School & District Management

Teachers View Immigrant Parents as Less Involved. That Mindset May Be Hurting Students

By Sarah Schwartz — June 21, 2018 4 min read
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High school teachers view immigrant parents of color as less involved in their children’s education than white parents, which could affect these students’ grades and academic opportunities, according to new research published in the journal Social Science Research.

A study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and New York University analyzed data from about 6,100 10th graders in the U.S., drawn from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative survey conducted by the federal National Center for Education Statistics.

For measures of parent involvement, the study’s authors used responses from the NCES teacher and parent questionnaires, which were linked to individual students.

On these questionnaires, English and math teachers categorized students’ parents as “not involved,” “somewhat involved,” or “very involved.” Parents also described their engagement in their children’s education, reporting how often they participated in three activities: 1) contacting the school with questions about academics or to volunteer for school events, 2) participating in school groups and activities, like parent-teacher organizations, and 3) supporting their children’s schooling at home by checking homework, discussing report cards, and giving academic advice.

Overall, teachers of both subjects described immigrant parents of color as less engaged in their children’s education. That held true when the researchers controlled for parents’ self-reported involvement.

The results differed slightly by subject: Math teachers gave the parents of first- and third-generation Latino immigrant students a lower assessment of parent involvement than non-immigrant parents of white children. But in English classes, teachers saw the parents of both first-generation Asian and Latino students as less involved than the parents of white students.

“To us, this sort of mapped onto dominant stereotypes about these groups,” said Phoebe Ho, the paper’s co-author and a doctoral candidate in the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania.

There’s a popular perception, she said, that Latino and Asian immigrants aren’t proficient English speakers and are resistant to learning the language. At the same time, the stereotype that Asian students are especially proficient in math may lead to teachers thinking that Asian immigrant parents are invested in their children’s performance in that subject, said Ho.

Students Suffer Academic Consequences

Teachers’ perceptions of parents may have consequences for the students as well, the researchers found. Students whose teachers thought their parents were less engaged had lower grade point averages and were less likely to be recommended for honors or Advanced Placement courses.

This finding is “evidence that a kid’s GPA is not just based on a kid’s performance,” said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, an assistant professor of international education at New York University. “It’s not just based on what they’re doing in that classroom. It’s actually based on the kid’s teacher.”

Previous research has shown that immigrant parents are less likely to participate in school-based engagement activities—things like calling to ask about course options or attending back-to-school nights—in part due to linguistic and socioeconomic barriers, said Ho.

“In many cultures and contexts, it seems absolutely bizarre that the parents would contact the teacher,” said Cherng. “It seems so intrusive.”

See more: Teaching Parents the Right ‘Questions to Ask’ in Schools

But research has shown that the academic aspirations immigrant parents have for their children—and the home-based supports they give them—are “uniformly high,” said Ho.

“This is sort of a mismatch between what families think is important in terms of their involvement with their children and what schools think is important,” she said.

K-12 schools in the U.S. want to see parents in the building often, she said, which the study demonstrates. Parents’ self-reported school-based involvement was a strong predictor of teachers’ perceptions.

“Unless the teacher can see with their own eyes the parent in the classroom or on the school grounds, or hear them on the phone, they’re much less likely to think the parent is involved,” said Ho. But that framework “is maybe incongruous with how immigrant parents view their role in their children’s education,” she said.

Paradigms of Parent Involvement ‘Deserve a Little More Scrutiny’

Teacher-preparation programs are partially to blame for these paradigms of “good” and “bad” parents that fail to take into account cultural differences, said Cherng.

Too often, he says, programs characterize having immigrant parents as a deficit, and professors shy away from critical conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture. He says he once witnessed a program facilitator compare having an immigrant parent to having a learning disability.

See more: How to Solve the Parent-Engagement Problem (Opinion)

At the school level, administrators can work to center the needs and experiences of immigrant parents, said Cherng. This can be as simple as ensuring there are translators present at important school events.

But schools can also work to value the involvement that immigrant parents already demonstrate. “There are things that schools expect that maybe deserve a little more scrutiny,” said Ho. “Does it matter if a parent shows up to back-to-school night if they do a lot of things at home to encourage their child’s reading, or help them with their homework?”

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.