer that students have the attentions of certified teachers in a school. Research shows that even tutoring is more effective done by certified teachers than by others. But most students now have very limited or no access in person to such teachers. Fortunately, studies of volunteer tutoring programs show that with the right resources, individuals without teaching certification can be effective in improving student performance.

Tutoring, in fact, has some advantages over typical classrooms. In particular, it allows one-on-one or one-on-few interactions, instruction rarely possible within a classroom. Tutors can meet students where they are, gauging prior knowledge and interests to help each grow in personalized ways.

But tutors, particularly inexperienced tutors, need supports to take advantage of this opportunity. A research synthesis led by Gary Ritter at the University of Arkansas found that volunteer tutoring programs do better when they provide more structure to tutors, supplying specific lessons and material for the tutor to cover. Studies done since Ritter’s 2006 analysis also show that matching the academic content to the child’s developmental level—for instance through formative assessment or, in our current situation, advice from a teacher—may enhance student learning. This research points to the importance of schools providing clear directions to the adults they are counting on to work with students.

But parents and guardians are a special group of tutors. Studies in which parents tutor their K-12 children in academic content often return disappointing results. Understanding the difficulties that parents may face in tutoring their children is important for developing useful alternatives during these unusual times.

While teachers and traditional tutors are generally able to focus just on teaching when they are with their students, parents are likely multitasking, for example, tutoring, holding down their nonteaching jobs, and caring for other family members. With multiple demands on their time and little formal training as a teacher, many parents will have difficulty reading long, complex directions on how to help their children learn. Research with parents of young children that one of us helped conduct has shown, though, that parents can be quite effective teachers when given easy-to-implement, engaging activities. Materials sent home for parents work best if their directions are both simple to read and easy to follow.

Lessons from reviews of family literacy programs are similar. These programs support parents in helping children learn the alphabet, how to decode words, or understanding text. Again, effective programs tend to provide simple scaffolds for parents. For instance, one reading program directed parents to read with their children and follow up each session with a few generic comprehension questions and a short routine for getting their kids to elaborate on their answers.

Parents can also help build math skills. In one study, program staff provided parents and children with a word problem to complete each night before bed. Families that faithfully used the program saw their child gain, on average, the equivalent of three months of in-school math learning.

Flexibility is also important. Common sense suggests offering parents support while allowing them to build on their child’s interests. If the goal is producing a 5th grade persuasive essay at home, for example, schools could provide a way to organize thoughts on paper, example essays, and ideas for possible themes but allow children and parents to determine the topic. The same goes for reading, science, and art.

Some effective programs for home learning don’t rely on parents or teachers at all. In READS for Summer Learning, a program housed at Harvard University and directed by James Kim, elementary schools provide students with 10 books matched to students’ ability level and reading comprehension activities. Classrooms randomly assigned to this program outperform control classrooms, in terms of students’ reading comprehension in a subsequent year.

An alternative to using parents as surrogate teachers is to point families to specific online instruction from organizations like Khan Academy, DreamBox, or Zearn. A key to success here would be matching the online content with children’s developmental levels and with the portions of the curriculum left uncovered when school closed. Even a move to online content requires districts to provide concrete guidance to help parents supervise their children’s learning.

In all these cases—parents-as-tutors, books sent home, online lessons—families are going to vary in their implementation. Some families have an adult with time to focus on their children’s learning; some do not. Some families have an adult with training as an educator or in a particular subject area; some do not. Research also provides strong evidence that, on average, parents with more education contribute more than parents with less education to raising student performance—even in ordinary circumstances.

These differences highlight the need for schools and districts to adopt strategies to combat unequal opportunities and results. Schools may choose to leverage parents with time and skills to help their own students, then target additional supports to other students during the summer or next school year. Or they may choose to use their current resources for students with weaker home supports now, focusing less on students with highly resourced parents, and hope that this approach will help keep achievement gaps from widening further. Schools on their own are unlikely to be able to fully prevent the inequalities arising from this crisis, but it is essential that they do as much as they can.

Academic learning is not the only concern. The pandemic is creating severe stress in many families. Home learning activities must contribute to, rather than take away from, the mental health of students and parents. Learning activities can keep children engaged, provide structure for new household routines, and help both children and parents feel a sense of satisfaction about how they spend time while under stay-at-home orders from officials.

But poorly thought-through directions from schools can add to family stress. Schools need to be keenly aware of this possibility. The learning activities schools provide to parents should be sensitive to the full range of family needs and appropriate to children’s developmental levels. Directions that parents perceive as rigid demands that they cannot meet will make things worse for them and for students. Directions that ease parents’ burdens and engage students productively can make things better during this very difficult time.

Heather C. Hill is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and studies teacher quality, teacher professional learning, and instructional improvement. Her broader interests include educational policy and social inequality. Susanna Loeb is a professor of education and of public affairs at Brown University and the director of the university's Annenberg Institute for School Reform. She studies education policy, and her interests include social inequality.