Middle-class parent involvement in urban schools a mixed blessing

iStock_000008693718XSmallMiddle-class families who move back to the city with their children or decide to send their children to a urban public school rather than a private can be a mixed blessing to urban schools, finds a recent study in the American Educational Research Journal.

Middle class families can bring many resources to their children’s new schools but their involvement does not necessarily benefit the whole school. Often, middle-class families try to attract more middle-class families into the school district, which can have negative consequences for the traditional community, the authors write.

“We found that middle-class parents’ efforts can contribute to increasing inequality in the very same schools their actions sometimes benefit,” the study says.

The goals and perspectives of parents are an important factor in whether their involvement benefits the school as a whole or just their own children, the researchers write. Too often parent involvement is seen as an unmitigated good instead of a more complex force.

“Some proponents of parental involvement promote it in an undifferentiated and uncritical fashion, failing to note the ways in which some kinds of involvement can be detrimental to certain groups of students and parents,” they write.

The researchers did case studies of 2 urban schools–one where middle-class families had a more individualistic outlook and another where parents took a more collective perspective on their involvement. The case studies were built on extensive interviewing and background research.  In one school, middle-class families’ involvement aimed at bringing improvements to the school was focused solely on the early grades. Parents also set about distinguishing their school from other schools in the “war zone.”

Middle-class parents used implicit and explicit shows of status to demonstrate that they were a more powerful constituency than the other families. Lower-class families reported feeling insulted at references to middle-class children as neighborhood children as opposed to within-catchment area children who were transfer students. Middle-class parents’ involvement could also be fragile and short-term, ending when different schooling decisions were made. A more nuanced view of parental involvement is needed, the authors note.

“We believe efforts in this direction will be more effective if parents’ needs to protect and promote their children’s interests are honored while simultaneously encouraging the kind of collectively minded, community-based efforts that support strong, diverse school communities.”

“Perils and Promises: Middle-Class Parental Involvement in Urban Schools,” by Maria Bloomfield Cucchiara and Erin McNamara Horvat, American Educational Research Journal, 2009, Volume 46, Number 4, p. 974.

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