If you ask any parent if they want their child to get a good education, they will undoubtedly say ‘yes.’ If you ask that same parent if they believe education is important to fulfilling one’s life dreams, in almost all cases the answer will still be ‘yes.’ Yet when I ask educators what factors contribute to the achievement gap, a common response is the lack of parent involvement in their child’s schooling. In my career as a K-12 educator, teacher educator, and researcher I have often been in conversations where the topic of parental involvement is being discussed. I cringe each time I hear these remarks: “they just don’t value education,” “they don’t care about education” or “we just can’t get them to come to school.” These comments are about parents. My recent experiences working to close achievement gaps with educators in one rural school district with a high percentage of working class and low-income Latino families and in an urban school district with a high percentage of working class and low-income African American families underscores the normative nature of such sentiments. Far too often these comments reflect individuals’ coded racialized and classed perceptions of parents of non-white and high-poverty children. A study of high school teachers’ beliefs about the reasons for low achievement in Black male high school students reported that 45 of 50 teachers and counselors surveyed cited home factors as the primary factor explaining these students’ lack of success. While we know that parental involvement in the educational process enhances students’ academic performance, a variety of barriers related to culture, social class, and language diversity all contribute to lower levels of engagement by many parents, particularly non-white parents and lower-income parents. Thus, it is too simplistic to reduce the lack of parental involvement to an issue of family values.
One way to help educators rethink their approach to gleaning parental participation is to shift the thinking from involvement to engagement. Too often in schools parental involvement is framed as how parents can participate in the educational process through their presence at school-sponsored activities (e.g., parent-teacher conferences, fundraisers, school dances, field trips, PTOs, etc.). Involvement is much more about a school’s or teacher’s needs for the learning environment versus a family’s needs to ensure a child’s success. Teachers (and schools) focused on involvement identify their projects, needs, and goals and then tell parents how they can contribute. In contrast, teachers and schools focused on engagement want to better understand the hopes, dreams, and issues of parents and establish mutually respectful and trusting relationships. What do families need to help their child(ren) be successful? These types of schools want to partner with parents to educate children. Oftentimes, educators do not consider parents’ own histories with the school system. Those parents who had good school experiences are more apt to trust the system, develop positive relationships with teachers, and involve themselves in school. However, many working class and low-income parents who had mediocre or negative experiences with schools as students (or do not understand how to navigate the system) are less likely to trust schools, develop strong relationships with teachers, and be involved in traditional ways. Furthermore, research has shown that parents of color have reported feelings of isolation, alienation, frustration and anger toward schools which made them reluctant to become involved.
Increasing parental engagement in school requires educators to believe that parents want to be involved. With this belief in mind, teachers and schools can approach parent participation with a different framing. An asset-based approach positions parents as inherently interested in their children’s schooling and allows educators to focus their efforts on parental engagement as an alternative to involvement. Joyce Epstein and her colleagues have developed a typology of parental involvement that consists of six key elements:
- Parenting. Assist families with understanding child and adolescent development, and setting home conditions that support children as students. Assist schools in understanding families.
- Communicating. Two-way communication between the school and home about school programs and student progress.
- Volunteering. Improve recruitment and training strategies as well as scheduling for parent volunteering. Involve families as volunteers at home, school, or in other locations to support student and school programs.
- Learning at home. Involve families with their children in learning activities at home, including homework and other curriculum-linked activities and decisions.
- Decision making. Include families in school decisions, governance, and advocacy that will impact children’s learning.
- Collaborating with the community. Coordinate resources and services for families, students, and schools with businesses and agencies that provide services to the community
I like to think of this typology as representative of the type of engagement that schools and teachers should aspire to achieve with parents. In the explanation of each type, descriptors such as assist, communicate, improve, involve, include, and coordinate are used to underscore the partnership between families and schools to maximize students’ school success. Epstein’s typology emphasizes partnership with families and strives for high levels of engagement as opposed to involvement. When schools begin to engage parents in the ways listed above, they can better understand how factors such as lack of time, money, technological resources, and energy can limit economically disadvantaged parents’ participation in their children’s education in traditional ways. Involvement or Engagement? It might sound like semantics, but it is much more significant than that. Enactment of the latter term allows us to own our misguided assumptions about family values as they relate to education and be more proactive in partnering with parents of color and low-income parents to ensure children’s school success. When we begin to truly understand the power of partnering with families to educate children, we won’t misinterpret parents’ absence from traditional forms of parental involvement as a matter of devaluing education. We will recognize that being proactive about removing barriers to parental engagement caused by cross-cultural misunderstanding can help us empower one another and be most effective at meeting students’ needs.
Lynn, et al. (2010). Examining teachers’ beliefs about African American male students in a low-performing high school in an African American school district. Teachers College Record, 112, 289-330.
Larocque, M., Kleiman, I, & Darling, S.M. (2011). Parental involvement: The missing link in school achievement. Preventing School Failure, 55(3), 115-122.
Ferlazzo, L. (2011). Involvement or engagement? Educational Leadership, 68(8), 10-14.
Williams, T.T., & Sanchez, B. (2013). Identifying and decreasing barriers to parent involvement for inner-city parents. Youth & Society, 45(1), 54-74.
Epstein et al. (2009). School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.