The Issue of Inequity in Parental Involvement
By Kalden Namgyal
Photo from New York School Talk
An extensive body of literature and growing policy identify parental involvement as crucial in a child’s education and development. Although parental involvement may not produce the same effect across varying grade levels and backgrounds, extensive research agrees that it benefits children’s outcomes and success. Benefits of parental involvement also include, but are not limited to: better parent-teacher relationships, teacher wellbeing, improved school readiness, social skills, school motivation, and well-being.
Parental involvement broadly refers to the participation and engagement of parents in their child’s educational and developmental process, which is generally considered in two primary forms, school-based and home-based. Some aspects of school-based parental involvement include being in touch with the school, attending parent-teacher conferences, participating in parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), and volunteering. Meanwhile, home-based involvement considers parents engaging with their child’s education through checking homework, hearing about school activities, communicating aspirations and expectations, reinforcing class learnings, and adult supervision.
The importance of parental involvement has also been studied in the context of ethnic/racial minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Research broadly demonstrates the positive effects of parental involvement in their children’s education and wellbeing. For example, Reynolds (1992) found in his study of school-based and home-based involvement among low-income African American families that the latter had a more significant effect on their children’s academic achievement than the former. Specifically, he found teacher ratings of parental involvement had the most important influence on the outcome. In stark contrast, home-based involvement predicted the most effective success in African American high school students, consistent with Fantuzzo et al (2004); parents who engaged in home-based behaviors saw enhanced academic performance and fewer absences.
However, decades of research and discourse have disproportionately been centered on white, middle-class households and, as a result, have primarily defined parental involvement as a concept. This is not to say underrepresented and low-income families are uninvolved in their children’s education and well-being in urban schools, as some may claim. On the contrary, it is to say these prevailing involvement practices and understanding of parental involvement are based on the dominant, white, middle-class population. Furthermore, Baquedano-López et al. (2013) problematize that “school goals are largely based on White and middle-class values and expectation,” which systematically institute values and expectations that inform and shape parental involvement as school-centric. This then restricts the understanding of parental involvement into a narrow definition that does not account for the intersections of race and class that many Black and Brown low-income families experience. And often, such approaches neglect and undermine nontraditional parental involvement behaviors that these historically underrepresented communities employ. In fact, Desimone (1999) found in her study that the traditional parental involvement practices were “a better predictor for White, Asian, and middle-income students than for Hispanic, Black, and low-income students.” Consequently, schools have based their understanding of parental involvement off the experiences of white, middle-class families, who are then viewed as actively involved in children’s learning. Schools perceive Black and Brown low-income families as lacking and uninvolved when they engage with their children in ways that don’t conform to the narrow, dominant definition of “involvement.” The Black and Brown families understand the significance of education and parental involvement because they had to compensate for the disparities in the education system. According to a 2014 survey of 1,005 African Americans, respondents shared “lack of parental involvement” as one of their biggest concerns in the quality of education. Most recently, the extensive proliferation of homeschooling among Black households, especially during the pandemic, demonstrates their involvement and concerns for their children’s education. However, persisting social factors and barriers continue to perpetuate and exacerbate the inequity in traditional definitions of parental involvement.
With the onslaught of the pandemic, physical classrooms came to a halt, and quickly schools transitioned to virtual classrooms. Distance learning became the new normal, and without the support and structure schools once provided, parental involvement had never mattered more. For so many financially stable parents—those able to work from home—homeschooling allowed them to engage with their children and be more involved in their learning, whether by reading a book together or going over homework. However, historically marginalized and low-income households confronted a starkly different reality. They struggled with the concerns of distance learning and, more importantly, parental involvement.
In contrast to their white, middle-class counterparts, Black and Brown low-income parents often did not have a job that afforded them the ability to work from home. Furthermore, given the financial constraints due to the pandemic, at times, parents were forced to work multiple jobs to put food on the table, leaving little time to engage with their child’s schooling. The pandemic has made evident the existence of inequities in parental involvement and the importance of understanding the barriers to meeting the prevailing parental involvement expectations. The issue at its core isn’t because Black and Brown parents don’t care, rather the prevailing approach to parental involvement—based on the white, middle-income family experiences and expectations—has disadvantaged Black and Brown families with barriers and challenges that inhibit their involvement. For example, due to the nature parent involvement cater primarily to white, middle-income families, it empowers a fulfilling prophecy that working-class parents and particularly Black and Brown families are less involved although not by choice. Most notable of these barriers include: exclusion of nontradtional involvement practices, socioeconomic and family factors that afford minimal time to participate in their child’s learning, parent’s lack of confidence in their ability and school’s expectation, cultural incongruence between parents and teachers, and family circumstances.
Therefore, a solution to increase parental involvement and promotion of equity in the practice of involvement has to consider the causes of disinvolvement. With the normative involvement activities being school-centric, there needs to be a shift towards the priortization of community needs. As Sam Savage writes in his article on creating communitycentric involvement, “It seems intuitive that school personnel must know about the families they serve to provide optimal education for their children.”
Learn about the families and communities the school serves. This is crucial to understanding how to best involve parents based on their barriers and needs. Listen to the community members, hear them. By initiating conversations, families may be encouraged to participate and also assist in finding unique solutions to accommodate both community and school needs.
Increase professional development training for educators to foster culturally responsive teaching. Gaining cultural competency can considerably assist in developing positive relationships with parents of diverse backgrounds and students in classrooms. It can encourage educators to be more cognizant of cultural differences and accommodate family needs.
Offer services and accommodations that make school-based parental involvement more accessible. For example, depending on the circumstances of individual parents, services like access to language interpreters, transportation, child-care, and meals can alleviate burdens for parents and incentivise them to participate. This can also include offering flexible hours to meet with parents that alleviate time constraints. These can immensely hep create a welcoming school environment for parents and show schools value parental involvement and engagement.
Employ asset-based approach to involving parents. Prevailing literature note schools have the tendency to view parent involvement among minority communities in a deficit approach. This means, schools present parents as lacking and a problem. On the contrary, by actively utilizing a “empowerment approach” that emphasize parents as contributing member and resourceful, schools foster a welcoming school environment. For example, schools can celebrate heritage months where parents can coordinate the celebration and programs.