courtesy of Education Week
Taps Parents to Help With Test Prep
two teachers in Room 215 believe that 4th grader
April Perez, at this point in her young life, needs
extra help to succeed. But that message is not one
they have been able to lob into the midst of her
protective family—at least not until an evening
here last month.
this Tuesday night, the older Perezes—mother,
father, sister—perch on too-small chairs
to join April in tackling problems like the ones
she’ll encounter on New York state’s
upcoming 4th grade mathematics test. The Perezes
(not their real name) and more than a dozen other
parents have come to Public School 198, near Spanish
Harlem, to help their youngsters do well on the
T. Lam, top, works on a math problem at a workshop
at PS 198. Tammy Ghirardi, left, guides Steven Blount
and his mother, Merie, while Principal Beverly Wilkens
two-hour workshop is the brainchild of 33-year-old Lamson
T. Lam, a tall, square-jawed man who taught 4th grade for
four years here, each year expanding his expectations for
involving parents in their children’s education.
Mr. Lam (rhymes with "palm") got so interested
in the subject that when he was selected to the elite ranks
of the Teachers Network Policy Institute, he chose the
workshops as the subject of his research.
data he collected, he found that over the four years he
had been holding the sessions at PS 198, student passing
rates on both the state math and the state English exams
went up dramatically. Pupils reported their parents were
more involved after the workshops. Last year, in a school
with "historically low involvement," as Mr. Lam
wrote in his paper for the institute, members from 22 out
of 26 families showed up for the math workshop; two pupils
measure, the gathering this evening is a disappointment,
says Mr. Lam, who now coaches teachers in math instruction
at PS 198 and another New York City elementary school.
Just under half the families in the class of 25 children
But the session is hardly a disappointment to the children and their
relatives, who trickle in over the first 40 minutes of the session,
several straight from work. One father arrives on time, looking tired,
his knit hat pulled to the top of his head. When Mr. Lam asks him in
Spanish if he speaks English, he responds: "Un poco."
Slightly more than half the 350-student enrollment at the school is
Hispanic, about a fifth is African-American, 15 percent is white, and
just under 10 percent is Asian. More than three-quarters of the families
receive free lunch.
organizers are prepared for the slow start, but they want
to make every minute count, too. Inside an orange folder
that each family gets on arrival are a corrected practice
test and an individualized checklist of math trouble spots.
The teachers ask the relatives to go over the mistakes
with the students, a task that results in heads bowed together
table, the Perezes pour over her exam. The 9-year-old’s
list shows many checkmarks.
6:45 p.m., Mr. Lam and teacher Tammy Ghirardi stand among
the families and talk about the format of the exam and
test-taking strategies. Mr. Lam points out that while students
are not required to show their work on the first two parts
of the math test, which stretches over three days in early
May, that’s still a good idea.
Ms. Ghirardi, "if you are wrong but you explain it
well, you get some credit."
the teachers pass out an abbreviated practice test, inviting
the adults to watch their children as they complete it
or to take the mock exam themselves.
table, April’s classmate Latia Shipman works and
talks. "I did P-O-E on that one," she announces,
pushing her translucent pink glasses back up on her nose. "What’s
that?" asks her mother, stopping work on her own test.
of elimination," explains Latia.
at the table loaded with bagels, pretzels, and cookies,
Latia selects snacks and confides that her mother couldn’t
come to the English-test workshop in January because she
was working, so a friend’s mother brought Latia.
want to learn more about the ELA," she says, calling
the math test by the English/language arts test’s
abbreviation, "and learn more about percentages."
time is called on the tests, the teachers ask the parents
to note for the group anything their children have done
well. They ask the children to tell how they solved the
problems. And they give suggestions for how parents can
help at home, including challenging their children to add
up the change in their pockets.
they need more help on homework, just send a note in," suggests
Lisa Mack, a special education teacher who shares duties
with Ms. Ghirardi.
of the families hurry out the door at 8 o’clock,
Frank Perez explains that he came simply to see how his
daughter was doing in class. "Now," he continues, "I
know I have to work with her. ... I think she can use help,
especially in math."
later about the workshop, Ms. Ghirardi says she could have
guessed most of the families that came, but not all. She
was surprised to see the Perezes, who have downplayed their
A workshop "kind
of evens out parents," reflects Mr. Lam. "If
they are anxious, they get reassured, ... and if parents
and kids have no sense of urgency, and then parents see
there is a long way to go, parents kick things into gear."
Faced with his first class at PS 198, a school that had just gotten
off the state’s list of deeply troubled schools, Mr. Lam decided
five years ago to make parent involvement a centerpiece of his work.
Most experts agree that parents’ attitudes and actions play an
important role in student—and school— success.
something I’ve always felt was incredibly powerful," says
Mr. Lam, who earned a master’s degree in sociology
and worked at a half-way house for troubled youths before
becoming a teacher. "There’s a stereotype that
parents are involved in high-income schools and not in
low, but it’s just a question of reaching out in
the right way."
workshops focus and extend parents’ involvement,
Mr. Lam says. But the groundwork is laid early in the year
with positive and then frequent phone calls, according
to the teacher.
he was named a fellow of the Teachers Network Policy Institute
for 2002-03, Mr. Lam decided to take a closer look at his
workshops. The institute, a national program striving to
give teachers a voice in education policymaking, requires
fellows to conduct research in their own classrooms or
continue to teach during the year, but with the support
of the MetLife Foundation, meet monthly for discussion
among themselves and with policymakers. About 100 teachers
are selected by application each year by a dozen local
affiliates, including one in New York City.
research, Mr. Lam investigated whether his workshops actually
turned family members into test-prep partners and raised
student achievement. Parents reported last spring that
the sessions they had attended gave them substantially
more knowledge of the 4th grade tests than they had had
of the comparable 3rd grade tests. Children reported that
they got more help at home in math before the exam.
2002-03 school year went on, Mr. Lam observed, parents
became more likely to initiate phone conversations, which
focused more on their children’s academic performance
and less on grievances.
important, over several years, his students’ passing
rates on the standardized tests jumped from an average
of less than half in the 3rd grade to around 75 percent
in the 4th. In interviews last spring, students gave on
average 26 percent of the credit for their success to their
believes the session in her classroom made a difference
almost immediately. The day after the math workshop, she
says, "the kids were so much more responsive and excited
about math. It’s almost as if they felt they weren’t
in this alone."
feeling probably influenced nine more families to attend
the math workshop held the following week for the school’s
other 4th grade class, she said.
effects may be more ambiguous. Since they came to the workshop
in March, for instance, April’s parents passed up
a chance to get their daughter more help after school.
But her father also showed up to collect homework she missed
a parent of a pupil in Mr. Lam’s class last year
testifies to the permanent difference the workshops made
for her and her son, Alexander. "I always worked with
him, but we weren’t working the right ways," leading
to deep frustration for both, says Elizabeth Estupinan-Paz. "For
example, I learned at the workshop that it is not easy
to answer the questions [on a reading assignment] without
her new knowledge and the confidence Alexander gained from
doing better in school, "there’s no more trouble
at home," she declares, "and he is a very happy
Lately, Mr. Lam has been busy spreading the workshops to other classrooms
in the schools where he coaches. His work has also caught the attention
of the city school system’s area superintendent, who recruited
him to train others in running workshops.
Epstein, a Johns Hopkins University professor who is considered
an authority on parent involvement, says educators should
follow the lead of teachers like Mr. Lam because schools
need new ways of getting parents in the door and enlisting
hard to say to every single teacher: Plan it, do all that
work yourself," she offers. "A team approach
spreads that effort around."