Families & the Community

How Parents Widen—or Shrink—Academic Gaps

By Sarah D. Sparks & Alex Harwin — April 18, 2017 9 min read
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Five years ago, Mary Muñoz thought she knew what it meant to be involved in her son’s education.

She brought Christian, then in 1st grade, to school every morning, made sure he did homework every afternoon, and read with him every night. Muñoz went to parent-teacher conferences, but didn’t get involved in parent-teacher organizations or school committees.

“I had no time. I was just working, working, working all the time,” she said. “When I wasn’t, I was home with my family. ... [T]hat was my networking.”

Muñoz is like a lot of parents, particularly those living in poverty. Contrary to some common stereotypes, parents of all income levels have high expectations for their children, and low-income parents may even dedicate more time than wealthier ones to helping children with homework, according to federal data. Many school outreach efforts to low-income parents center on just that kind of home-focused involvement.

But analyses by the Education Week Research Center and others show that middle-class parents often engage in more social involvement at school—participating in school committees, parent groups, and volunteering in class, for example—experiences that can link them to more opportunities and resources for their children and more influence in schools. Those differences in parent involvement can create hidden disparities that are easy for schools to overlook but hard for poor families to overcome.

And those inequities are only likely to increase nationwide, as income disparities and economic isolation rise. America’s middle class has shrunk in 203 of 229 metropolitan areas since 2000, according to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center.

Here in Albuquerque, Pew finds the middle class decreased by more than 4 percent from 2000 to 2014, with low-income families’ share of the population growing from 28.6 percent to 33 percent.

Social ‘Silos’

Even within economically diverse schools, social networks can become segregated by race or income level, according to Linn Posey-Maddox, an assistant professor of educational policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In studies of gentrifying urban areas, she and colleagues found that middle-class families often recruit a “critical mass” of similar families and enroll their children in low-income schools in groups, working together to raise money and change policies. While those middle-class parents reported wanting to include low-income parents, the resulting social systems and policies tended to end up exclusive, Posey-Maddox found.

How Parents Tip the School Scale

To make a difference in their child’s school career, parents have to understand and feel confident navigating the education system. For most parents, that know-how comes not from the school but from formal and informal social networks.

The Education Week Research Center found that parents’ income and resources can shape how—and how often—parents work with schools.

Using data from the nationally representative 2012 National Household Education Survey, the National Center for Education Statistics found that a majority of parents of all income levels attend general school meetings like the annual open house. But an analysis of the data by the Education Week Research Center found parents who make more than $75,000 go to meetings and events nearly twice as often during the school year as those making less than $30,000, and they are far more likely to volunteer at school.

In a separate parent survey conducted this spring with Education.com, Education Week researchers also found that parents who ask are more likely to get what they want for their children. While 31 percent of the parents said they had met with school administrators to request or change a particular teacher or program for their child, more than 71 percent of those who did had their request granted.

When students were disciplined, only 31 percent of parents contested the action at a hearing—but those who did won a majority of the time.

—Sarah D. Sparks, Alex Harwin, Coral Flanagan, and Michael Osher

“A lot of these social groups of parents and gatherings exist in separate silos,” she said. “There might be a [parent-teacher organization], a bilingual-action committee, a Title I group mandated by the state—but there’s not a lot of collaboration or sharing of resources across these parent groups.”

In part, that may be because parents in professional jobs have greater work flexibility, and they use it to volunteer, observe their children’s classes, and participate in clubs and committees that help shape the schools’ policies, as Posey-Maddox found in another study.

By contrast, parents in low-income jobs—especially hourly-wage work—often must sacrifice pay to take part. Events that aren’t scheduled long in advance can become impossible to attend.

Parents here in this diverse, 84,000-student district—those in poverty as well as those in the middle class—said it can be difficult for families who don’t have good relationships with staff members to navigate the system.

“I went to meetings,” said Evelyn Ramos, another Albuquerque parent, “but I just sat there; I didn’t know what to ask for.”

And that was doubly true for those like Muñoz whose second language is English. While official district notices were delivered in both Spanish and English, information about many enrichment activities, like play groups, summer camps, and music lessons, often came in English only.

As her son moved through elementary school, Muñoz said, “It was hard for me to get an appointment with the principal; they were always busy or in a meeting. And I didn’t see that interest at the school in having parents there; if they saw a parent, they are like, ‘Oh, what’s wrong now?’ I get that feeling.”

In fact, Posey-Maddox found economically diversifying schools that improved while also maintaining equity for their lower-income students were those where leaders and staff members worked not just to improve parent involvement overall, but specifically to help low-income and disengaged parents join the conversation and advocate for their own children with the higher-income parents.

Katarina Sandoval, the student-services director for the Albuquerque public schools, said the district is working to “reimagine or redefine parent involvement” at its 140 schools. “Traditional metrics would say, how many parents come to your [parent-teacher organization] meetings,” Sandoval said. “That certainly is one way to measure it, but we recognize more and more parents are working one, two, three jobs, [and] they don’t have the luxury of making those face-to-face meetings.”

Jesús Gerena, a managing partner of the Family Independence Initiative, a nonprofit that works with parents in nine cities, including Albuquerque, contends that schools should rethink how they go about engaging low-income families.

“Most school districts are thinking about the problem [of poverty and education] and concentrating on trying their best guess at solving the problem, but mostly without engaging parents and letting them take leadership,” Gerena said. “Often, schools marginalize these parents and degrade them in front of their own children, saying they aren’t the ones with experience. You can’t rob parents of the opportunity to say, ‘How can we help ourselves?’ ”

Building Social Capital

Muñoz had the same determination three years ago but few paths forward.

About This Series

Hidden Inequities: An Education Week Analysis

Educators and the public are aware that achievement gaps often separate students of color from their higher-achieving white peers and leave low-income students lagging behind their better-off peers. Less obvious are the mechanisms and circumstances that contribute to those academic differences.

This article is the second of a series intended to shed light on the “hidden inequities” that keep education from reaching the goal of leveling the playing field for all students. Each installment is being produced by Education Week staff writers working in collaboration with the Education Week Research Center. Future installments will examine:

• District-to-district disparities in disciplinary practices used with special education students (May);

• School closings and high student-mobility rates, their impact on educational quality, and their disparate effects on different school communities (June).

Click here to read the full series.

By 2014, the family’s new baby, Nathan, was mostly in the care of Muñoz’s mother during the day. Both Muñoz and her husband, Gabriel Flores, worked full time—he, in construction, and she, as a manager at the Triple R Mobile Park where the family lives—but they couldn’t make ends meet month to month and had few others to fall back on.

Christian was doing well in school, but by 5th grade was starting to get bullied, and the academic odds in the district were against him: Albuquerque 6th graders perform nearly a full grade level below the national average for their grade in reading and math, according to data from the Stanford Education Data Archive. But the district’s white students perform more than a half-grade above the national average, while Hispanic students, whose share of enrollment is twice as large, perform nearly a grade and a half below the national average.

The Muñoz-Flores family was one of the first to join the Family Independence Initiative, which recruits groups of six to eight families into a single network. Each group and family commits to working with the initiative for two years and sets their own goals—improving their children’s education, building up savings, improving their families’ health, and so on. Every month, each family records progress on its goals, and the group meets at least once a month to share ideas and help.

“Success isn’t alone; people have to have other people who support them,” said Suzy Sarmiento, the director of the initiative’s work in Albuquerque. For the first six months, Sarmiento said, initiative staff members do nothing but collect the families’ monitoring data and take notes at the meetings.

Mary Muñoz counts out Play-Doh figures with her son Nathan at home in Albuquerque, N.M. She found Nathan’s early-childhood center through a parent in the Family Independence Initiative.

After that time, parents can apply for an array of small-scale grants, intended to fill in the “extras” that a middle-class family would have. For example, families who keep up to $1,000 in savings for at least three months can get a matching grant to put toward education—often college tuition for parents or children—or business or home improvement. Other families may get a more general education scholarship that can be used for after-school enrichment or tutoring as well as tuition, or a $500 “family time” grant for a project parents want to do with their children, from cooking classes to BMX bike racing.

One parent in Muñoz’s group recommended the early-childhood center where Nathan, now 3, has started to learn English. Another parent walked the family through the seven-month application and lottery process to get Christian into the Christine Duncan Heritage Academy, a charter middle school where he started 6th grade with art and gifted education.

Muñoz said her own family has gone from living month to month on food stamps to building a savings account. Using one of the education matching grants, she has studied nutrition and wellness and expects to receive her certificate from a local community college this July. She plans to use it to start a wellness center.

Her family is not an outlier in the Family Independence Initiative. The first 81 Albuquerque families have completed the program. On average, after two years, their incomes have risen 32 percent, and their family savings doubled. More than nine out of 10 children in the participating families showed higher grades and achievement scores. Other sites have shown similar growth.

“I feel really guilty because I see a real difference between my 15-year-old daughter and my 7-year-old daughter because of what I know now about how to find resources and get help,” Ramos said. “With my older daughter, I would just take my daughter to school. With my younger daughter, I have more connection to her teachers.”

Now, Ramos, Muñoz, and several other parents in the initiative have also completed Abriendo Puertas, or Opening Doors, a six-week parent-taught course on child development, and Community Organizing for Family Issues, another nonprofit program that teaches parent leadership.

Muñoz has moved from knowing few people outside her family to holding parent workshops and advocating for healthier school meals.

“We are trying to make leadership in our school with the parents, so we, as parents, can help the school with what we think they need for our kids,” she said.

Measuring Parent Involvement

About the National Household Education Surveys
The Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey is one of several in the National Center on Education Statistics’ National Household Education Surveys. NCES surveyed a nationally representative sample of 17,563 parents and guardians, who represented 53.4 million students homeschooled or enrolled in kindergarten through grade 12 in 2011–12. Data on parent and family involvement in education from the 2012 survey was released in June 2016.

The Education Week Research Center conducted additional analyses by weighting the National Household Education Survey data to get U.S. population estimates, removing homeschooled students, and testing for statistical significance of the results. The outcomes were verified by the American Institutes of Research on behalf of NCES and will be added to the official data tables for the NHES study.

About the Education.com Survey
To learn more about perspectives on parental engagement in K-12 education, the Education Week Research Center and Education.com administered an online survey to a sample of parents and teachers. Nearly 500 parents and more than 1,000 teachers participated in the survey, which was fielded in February 2017. Although the sample for the survey is not nationally representative, the study captures the views of a wide range of respondents.

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Untangling Parents’ Roles in Shaping Academic Gaps


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