A recent report published by the United States Census Bureau uses survey responses on parental interaction, school engagement, and extracurricular activities to give insight into the educational outcomes of America’s children. The report offers a sobering glimpse of how parental interactions with children dominate education outcomes.

Researchers Brian Knop and Julie Siebens used responses from the first wave of the 2014 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), a monthly survey administered to a nationally representative panel over several years, though for the purpose of this report panel responses were limited to those of parents or guardians. SIPP collects household economic and demographic information, as well as information specific to the well-being of individuals, such as home conditions and food security. For this report, Knop and Siebens used child-specific well-being indicators to influence their findings on the daily experiences of children today, disaggregated by age and demographic factors. Researchers controlled for the sampling and non-sampling errors in survey responses.

Positive parental interactions are correlated with a child’s well-being. And overall, parents reported frequent interactions with their children—except in regular reading at home, which was much more common among white children than black or Hispanic. In all race categories, at least 85 percent of parents reported eating dinner with their children at least five nights a week. Similarly, at least 80 percent of children of each race went on two or more weekly outings with their mom or dad. Yet parents reading with their children showed greater disparities among races. Although 76 percent of white children were read to at least five days a week, the percentage was much less among black and Hispanic children: 55 and 48 percent, respectively. Reading regularly at home has a positive impact on a child’s literacy and oral skills, so this gap perpetuates disadvantage.

The researchers also found that children who participate in three or more activities (sports, clubs, etc.) were more engaged in school than those who participated in no activities. They determined engagement based on whether students reported caring about how they did in school, always doing homework, and being self-motivated. Unsurprisingly, children in poverty are less likely to regularly engage in extracurricular programs. Fifty-seven percent of children between the ages six to eleven from families at least 400 percent above the poverty line participated in sports, for example—more than twice as often as the 24 percent below the line.

Lower levels of parent education are also correlated with comparatively poor child outcomes. Students with moms and dads who have less than a high school education are three times more likely to be expelled or repeat a grade than those whose parents have a college degree or higher. They’re also almost three times less likely to participate in gifted programs—12 percent versus 32 percent.

The report isn’t prescriptive and is limited by its use of survey data, but it does suggest many ways parents’ actions can affect their children’s educational outcomes and widen—or narrow—achievement gaps.

SOURCE: Knop, Brian, and Julie Siebens. “A Child’s Day: Parental Interaction, School Engagement, and Extracurricular Activities: 2014, ” United States Census Bureau (November 2018).

Sophie Sussman is a research intern with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Currently, she is pursuing a master's degree in education policy at the George Washington University. She also has a bachelor's degree in early childhood education (prekindergarten-5) from the University of Georgia. Sophie's interests include curriculum, teacher quality and assessment as a basis of ensuring high quality education for all students.