• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 1996 • Pam McCollum

Educators are sensitive to charges that they fail to adequately prepare their students. Why is it, however, that teachers at all levels seem to question the performance of their colleagues in the grades immediately preceding theirs? For example, exasperated high school teachers roll their eyes and question, “What were the teachers at the middle school doing over there last year anyway?” Interestingly, those same middle school teachers who resent having their performance questioned, often pass the buck to their colleagues at the elementary level in exactly the same way.

The absurdity of this situation does not stop there, however, for there is a tendency for educators at all levels to complain about today’s parents whom they claim are the real source of children’s educational difficulties.

In this article, I examine obstacles to parent involvement for families from diverse cultural backgrounds, particularly focusing on immigrant families, and explore reasons their ways of interacting with the school are often misinterpreted as not valuing or supporting their children’s education.

The following are examples of commonly heard complaints from teachers and administrators regarding parent involvement efforts with parents from culturally diverse backgrounds:

  • “We always send fliers home, but no one ever shows up at our PTA meetings.”
  • “Do you believe it? When I asked for a parent to come to school to discuss her daughter’s behavior, an older brother showed up.”
  • “Can’t they take the time to teach their children the ABCs? Why don’t they send their children to school ready to learn?”
  • “None of these parents value education. They never respond to our invitations to volunteer for school activities.”
  • “Why can’t parents come to Back to School Night? It’s only one night a year.”

Lack of Understanding

At the base of these complaints regarding the perceived lack of immigrant parent involvement in their children’s education, is a lack of understanding on the part of parents and educators. First of all, educators in the United States tend to believe that parents should ideally be interventionists in their children’s learning. Middle­class parents demonstrate that they value education and are concerned about their children’s learning by attending school meetings, volunteering for activities, helping their children with their homework and ensuring their children begin school knowing their numbers and letters as preparation for school literacy instruction.

Immigrant parents, on the other hand, often come from cultures where the proper role of a concerned parent is non­interventionist in nature (Bhachu, 1985). Parents from such backgrounds believe they should not intervene in the school’s business or question the teacher’s practices and expertise. García found that most Hispanic parents felt parent intervention constituted interference in the affairs of the school (1990).

U.S. educators often do not understand that parents can actually place a very high value on education while not having a high degree of engagement with the school. While parents from diverse cultural backgrounds may not demonstrate the expected degree of engagement with the school according to middle­class standards, they can show that they value and support their children’s learning in other ways.

Something that often goes unnoticed is the fact that immigrant students often have very high rates of school attendance. Instead of faulting parents from different cultural backgrounds for their low degree of engagement with the school, educators should focus on the fact that ensuring their children’s attendance demonstrates that parents value and actively support their children’s learning.

The other half of the equation that is responsible for misunderstandings between immigrant parents and educators, is parents’ basic lack of understanding of the US educational system. They do not understand that they are expected to interact with schools in certain ways in order to demonstrate that they value education and want their children to learn. Parents who themselves often have had very little formal education, entrust their children to the schools and the experts whom they feel know better than they how to educate their children. We know that children from cultures where parents view their role as non­interventionist in nature can attain high levels of academic achievement (Gibson, 1988).

The concept of school “readiness” as used within the US middle class is also a very foreign concept to most immigrant parents. An ethnographic study on school readiness in three communities outside Boulder, Colorado, that are varied by social class and ethnicity found that the concept of readiness was socially constructed by teachers and parents at each site (Graue, 1993). As such, it differed substantially between the upper middle­class community where most of the parents were professionals who worked in nearby high tech industries and the Mexican American working­class segment of a neighboring town. For middle­class and upper middle­class parents, readiness meant that their children arrived at school already knowing their ABCs and numbers and were armed with a vast array of preliteracy skills. Most of children in this group had also attended at least two years of preschool prior to entering kindergarten. For working­class Mexican American families, readiness meant children were ready to attend school when they reached the legal age for school entry.

Parent’s Jobs

A second obstacle that prevents immigrant parents from responding to school parent outreach programs is the fact that most immigrant families are busy desperately trying to earn a living. It is not uncommon for both parents to work more than one minimum wage job in order to make ends meet. These jobs would be in jeopardy if a parent was away even for a short time. In such situations, even if parents understood what the school expected of them, it is highly unlikely they would be free to attend school functions.

Language Differences

Another obstacle, almost too obvious to mention, to immigrant parents’ participation in school is their inability to communicate with teachers and staff in English. In many cases, lack of English skills coupled with low levels of schooling, make parents feel ashamed to interact with school staff. When an older sibling who speaks English shows up to speak to a teacher about his little sister’s behavior, parents are not shirking their responsibility. They are resolving the situation in the most satisfactory manner possible given their resources. Moreover, in the case of parents with limited knowledge of English, sending a sibling who speaks English to school ensures they will get the best interpretation of the teacher’s message possible. Viewed in a more positive light, sending an English­speaking sibling is a successful functional adaptation strategy for interacting in a new social system where one does not speak the language.

Valuing, Not Changing Parents

Most programs for parent involvement are centered upon the premise that parents need to be changed in order to teach them how to work successfully with their own children. Unfortunately, this approach is a deficit approach that ignores that parents from culturally diverse backgrounds, as well as working-class parents, may have ways of interacting with their children that support learning, yet differ from the patterns exhibited by US middle­-class parents.

These deficit programs attempt to teach parents how to be effective parents and teachers without acknowledging or discovering how parents already support their children’s education within their own culture.

Research has shown that parents can actually teach teachers and students when community­based knowledge is brought into the classroom and becomes the basis of class instruction. The “funds of knowledge” is based upon ethnographic research of students’ informal learning networks in language minority communities and homes (Moll, Vélez­Ibáñez and Greenberg, 1990). That knowledge in turn, is used as the basis of lessons in the classroom that engage children in meaningful literacy practices as part of a classroom community that is connected to their home communities and interests. This approach has been highly successful in improving literacy instruction for working­class language­minority students.

A prelude to more effective parent involvement programs should include a careful examination of what is actually known about culturally different families, their attitudes regarding education and how they support their children’s education through the family and their informal social networks.

Faculty study groups are an excellent vehicle for exploring these issues through the readings of ethnographies of the immigrant experience. A particularly useful ethnography for those interested in examining the gap between culturally diverse families and schools is a recent book, Con Respeto: Bridging the Distance Between Culturally Diverse Families and Schools: An Ethnographic Portrait (Valdes, 1996).

The author, Guadalupe Valdes, tells the stories of 10 immigrant families from rural northern Mexico who settled outside El Paso, Texas, whom she studied for several years. The book paints an excellent picture of how parents’ cultural expectations and values regarding education are often misinterpreted by the school and how school practices can conflict with family expectations. It affords educators the opportunity to learn about the immigrant experience while at the same time re­examining their assumptions about how parent involvement programs need to be refocused. The author does not give pat formulae or a list of “how to’s” for reorganizing parent involvement programs. She makes a very strong case that before parents can be involved, they have to be treated “con respeto” which means knowing who they are. Maybe it is time we educators did our homework.


Bhachu, P. Parental Educational Strategies: The Case of Punjabi Sikhs in Britain. Research Paper 3 (Center for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick, 1985).

García, D.C. Creating Parental Involvement: A Manual for School Children and Parents Interacting Program. ERIC. Document Reproduction Service No. ED 323 273 (Miami, Fla.: Florida University, School of Education, 1990).

Gibson, M.A. Accommodation Without Assimilation: Sikh Immigrants in an American High School. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988).

Graue, M. E. Ready for What?: Constructing Meanings of Readiness for Kindergarten. (Albany, NY: State University of New York at Albany, 1993).

Moll, L.C. and C. Vélez­Ibáñez and J. Greenberg. Community Knowledge and Classroom Practice: Combining Resources for Literacy Instruction. Final Technical Report, Innovative Approaches Research Project. (Arlington, Va.: Development Associates, Inc., 1990).

Valdes, G. Con Respeto: Bridging the Distance Between Culturally Diverse Families and Schools: an Ethnographic Portrait. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1996).

Pam McCollum is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 1996 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.]