Editor’s note: This is the first essay in a series about using cultural knowledge to improve education drawn from the work of researchers and practitioners in the Forest Grove, Ore., school district. Read other essays in the series and find out more about the district.
The coronavirus pandemic has allowed a long-standing educational myth to take on new force.
Educators often claim that their efforts to serve some groups of children, primarily Black, Latino, and Native American, are hindered by things their families fail to do—things like supervise homework, comply with school requests, and communicate with teachers. During pandemic-initiated distance learning, these family contributions may be even more important than during normal classroom learning and even less possible, given that COVID-19 has hit families in these groups particularly hard. Concerned for their students, many educators fear that the pandemic will exacerbate the “family-disengagement problem.”
We take a different view. Family disengagement is not inevitable during the pandemic or at other times. Our team of researchers and practitioners working toward school improvement in the Forest Grove, Ore., district believes that families of every background are ready to partner with schools when schools speak the right cultural language.
We believe further that the myth of disengagement stems from the same forces that make certain communities feel “minoritized”—pushed to the margins—in educational settings. The disengagement myth draws from deficit narratives, pervasive stereotypical beliefs about deficiencies of Latino, Black, and Native families as well as low-income families of any background. These narratives locate a disengagement problem within families and ignore schools’ responsibilities to provide equal access and opportunities.
Our contention—backed by recently collected data—is that if schools change, the so-called disengagement problem recedes.
This summer, approximately 1,500 parents and 1,650 students in the district responded to surveys to help us understand their experiences during the first few months of distance learning. Aligned with national data, the district’s minority families (most of them Latino) were more likely to include essential workers, experience lower socioeconomic status, and lack a reliable home-internet connection compared with white families. Minority parents also reported more negative physical, financial, and psychological COVID-19 effects than white parents, and minority students reported greater difficulty doing their schoolwork and greater COVID-19 anxiety than white students.
Despite these disparities, minority families had more positive educational experiences than white students. Specifically, we found:
- Learning is a collaborative activity in minority homes. White and minority parents provided equal supervision of schooling. However, minority students received school help from a wider range of sources than white students (such as classmates, siblings, and cousins).
- Education is a top priority for minority families. Minority parents rated school as an even stronger priority than did white parents.
- Minority families have strong relationships with educators. Compared with white parents, minority parents rated their children’s teachers as more helpful, in part because teachers expressed caring, provided necessary school supplies, and communicated clearly and consistently.
- Minority students stayed connected to teachers and classmates. Despite the isolation of distance learning, minority students felt closer to their teachers and classmates compared with their white peers, perhaps because they collaborated more frequently with peers and received more help from teachers.
Our data did not support the disengagement myth: Minority families were highly engaged in distance learning.
These findings are good news, of course, but we caution against generalizing them. They represent a substantial amount of work in the school district. Our research-practitioner team has collaborated for three years to overcome cultural misunderstandings by expanding educators’ cultural toolkits—their knowledge of how culture shapes motivation and learning and how to engage students of different backgrounds. Cultural misunderstandings arise between the predominantly white, middle-class teaching force and families who hold different beliefs regarding parents’ and teachers’ roles in education and what constitutes “good” learning.
Many white and middle-class families in the United States adhere to cultural values rooted in independence such that self-expression, individuation, and self-advocacy are seen as “good” behaviors. To be a “good” parent means voicing concerns and advocating for one’s children. To be a “good” student necessitates being individually motivated and showing engagement by expressing opinions and questioning authority figures. Independent values typically guide how schools try to engage families and the expectations they set for students and parents.
Another set of cultural norms are common among many lower-income, Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian American families, who value interdependence, often more than independence. Our toolkit helps educators understand this cultural value. Social contexts favoring interdependence encourage observation, attending to others’ needs, and deference to authority as “good” behaviors. Interdependent parents often view teachers as academic experts and believe that parents should support children’s nonacademic development. “Good” interdependent learning occurs through relationships and real-world exploration, which can take the form of collaborative play or observing and helping older family or community members.
Without understanding these cultural differences, educators often perceive a lack of family input or student self-expression as “disengagement.” Moreover, educators fail to recognize that fostering student success requires building relationships with students and families that validate interdependence. Educators without well-stocked cultural toolkits often believe that families simply need to adapt to the school’s expectations.
We have worked to not only expand educators’ toolkits but also implement culturally inclusive educational practices and policies, such as mission statements that validate both independent and interdependent values, instructional approaches that leverage cultural differences, and communication from teachers to families that expresses respect in culturally relevant ways. We survey students, teachers, and parents to understand the impact of such changes on relationships, learning, and equity.
The Forest Grove district has invested in critical self-reflection and made systemic inclusion-focused changes. Schools emphasized the importance of relationships with students and families. When the district shifted to distance learning, educators continued engaging families in culturally inclusive ways. They delivered computers, hot spots, school supplies, and meals to all families in need and asked about families’ well-being, both academically and personally.
Educators understandably often focus on curriculum, but relationship-driven extracurricular actions are crucial. These actions show families that educators care about and see potential in their children, and they allow students to feel welcome and connected at school.
As districts strive for equity in distance learning, the question isn’t how to fix the family-disengagement “problem.” The question is how to provide Latino, Black, Native and low-income families with the resources and relationships that fulfill their desire to engage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week