by Micaela Díaz-Sánchez • IDRA Newsletter • March 2001

Dr. Jose CardenasSeptember 2000 marked the 50-year anniversary of Dr. José A. Cárdenas’ life as a professional educator. Immediately after graduation from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950, Dr. Cárdenas started as a science teacher in the Laredo Public Schools. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he resumed his teaching career in the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio.

Additional classroom teaching was soon augmented by various supervisory and administrative positions leading to the superintendency of the district from 1969 to 1973. Dr. Cárdenas’ work in public schools was supplemented by many years of full- and part-time college teaching and almost 30 years in educational research and development.

In 1973, Dr. Cárdenas resigned as superintendent and founded the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) (formerly Texans for Educational Excellence). IDRA was founded to undertake school finance reform advocacy and now works with people to create self-renewing schools that value and empower all children, families and communities.

IDRA celebrates these 50 years of contributions to the improvement of educational opportunities for children with a series of conversations with Dr. Cárdenas and members of the IDRA staff published in the IDRA Newsletter. This issue’s conversation focuses on Dr. Cárdenas’ experiences regarding community and parent involvement in education.

As a new member of the IDRA staff, I have been most impressed with the organization’s philosophy of working with parents. Staff members have developed approaches that value and build on the contributions and strengths of parents as leaders to create excellent educational opportunities for their children.

The deficit model that views parents and families as entities that must be “fixed” as opposed to one that values them as critical leaders and decision makers continues to be a problem in many school parent involvement programs. With 50 years in education, Dr. Cárdenas has struggled with this issue in many contexts – from parent to superintendent.

What were the general sentiments on community involvement when you began teaching?

In 1950, there was very little community involvement in the schools. As long as the parent was not called by the school, you assumed the child was doing well. If you did have a call from the school, it was bad news.

I could say that during the first five years of my professional life, I cannot remember having communicated with any of the parents of the children I taught. There may have been some more communication with the school among middle- or upper-class families, but among the lower socioeconomic class families, there was absolutely no communication other than report cards.

What were some of the guidelines of parent involvement that you were given by the school’s administration?

I don’t think we ever had any teacher preparation, pre-service or in-service training that dealt with parents. The administrators dealt with the parents. They did not give us any guidelines.

When you became an administrator, what were the guidelines you were given?

It was a public relations affair. Keep the parents happy, and things will go well in the school. It used to be a byline. A lot of my fellow administrators used the phrase, “Keep the parents happy and you will have no problems in the school.”

Some of the administrators went to great lengths to keep the parents happy, mostly through the PTA [parent-teacher association] or some similar forum. There were some innovations tried with teacher-parent conferences. For the most part they were not very effective. Parents and teachers had a hard time communicating.

First, research shows that teachers, when communicating with parents, tend to go into very technical language and concepts that have very little meaning to the parents. Second, teachers are very reluctant to point out weaknesses on the part of the student, and say everything is going fine in spite of the consequences to the child. And third, there is a tendency for teachers to discuss the problems of other teachers, rather than their own problems.

The initial effort of establishing teacher-parent communication in the school system was supposed to be through the report card. These were some of the initial problems. As the school-community relations grew more sophisticated, there were more and better teacher-parent conferences.

What were some policy milestones in the development of school-community relations?

Some of the milestones were federal programs that were implemented in the 1960s, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which included bilingual education, and Title I for the disadvantaged. In many of the federal regulations there was a requirement that there be parent involvement in the implementation of the program. So parent advisory groups were formed because they were mandatory. In fact, one of the characteristics of the civil rights movement was the involvement of parents in the administration of the school.

What are your thoughts on school change as a result of community involvement?

I don’t think the biggest change came as a result of the interaction of the schools and parents. In the United States we have a very elitist system of education made up of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The “have-nots” did very poorly in school. I think there was a lot of rationalization, and we were blaming the victim for the failures. The victim in this case was told frequently by the school that the reason for the student’s failure was the lack of parental interest in the school.

I think we have had an expansion in that thinking as we try to explain some of the continued failures of the school in what I call “deficit models.” There are deficit models for kids, and we used these in the 1960s as the reason for minority and disadvantaged kids not being educated. The reason for the student doing poorly was attributed to the characteristics of the student. There now has been some movement away from the characteristics of the student to the characteristics of the family.

Therefore “these” people are understood to not be interested in the education of their kids, to not be willing to cooperate with the school, and to not do the things for their kids to be successful. For example, in the court case Lau vs. Nichols, the school district argued that 1,800 Chinese children who spoke no English being taught by teachers who spoke no Chinese did not constitute an educational problem.

When the justices of the US Supreme Court pointed out to them in a unanimous opinion “Yes, you do have a problem,” the school came right back and said there might be a problem but not for the school district – for the parents. The reason the Chinese students were doing so poorly in school was attributed to the failure of the Chinese parents to teach their children English. In response, the Supreme Court pointed out that the Chinese parents did not speak English and therefore had very little capability in doing the type of instruction that the school expected prior to them coming to school.

Do you see a shift in the philosophy of involving parents in raising funds for the school and a new role in taking ownership of the school?

I am of the opinion that a lot of the ineffectiveness of the relationship between the school and the parents is that the school argues lack of family input, but when the family indicates that they want to make such inputs, such inputs are neutralized. I value the PTA and understand the contribution it makes. Unfortunately many school systems have used the PTA as a vehicle for fund-raising as you have mentioned. I have sat at a PTA meeting all night where the parents argued whether they were going to sell hot dogs or hamburgers at the school carnival. They consider this to be a meaningful input into the affairs of the school.

We know one of the recent findings in community involvement research is that when there is a meaningful relationship between the school and the family the student tends to perform better. The key word is meaningful, and a lot of the PTA activities or other activities that are conducted by the school are really not very meaningful to the parents, even in middle-class schools. I am critical that on many occasions the school system is communicating that it wants the family to support the schools, but the schools do not reciprocate and support the families. The school looks to the community as a resource, but it does not look at itself as a resource to the community.

What changes in community involvement do you advocate?

I go back to the basics and say that primarily the school does not understand the parents and that which you do not understand you fear. Due to lack of understanding, the school and the parents may not want to get into a relationship. If the relationship is viewed as dangerous, there may be a desire to neutralize it.

For instance, the school may try to neutralize a relationship with the parents through extensive involvement in extracurricular activities, such as football, which does not constitute a meaningful relationship between the school and the parents.

The most important change in the relationship is based on the school seeing parent and community involvement as an asset rather than a liability. Schools set their own goals, do their own activities, and do their own evaluations. It is threatening to have people come in and upset the apple cart, and start asking questions that would lead to such things as accountability of the school, about the quality of education.

We have very sophisticated techniques for defusing the influence of parents – the TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills] for instance. We just say the student is doing very poorly, if he or she does not pass the TAAS. Our accountability, meaningful accountability, is sent back to the students. They are the ones who will not graduate, they will not be promoted, and the school also receives a sanction.

But the school is an intangible institution. I have never heard of the superintendent of schools having his or her salary reduced because of low performance on the TAAS. I have never heard of a superintendent who loses a job because of low performance on TAAS. We had here in San Antonio a very large school district where most of the schools could not meet the minimum standards of the TAAS. No one ever held them accountable. The superintendent finally retired. He was given the normal retirement parties and presents and so forth, with no accountability on the basis of the very poor performance on the TAAS. The TAAS is reducing school accountability by placing it on the backs of the students.

What advice would you give educators and administrators who want to increase parent involvement?

You have to think of ways of involving parents. I could give you a list of ways in which parents should be involved. I would begin with a philosophy for schools based on the assumption that all children can learn. You can involve the parents in establishing rules and regulations that are conducive to good student performance. You can have sessions for the involvement of parents in curriculum development, student personnel services, evaluation, and other aspects of school planning and activity. Almost everything that the school does can benefit from parent and community input.

How have you personally been involved in the education of your own children?

I have been very involved in the education of my children. My being pro-active in education has led to my children and my grandchildren doing better in school.

Have you had negative experiences in your involvement in the education of your children?

I have published several stories dealing with my involvement in the education of my children. My favorite story is in a book entitled, All Pianos Have Keys, in which I talk about my son Mike, who was not doing well in the second grade. I knew why he wasn’t doing well. He had a liability; he likes to think before he speaks. I cannot help but think about all the students in school who speak before they think. Because of Mike’s habit of thinking before speaking he was slow in responding in school, and he was thought to be slow.

When my son Mike was in the second grade, I looked at samples of his work, and I asked the teacher why he was not doing better. I go back to what I said previously; teachers in teacher-parent conferences just don’t have the nerve to paint a realistic picture of student performance. The teacher said that Mike was a sweet kid, everyone loved Mike, he was one of her best students. That did not answer my question about his performance. In response to my question the teacher said something nonsensical such as, “His motivational growth has not caught up with his developmental mode.”

She informed me that my son was a low achiever, he was a slow student, that I should not expect above average school performance from him, and not expect him to do better in school since he was already working within his limited capabilities. My son, Mike, is now a physician and a surgeon and did very well in high school, college and medical school.

This erroneous diagnosis on the part of the teacher has bothered me for many years. As an educator I was aware that my son was not slow and the teacher was wrong. But as I have asked myself so many times, what about parents who are not educators and do not understand and recognize their children’s abilities and are told by the school that their child has limited capabilities?

If I had not known any better I might have said to my son, “Don’t do your homework,” “Don’t try too hard.” And what would have been his contribution to society? This is a personal anecdote that has bothered me for many years.

How do you rectify a situation like that? Through teacher training?

I would imagine it would come back to teacher training. Teachers have often shown very poor judgment in determining the capabilities of students. Therefore, for teachers to make statements, like “He is incapable of learning,” scares me because they have never been able to demonstrate success in determining who can learn and who cannot learn.

I don’t like homogenous grouping of students. One of the reasons is because it is usually erroneous. All studies on grouping show that teachers cannot eliminate more than 75 percent of the range of the original group. The erroneous placement of a student in a group of low achievers can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is the role of parents in such a situation?

Parents should have the opportunity and do have the right to respond to teacher recommendations. The most effective way of doing so is to have a role for parents in decision-making processes. That is why we advocate committees for placing children into such programs as bilingual and special education. Various facets of the school and faculty, as well as parents, should be represented. Together they participate in the making of important decisions.

What are some other roles of parents?

Parents can be utilized in the implementation of the mission of the school. It is very easy to put some words together that say the mission of the school is to bring the child to maximum self-realization. That has been the mission of schools for 80 years now. It is a beautiful statement, but how do you bring this about.

Anyone can make a mission statement, the difficult thing is the conversion of the mission statement into activities and behaviors that need to be established. Parents have a responsibility to participate in the definition of the activities and behaviors that will lead to the meeting of the school’s mission.

How can parents participate in the curriculum of the school?

Parents can participate in the selection of courses that are offered, requirements for participation and prerequisites for enrollment in these courses. One thing that I would insist upon is having the parents participate in decisions for student career choices.

It has not always happened in the past. It is unbelievably bad that the school makes decisions such as that the child should be a bus driver or automobile mechanic without input on the part of the parents. I think parents should participate in all decisions on behalf of the child.

Interviewer’s note: It is upsetting to realize that on many campuses little has changed from the times that Dr. Cárdenas spoke of regarding community and parental involvement. Many “fortress schools” continue to keep parents out and blame families when students do not do well.

However, through the work of advocacy organizations, educators, elected officials and families, important steps have been made – and are being made – to shift general sentiments from viewing families as distant parties to viewing families as partners and leaders in educational achievement. Dr. Cárdenas’ detailed accounts of his experiences help us to recognize both the progress made and the work to be done regarding parent and community involvement in education.

José A. Cárdenas, Ed.D., is the founder and director emeritus of IDRA. Micaela Díaz-Sánchez is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]