Parent participation in disadvantaged schools

iStock_000026636782XSmallInvolving parents or caregivers in their children’s schooling is an important goal of contemporary educational practice. However, it has been difficult for some parents–especially working-class people or ethnic minorities–to understand and participate in the schooling of their children.

Carmen Mills and Trevor Gale, Monash University/Melbourne, Australia, are concerned about opening up the processes of schooling to groups who often have been excluded. They write about a small Australian secondary school located in a rural community with high welfare dependency and a large indigenous population.

Through interviews with parents, students and teachers from this school, Mills and Gale seek to give voice to those who have been silent in discussions of parent participation and to understand how inequalities of opportunity for parent participation can disadvantage marginalized students. In analyzing the data from their study, these researchers found that the majority of parents’ reasons for nonparticipation tended to be very different from the reasons educators imagine.

Reasons for non-participation

In this study, teachers strongly criticized parents. They tended to be fatalistic, accepting that very few of their students’ parents would turn up for parent- teacher interviews. There was a sense of resignation in many of the interviews; some parents “just don’t care” and there “is nothing that can be done about it. We’ve tried.”

They believe that this lack of interest is a reflection of the lower value these working- class families place on education. Most of the blame is placed on parents and their children and the feeling is that there is little that can be done by teachers, schools and systems to change this. Some parents also spoke negatively about their fellow parents’ lack of interest in their children and communities.

Defer to teachers

However, most parents who are described as nonparticipating see themselves differently. One mother of a large family reported that if her child was sick or in trouble she would show up at school, but otherwise she did not have the time to be there. Other parents reported that their lack of involvement stemmed from their own negative experiences in school – they did not feel that schools are open to all. In their view, the rules are determined by others, not everyone is equal, and much that is expected is never stated explicitly.

They feel there is an orthodox way of thinking and acting that effectively excludes parents who do not understand the system. So parents who are unfamiliar with the system are not comfortable–they realize they do not know the rules of the game.

Some parents also indicated that they don’t feel they have the education to be involved in their children’s schooling. Parents don’t believe they can help their children, and they rely on teachers’ judgments and say “they know best.” The fear some harbor that they wouldn’t be able to communicate with teachers is very real to them. Those who are illiterate or did poorly in school are aware that they lack the culturally valued skills necessary to participate effectively in the educational process.

Middle-class parents who have high educational skills and occupational prestige see education as a partnership of equals. Many working-class communities turn over responsibility for their children’s education to professionals.

One teacher suggested that educators need to teach parents how to be active participants in education. “Although we invite them, we don’t enable them to participate. We need to teach them how to be actively involved and to make them feel comfortable. We need to teach them how to use their voice so they can be heard.”

In this study, parents and teachers did agree that parents are often left out of the consultation process at their school. Parents don’t feel that teachers are ready to listen because they are professionally trained, and don’t feel parents are qualified to offer advice. Many parents in this community still accept this view. To many teachers, parental suggestions about curriculum or teaching methods are unthinkable. Both parents and teachers pointed to parents’ lack of qualifications as the reason behind teachers’ unwillingness to listen to ideas from parents.

Role of principals

Parents and students believe that the principals’ ideas are the ones that really matter. Although principals do ask for others’ opinions, these parents believed that, in the end, the principal did what she thought best. The local community saw the principal as the most influential and powerful individual.

Mills and Gale conclude that inequalities of opportunity for parent participation remain for disadvantaged parents. They believe it is presumptuous to assume that these parents have the skills to participate, especially when the cultural contexts of their community and their school are so disparate. Mills and Gale conclude that increasing parent participation may require educators to do things less traditionally. If few parents show up for teacher conferences, it’s time to find a different way of talking with parents.

The current model of school-community relations is school-centered, but parents and educators do not necessarily work well together and they do not share equally in children’s education. These researchers suggest that schools need to think about what they expect from families and communities. To establish minority and poor families as full members of the educational community, parents must be viewed as partners and their role in children’s education must be recognized as vital to their children’s success in school.

Teachers’ and parents’ roles must be seen as complementary. These researchers believe that to increase parent participation in disadvantaged schools, educators need to establish alternative goals and redefine the process to enable marginalized families to participate.

“Parent Participation in Disadvantaged Schools: Moving Beyond Attributions of Blame”, Australian Journal of Education, Volume 48, Number 3, November 2004, pp. 268-281.

Published in ERN February 2005 Volume 18 Number 2


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