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date: 22 September 2018

Parental Involvement in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Parental involvement is frequently touted as a key part of any solution to the achievement gap in US schools. Yet the mainstream model of parental involvement has been challenged on the grounds that it neglects parents’ political agency, the cultural diversity of families, and the empirical evidence of limited efficacy. This article argues that to understand parental involvement’s promise and limitations, it is necessary to consider it in historical context. Accordingly, it traces the history of “parental involvement” as a policy goal through the past half century. It provides an account of the mainstream parental involvement research, as well as critiques. Ultimately, the article argues that parental involvement is neither boon nor bane. As an important aspect of the politics of public schooling, parental involvement has diverse effects, which can support or hinder equity and student success.

Keywords: parents, parent involvement, parent engagement, families, achievement, equality, school reform, neoliberalism, United States

Introduction: The History of Concern About Parental Involvement

To understand the meaning of “parental involvement” in contemporary educational policy and practice, a good place to start is with No Child Left Behind, the 2001 legislation that reconfigured the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and reshaped education policy throughout the United States.1 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) refers to “parents” and “parental involvement” frequently. It addresses parental involvement most explicitly in Title I, which is the section of the policy that directs the allotment of resources for students from low income families. Title I, Part A, Subpart 1, Section 1118, “Parental Involvement,” declares that a local education agency may receive Title I funds, provided “such agency implements programs, activities, and procedures for the involvement of parents in programs assisted under this part consistent with this section. Such programs, activities, and procedures shall be planned and implemented with meaningful consultation with parents of participating children.” Section 1118 goes on to indicate what this entails. For instance, parents are to be meaningfully involved in planning Title I programs; information about these programs is to be provided in language parents are likely to understand; planning is to be scheduled at times when parents are likely to be able to attend. The inclusion, the placement, and the meaning of the phrase “parental involvement” in NCLB provides an entry into some of the complexities of a concept that can, at first glance, seem as unarguably positive as motherhood and apple pie.

In the original 1965 Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the phrase “parental involvement” does not appear.2 Neither does the word “parent,” “parental” or the gender specific “mother” or “father.” From this, however, it would be a mistake to conclude that the legislation had no interest in parents. “Families” does appear, mainly within the phrase “low-income families.” At first glance, it is not surprising that the phrase “low-income families” is used frequently by the 1965 document, as the educational needs of children from low-income families were a driving force behind this legislation. The choice of this particular phrase by the creators of the ESEA, though, is politically significant.

The 1965 ESEA marked one of the front lines of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declared “War on Poverty.” This particular demarcation of the front line staked a claim not only against political opponents who objected to the use of federal policy to redistribute educational resources but also against black civil rights advocates who supported federal involvement to remedy racial discrimination. It indicates Johnson’s preference for challenging economic inequalities rather than race-based inequalities. Beneficiaries of the ESEA have always included low-income black families and children. In 1964 Johnson signed civil rights legislation, and his presidency continued to support the racial desegregation of schools that the Eisenhower administration had started in the 1950s. But, as the use of the race-neutral phrase “low income families” suggests, the ESEA was meant to right the wrongs of poverty, not of racial discrimination per se. Whether this was a wise and necessary tactical choice that won the support of the (white) majority of voters and their elected representatives by extending benefits to poor families of all races, or merely evidence of continuing white reluctance to fully address racial injustice is a matter that educational historians continue to debate. For present purposes, suffice it to say that the original ESEA eschewed talk of race, electing instead to speak in terms of family income.

The diversity, and the particularity, of ways in which students can need extra resources are a more explicit focus of NCLB’s Title I provisions. The elementary and secondary school students to be assisted are described in NCLB as “disadvantaged” rather than “low-income,” and the disadvantages they suffer are attributed to race, ethnicity, ability status, home language, and attendance at a school whose student body mainly consisted of racial minorities, as well as to family income.

NCLB’s use of the phrase “parental involvement” involves a second shift away from the 1965 ESEA as well. The phrase “low-income families” appears in the original ESEA almost exclusively to indicate the objects of action. In the 2001 NCLB legislation, parents are positioned to a greater extent as agents. They are treated as responsibility holders and choice makers. It is parents themselves who are to read and interpret information from their children’s schools indicating how well schools are meeting expectations; it is also parents who design plans, attend meetings, and involve themselves in decisions about how funds will be allocated. Parents remain the objects of state action in the NCLB legislation, but they are also treated discursively as subjects, with an implied agency that the 1965 ESEA does not impute to them.

Like Johnson’s decision to foreground economic rather than race-based inequalities, there are political implications to positioning parents as the objects of actions by others versus as possessing agency. The 1965 ESEA extended federal power into American schooling further than ever before. The United States had for over a century treated public schooling as a matter appropriately governed by local communities, with decisions about curriculum, funding, and the arrangement of students within schools left to the discretion of local citizens. Progressive-era reformers, categorized by some educational historians as “administrative progressives,” had shifted some oversight to the state level in the early 20th century.3 At that point in American history, urbanization and the expansion of school requirements seemed to many to require that some of the responsibility to provide public schools be taken up above the local level, and small local schools were consolidated into regional schools.4 A decade before the ESEA, another shift in American perceptions of public schooling and its provision seemed to progressive reformers of the postwar era to require federal involvement. Parental involvement was part of that story.

After the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that separate schools for black and white students violated the Constitution, segregated schools were required by law to desegregate. Desegregation, however, was strongly resisted by white parents, who used the political, financial and physical resources still at their disposal to block black students from entering the schools to which they were legally granted access. Unlike previous white parents’ efforts to block black children from attending public schools with white children (e.g. after Reconstruction in the late 19th century), 20th century mass media made this “parental involvement” impossible to ignore. Photographs of white parents screaming at black children and youth attempting to attend previously all-white schools appeared in national papers. Television, a new medium increasingly bringing the national news into family living rooms, showed white parents physically blocking black children from entering school buildings. When 1970s court rulings mandated bussing of students between schools for the purpose of desegregating schools—in areas where residential segregation led to the segregation of schools as effectively as pre-Brown v. Board laws did—parents mobbed busses and protested what they perceived as the violation of their right to shape the course of their children’s schooling. Many white parents mustered the financial resources still at their disposal and pulled their children out of desegregated schools, sending them to private schools or moving to (mostly-white) suburbs.5 Parental involvement, expressed in terms of local control of schools, was viewed by progressive reformers as a key contributor to the problem of educational inequality, not as a resource to be tapped for the sake of equity.

When city- and state-level politicians and police forces refused to protect black students from the rage of white parents and white community members resisting desegregation, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in the National Guard, most famously in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. The ESEA was the carrot following a decade of the stick. In promising federal funding to school systems that met federal requirements, it replaced local control (which is to say parental involvement in local school politics) with federal oversight. Because the redistribution of children in schools and of resources among schools was never popular with most white parents whose children were affected, redistributional policies such as the ESEA relied on replacing parents’ local control of schools with federal control. Language in the text of ESEA that frames parents as the objects of policy, rather than as agents who enact it, aligns with the historical and political context of the legislation.

By 2001, the mobs of white parents threatening black children and youth could easily seem a problem of the distant past (perhaps not least because school districts had fallen back into patterns of de facto racial segregation that made charged racial encounters easier for white parents to avoid).6 For those on both the left and right of the political spectrum, there seemed to be good reasons for parents to be treated once again as agents whose involvement was necessary if schools were to do what Americans expected them to. The objectification of poor parents, and especially poor parents of color, had always rankled reformers associated with the civil rights movement. This came out especially strongly in responses to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s ill-fated 1965 report, which was immediately suppressed in the face of public outrage about its language (but has remained famous all the same).7 Tasked with suggesting public policies to remedy poverty, Moynihan suggested that parents’ actions, namely “the Negro family” and its “pathologies,” might be part of the problem, and he suggested federal interventions to provide parents and children with resources, particularly to address the limited employment opportunities available to black males. Because he focused his attention on the growing number of single-parent families, particularly families headed by unmarried black women, a family structure he called “pathological,” he offended feminists, black rights advocates, and their allies. Even after the Moynihan report was shelved, these critics continued to point out the ongoing tendency of policies made primarily by white men to treat women and parents of color as dysfunctional, incompetent, and incapable of carrying out their responsibilities. In reframing parents as “involved,” NCLB seemed to address this discontent with the ESEA.

Meanwhile, on the right-leaning side of American politics, there was a strong push back against redistributive policies such as the ESEA, which many in the increasingly beleaguered middle class considered an unjust appropriation of resources they had earned for the sake of their own families. Neoliberal economic ideas developed by Milton Friedman in the 1950s were translated into social policy, with calls for American workers, taxpayers, and parents to take responsibility for their own households and children rather than place their trust in the federal government. When it came to parental involvement in public schooling, neoliberalism dovetailed neatly with the call for democratic agency (even if these ideals generally amounted to something quite different) and gave legislation such as NCLB bipartisan appeal.

NCLB can therefore be understood as having revived in education policy the idea, discredited by the actions of white parents during the civil rights era, that parents should be directly involved in the schooling of their own children. What was not revived was the notion of full local control. Whether school systems should be reconfigured yet again to give parents control over more aspects of their children’s educations remains a question debated by citizens, politicians, and academic researchers alike.

Does Parental Involvement Contribute to School Achievement?

Although the above has presented “parental involvement” as inevitably politicized, it is often used in educational discourse to indicate something more intimate than overtly political: the involvement of parents in the educations and schooling of their own children. In contemporary parlance, the phrase suggests parents helping their children with homework, volunteering to hear children recite their multiplication tables in elementary school classrooms or to chaperone field trips, attending Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) meetings, and paying attention to school newsletters. Whether these practices are genuinely “apolitical” (i.e. unrelated to the overall distribution of power and privilege in a society) will be further considered in the final section of this entry. First, however, it bears considering the positive effects on children’s learning that have been attributed to parental involvement of this sort.

Parental Involvement for School Achievement

What are the effects, on children, of parental involvement? Based on studies in social psychology, researchers have suggested that parental involvement contributes strongly to children’s school success. An important framework for parental involvement was created by Joyce Epstein in the 1980s and 1990s, and her framework remains influential.8 Epstein starts with the premise that schools, families, and communities are overlapping “spheres of influence.” Children and youth stand at the center, affected by each of these spheres. The spheres can stand entirely separately, as they do when teachers, parents, and community members treat their responsibilities to children as disconnected and unrelated. Teachers, for instance, can often be heard to say that the problem with schools lies with parents who fail to send children to school properly prepared to learn. Parents, meanwhile, often blame schools, arguing that parents’ responsibility is to raise children, while it is schools’ responsibility to educate them. As for the community, community members without children sometimes wash their hands of all responsibility for other people’s children but complain about children poorly prepared by schools and parents for workplace responsibilities. However, advocates of parental involvement argue that children are more successful in schools when each of these spheres operates in communication and partnership with the others. Children perceive overlapping spheres of influence as caring, Epstein contends, and they are more likely to learn when such is the case.9

Based on extensive empirical research with families and schools, Epstein proposed a six-point model for successful parental involvement.10 It involves:

  1. 1. Parenting: “Help all families establish home environment to support children as students.” Parents are to be supplied with information about health, nutrition, child development, behavioral issues, and appropriate discipline. This can be done through home visits by teachers or other professionals, through workshops or videos, and through other modes of dissemination of information.

  2. 2. Communicating: “Design effective forms of school-to-home and home-to-school communications about school programs and children's progress.” As examples of effective communication, Epstein lists parent-teacher conferences, classroom and school newsletters, and sharing student work with families.

  3. 3. Volunteering: “Recruit and organize parent help and support.” Schools are encouraged to draw on parents’ talents as resources for classrooms and school activities.

  4. 4. Learning at Home: “Provide information and ideas to families about how to help students at home with homework and other curriculum-related activities, decisions, and planning.” Families are to engage with their children over homework completion, and schools are to welcome parents into schools for relevant literacy, math, and science activities.

  5. 5. Decision making: “Include parents in school decisions, developing parent leaders and representatives.” Sample practices include Parent Teacher Organizations, independent parent advocacy organizations, and parental involvement in district elections and decision-making processes.

  6. 6. Collaborating with Community: Identify and integrate resources and services from the community to strengthen school programs, family practices, and student learning and development.” Communities can provide services to students, and vice versa, during school and out-of-school time.

NCLB mandates many of these practices in its stipulations for parental involvement, and Epstein’s ideas have been picked up internationally by UNICEF.11

Epstein’s model builds on a body of empirical research that has meticulously documented the effects on children’s school success of each of these practices. One important challenge for researchers of parental involvement and children’s academic success has been to tease apart the effects of each of these practices from collateral influences. For instance, children whose parents volunteer frequently in their schools and classrooms are likely to have parents whose professional status provides them sufficient flexibility to leave work at will or who have sufficient financial resources for one parent to be a full-time caretaker. Is it then the parents’ volunteering that contributes to children’s academic success, or are both the volunteering and academic success corollary effects of high socioeconomic status? Furthermore, in encouraging parents to volunteer, are they not recognizing only middle-class parenting practices as “good” parental involvement and stigmatizing parents who cannot spend workday hours in their children’s classroom? Epstein acknowledges these challenges, and has, over the years, expanded her account to accommodate diverse families. “Volunteering,” for instance, is meant in later iterations of the theory to include any extra effort parents undertake on behalf of schools, whether that means shelving books in the school library or providing a space for neighborhood kids to finish their homework.

An implicit assumption of all the recommendations for parental involvement in children’s schooling, some critics charged, was that parents would passively support the aims of schools. Epstein now prefers the phrase “school, parent and community partnerships” to “parental involvement.” Other researchers prefer “parental engagement,” to capture the notion that the relationship between parents and schools is a two-way street. In lieu of parental involvement, the term parental engagement was offered as a better means to express that the school/parent/child relationship engages all participants as partners, rather than asking parents to commit unquestioningly to the projects of schools.12 (In all this, notably, children-as-agents are usually left out. Although there is scholarship that focuses on children’s agency—on student advocacy, for instance—it tends not to appear in the conversations about parental involvement.) Scholars such as Anne Henderson, Mark Warren, and Soo Hong argue for models of parental involvement that explicitly recognize parents’ political agency and call on schools to work with parents toward the goal of improved schooling for a community’s children.13

Contemporary Research on the Efficacy of Parental Involvement

Keith Robinson and Angel Harris (2014) have levied a strong challenge to parental involvement/engagement on different grounds. They challenge not its politics but the proof of its efficacy. Based on their analysis of large data sets, they found that parental involvement does not uniformly support academic achievement.14 They define parental involvement as “practices that entail parent communication with their children about education, beliefs or behaviors parents hold or engage in with the exclusive aim of increasing academic outcomes, and parental engagement with schools and teachers.” This definition, they say, enables them to focus on the parent beliefs and behaviors that really matter to scholars (like themselves) who are interested in improving academic outcomes for less academically successful students (i.e. the parent behaviors that have a proven record of success). Eager to address the achievement gap, they ask: does parental involvement promise to improve all children’s learning?

Overall, the answer they suggest is “no,” or at least not in the ways promoters of parental involvement suggest it does. Their findings are nuanced. Controlling for parents’ race, income, educational background, and other relevant factors—as well as breaking down the data by grade level—they find that parental income has mixed effects. When parents read to their children in grades 1 through 5, for instance, it improves their reading achievement scores but only if the parents are college educated; conversely, it hinders their math achievement. When parents read to children in grades 6 through 12, those with college-educated parents are helped (and their math scores rebound), but the children of parents without college educations are not helped. Helping children with homework has a negative effect on children’s achievement from middle school onward (perhaps because parents, even those who studied advanced mathematics years earlier, are unprepared to help with higher-level math). Meeting with teachers and principals has no effect on achievement whatsoever. In The Broken Compass, Robinson and Harris analyze a variety of practices called for by advocates of parental involvement and, based on their analysis, show what their effects actually are. Robinson and Harris do not recommend that parents cease to be involved in education, as some kinds of involvement do contribute significantly to children’s academic achievement. But they do recommend that education policymakers and administrators, at the federal, state, and local levels, stop promoting parental involvement in a one-size-fits-all manner.

Does Parental Involvement Contribute to Equality or Inequality?

Financial and Human Capital

Qualitative inquiry into parental involvement in children’s schooling illuminates further the ways in which parents’ interactions with their children, children’s schools, and school communities have the effect of passing along parental socioeconomic status. Parental involvement, in other words, seems to be one key mechanism for the perpetuation of socioeconomic inequality. This research challenges on two grounds the oft made claim that low-income families, immigrant families, and families of color could improve their children’s educational outcomes if they just became “more involved.” Because parental involvement is inflected by parents’ social and cultural backgrounds, parents involve themselves in their children’s education in different ways, depending on their expectations and beliefs about the proper roles of parent, school, and child. The answer to this has sometimes been for institutions to teach low-income parents how to become involved, usually according to white middle-class norms of involvement. Qualitative sociological research, however, also suggests that the involvement of privileged parents equips their children with resources unavailable to the less advantaged, making this strategy less of a silver bullet than it might seem. Children whose parents have a higher socioeconomic standing benefit more from what their parents do.

Before sociology as a field of study focused attention on how inequality perpetuates itself through generations, the inheritance of elite status had been treated as a matter of financial capital—land, money, and other material resources. It is, of course, still true that one straightforward way in which socioeconomic privilege is inherited via education requires practically no parental involvement, if involvement is understood to imply time spent with children or on child-related activities. Children inherit their parents’ wealth, and, during their lifetimes, parents can help children inherit socioeconomic privilege by spending more money on their educations—by sending them to private schools, for instance, or moving to neighborhoods with well-funded, above-average schools. (Real estate in US neighborhoods with excellent public schools tends to be correspondingly more expensive, and thus it requires financial capital to place one’s children in such schools.) Parents’ provision of their children with education in either private or high-quality public schools typically prepares children for career success by equipping them with marketable skills, also known as “human capital.” In the 1950s, the notion of human capital (i.e. marketable skills and knowledge) often (though not exclusively) attained through formal education, was added to the classic Marxian notion of capital. Spreading human capital more broadly (e.g. through the provision of publicly funded primary, secondary, and tertiary education) was enthusiastically supported as a means of enabling persons to rise through their own merit rather than through social position. None of this requires much parental involvement at all in the sense of engagement with children’s lives. For the wealthy, a nanny could be employed in lieu of a parent to manage the children’s education and upbringing. If the extension of socioeconomic advantage through the generations were simply a matter of financial capital, perhaps converted through schooling into human capital (i.e. knowledge and skills) then tax policies that restrict parents’ ability to pass along wealth to their children ought to curtail the perpetuation of inequality.

Financial and human capital, however, prove not to be the entire story. Redistributive programs instituted in the mid-20th century, from progressive taxation to the use of tax money to fund education, health care for the poor, public parks, and more, have not in fact ended the inheritance of social class status—although, when welfare programs are robust, they do appear to diminish inequality. (The extent to which they do so is a matter of ongoing economic and sociological debate.) Since the 1970s, it has become clear that something more complex than the simple effects of financial and human capital is going on—and parental involvement plays a key role.

Social Capital

US sociologist James Coleman addressed the question of “school effects” versus “family effects” in two seminal works that address these complexities. In Foundations of Social Theory (1990), he explored the concept of social capital, which helps explain the limited efficacy of equalizing financial and human capital. Social capital might be described as the social ties among people which enable human beings to accomplish their ends. Put simply, who you know matters. One way this is true is that networking helps people get jobs, even when familial preference is not the only determinant. An uncle could offer his teenage niece an internship, or, more indirectly, that same uncle could share his knowledge that internships are available not at his workplace but at other workplaces. Furthermore, the information that to obtain an internship one needs certain qualifications is typically passed along through chains of relationship. It is not nepotism per se that enables middle-class youth to obtain valuable educational opportunities but rather a web of relationships that support the transmission of useful social knowledge and connections.

Bonds of trust among residents of a neighborhood also make investment in its public institutions seem worthwhile, an effect that contemporary political scientist Robert Putnam has studied in depth.15 Living in communities where people know and trust each other amounts to social capital that each person can use to his or her advantage.

How does this relate to parental involvement in schooling? In the 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity, commonly referred to as the “Coleman Report,” Coleman argued that differences in the quality of teachers and schools, which can be addressed to some extent using financial capital (e.g. through the professional development of teachers and investment in curricular materials, technology, and infrastructure), explain educational inequality less than do differences in the social capital available in different school communities. Schools attended mostly by white middle-class students are able to leverage parents’ relationships with their peers, (i.e. their social capital) to provide children and youth better access to universities and professional workplaces. Parental involvement, in this model, is effective insofar as parents themselves have relationships with well-situated peers. The parental involvement of privileged parents leverages their social capital to the benefit of their children. The parental involvement of poor, working-class, black, Latino, immigrant, and other disadvantaged parents can still be useful to their children, as it enables those children to access paid employment. The opportunities to which disadvantaged parents’ social capital is likely to lead, however, are less financially rewarding—menial jobs rather than professional ones, vocational training rather than university education.

Social capital, Coleman noted, is hard to equalize. It involves knowledge and relationships that cannot be amassed and redistributed the way financial capital can be. Totalitarian societies can disrupt and rearrange the social relationships among large groups of people, but in a democratic society, this is hardly practicable. Interventions such as bussing students between neighborhoods so that they attend mixed-race and mixed-class schools is one solution that might seem to provide less-advantaged children access to their more privileged classmates’ social capital; however, inasmuch as the surrounding community resists this practice, parents are less likely to share their social capital with children perceived as outsiders. Parental involvement, yet again, is both a resource that can provide opportunities to children and a force that resists the equalization of educational opportunity. The notion that school improvement depends upon “more parental involvement,” without attention to what financial and social capital particular parents bring to the table, misses a key dimension of how parental involvement plays out.

Cultural Capital

In addition to financial, human, and social capital, sociologists also consider the effects of what Pierre Bourdieu, a French social theorist, called cultural capital. Like Coleman, Bourdieu addressed the perpetuation of social class inequalities through parents’ relationships with their children and communities, and his ideas have been taken up and extended by contemporary sociologists of education. Bourdieu suggested that children inherit privileged social standing through their inheritance of social and cultural capital.

Cultural capital, in Bourdieu’s account, is constituted by the class-specific habits and tastes that enable an elite to move comfortably within the social spaces inhabited by other members of the elite and to maintain the boundaries of social advantage. Elite practices such as taking children to art museums, hosting dinner parties, and expecting children to learn a musical instrument do not teach marketable skills, but they do prepare children to navigate comfortably the elite institutions in which these practices and expectations are commonplace. Cultural capital, Bourdieu emphasizes, applies always within a particular domain—in his terms, the “field.” Within a field, persons are advantaged by their cultural habits, which Bourdieu calls “habitus.” These are gained mainly from parents. For example, a child growing up in a middle-class family with professional parents, will be immersed in the linguistic conventions of the college educated, hear stories about her own parents’ time in college, perhaps visit reunions, and learn to interact comfortably with education professionals. When it comes time to apply to college, these experiences amount to “cultural capital” that makes it easier for her to interact with interviewers, write a convincing essay—and, once at college, to feel that she fits in and understands the professor’s expectations, as well as getting any academic and personal support she may need from the institution. In line with Bourdieu’s theory, children whose parents graduated from (and to a lesser extent attended at least some) college are more likely to attend college themselves and to graduate within six years. (In this dynamic, mothers have an especially strong effect. A college-educated mother benefits a child even more than a college-educated father, which speaks to the ongoing effects of gender in parental involvement.) Children born into elite families, Bourdieu argues, gain a familiarity with the institutions and cultural norms of elite life that makes it easier for them to navigate the routes to higher education, professional careers, and the financial rewards that life within elite institutions provides.

Although Bourdieu focused his research mainly on how the elite remain an elite, other sociologists have considered parental involvement and cultural capital among working-class and poor families as well. In her books Home Advantage (1989) and Unequal Childhoods (2003), Annette Lareau draws on Bourdieu’s ideas and uses them to explore how working-class and middle-class American parents interact with their children, as well as with the schools their children attend.16 Poor and working-class parents are as dedicated to their children’s education and welfare as are middle-class parents, Lareau establishes, but they express their commitment in different ways, which through interaction with schools translates into differential advantage. Because teachers and administrators are, by virtue of their education and their profession if nothing else, middle class, schools are institutions in which middle-class habits are recognized and appreciated. The habits of poor and working-class families, though in some ways better for children’s overall well-being, are not echoed by the schools and therefore end up disadvantaging poor and working class children in the long run. Poor and working-class families, Lareau argues, raise their children according to what she calls the logic of “natural growth.” Parents assume that children need to be fed, housed, protected from danger and sent to school but also that children, so long as they are provided with a loving and safe environment, will naturally grow up into decent, competent adults. Middle-class parents, on the other hand, use the logic of “concerted cultivation.” Children are thought to need frequent attention and have their environments tinkered with, their needs individualized, and attended to by adults. As a result, the poor and working-class children she studied spent their out-of-school time playing child-initiated games with neighborhood friends and family. Middle-class children, meanwhile, were shuttled around by their parents to adult-organized sports leagues, music lessons, and adult supervised play dates. Lareau notes that the poor and working-class children seemed happier and more relaxed; they never complained of being bored and rarely whined, and they got along well with siblings and other kin. Middle-class children seemed more harried, complained often of boredom, and were less close to brothers, sisters, and cousins. As they grew up, however, middle-class children reaped advantages from their parents’ involvement in their day-to-day lives: familiar with the linguistic, time-use, and disciplinary conventions of school, they succeeded in navigating educational institutions and achieved educational and professional success. Meanwhile, poor and working-class children floundered.

Lareau argued that social class was a major determinant of how parents engage with their children, with their children’s schools, and thus affect their children’s long term school success. Based on her research, which suggested that black and white parents followed the logic of “concerted cultivation” while black and white poor and working class adhered to the logic of “natural growth,” she contends that class is a more significant determinant of children’s educational outcomes than race. Other sociologists challenge this conclusion and argue that race, more than class, shapes parental involvement in children’s upbringing and educations. In conversation with Lareau’s work, sociologists of education are hard at work to pick apart the effects, independent and intersecting, of race and class. A few important points of consensus stand out.

Above all, sociologists of education disagree with the notion that middle-class and white children are more successful in school because their parents are involved while poor/working-class parents and parents of color are not. This claim is sometimes made explicitly in mass media accounts of the academic achievement gap and in critiques of public education. It is made implicitly in policy documents such as NCLB, which requires parental involvement of families served by Title I funds (i.e. poor, immigrant, and Native American parents). No such involvement is required of privileged parents. As noted above, this may be in part because NCLB is a revision of the ESEA, which understood the involvement of privileged parents to cause educational inequality. Given the prevalence of the claim in mainstream discourse (e.g. mainstream psychological discourse, policy discourse, and mass media uptake of these ideas) that children succeed in schools thanks to parental involvement, however, it seems that parental involvement itself is now understood as something privileged parents do well, while poor, black, Latino, and immigrant parents fail to measure up. It is this conclusion that the sociological research undercuts.

While Lareau showed that parental involvement differed by class but was not missing in poor and working-class families, other sociologists and anthropologists of education have explored the particular ways in which immigrant parents, African American parents, and Native American parents involve themselves in their children’s educations. These scholars point out the effects of cultural context—preconceptions of the proper role of schools, teachers, and parents; past experiences with formal schooling; access to administrators and teachers; linguistic and racial segregation; and more—on parental involvement. As noted above, the response of some to these differences is to suggest that immigrant, poor, and otherwise disadvantaged parents need to learn mainstream mores of parental involvement so as to engage with their children and schools more effectively.17 Others argue that the promotion of mainstream mores over a plurality of parenting styles shows disrespect to the diversity of approaches to family life. Lisa Delpit, for instance, has argued that schools are most effective when they teach children (including speakers of black American English, or Ebonics, and Indigenous children) simultaneously to value their home cultures and to achieve fluency in mainstream cultural codes.18 Norma Gonzales and Luis Moll have proposed treating all parents as possessing “funds of knowledge” that schools can tap to help students achieve.19 Angela Valenzuela contended that schooling is “subtractive” when it fails to recognize the rich cultural resources students bring from their homes and families.20 In any case, the research of sociologists of education suggests that even if disadvantaged parents were to involve themselves in schooling in the same ways as mainstream parents, their children would be likely to receive a smaller academic benefit. Insofar as parental involvement is always a three-way parent/child/school relationship, its effects depend on how others, including children and schools, respond to parents’ actions and decisions. Schools are complex organizations that do not respond in any unidirectional way to changes. Children are savvy interpreters of adult motivations and notice when adult promises do not align with circumstances, and they choose which cultural messages to trust and which to dismiss. Parental involvement, sociological research suggests, is a critical contributor to inequality of academic and professional outcomes for children, but it cannot be manipulated in any simple way.


Parental involvement, often touted as the easiest and most promising way to fix America’s schools, to ensure equal outcomes for every child, and to restore the former glory of our nation’s schools, turns out to be a much more complicated dynamic. It is invariably political. Parental involvement has been the bedrock of the American system of local control, for better and for worse. It has never led to equal outcomes. It remains the basis of strong schools. Its effects vary according along lines of race, educational background, socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, and home language. As the ways parents raise their children change alongside technological and economic developments, parental involvement in children’s needs to be reinvented afresh with each generation. This makes it an area rich in questions, likely to reward the researcher who attends closely to its nuances.


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(1.) US Department of Education, (2001), No Child Left Behind Act.

(2.) Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, (1965),

(3.) Kliebard, Herbert, (2004), The Struggle for the American Curriculum (New York: RoutledgeFalmer).

(4.) Tyack, David, (1974), The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

(5.) Reese, William, (2005), America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to No Child Left Behind (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

(6.) Orfield, Gary, & Susan Eaton, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v Board of Education (Boston: New Press); Frankenburg E., & G. Orfield, eds., (2012), The Resegregation of Suburban Schools: A Hidden Crisis in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

(7.) Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, 1965, See also Douglas S. Massey & Robert J. Sampson, (2009), “Moynihan Redux: Lessons and Legacies,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 621(1).

(8.) Epstein, Joyce L., (1991), Effects on Student Achievement of Teachers’ Practices of Parent Involvement. Advances in Reading/Language Research: Literacy through Family, Community, and School Interaction, 261–276 (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press); Epstein, J., “School/Family/Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share,” Phi Delta Kappan 76 (1995), 701–712; Epstein & Sheldon, “Moving Forward: Ideas for Research on School, Family, and Community Partnerships,” In SAGE Handbook for Research in Education: Engaging Ideas and Enriching Inquiry, 117–138 (London: SAGE). Epstein has more recently suggested that “school, family, and community partnership” is a better term than “parental involvement,” and she has modified her original six-point framework better to accommodate cultural and socio-economic diversity among families.

(9.) Although Epstein does not cite Nel Noddings’s seminal work on caring, her use of the word “caring” suggests familiarity with Noddings’s insights, which treated the mother/child relationship as in important ways analogical for the school/student relationship. See Noddings, N. (1984), Caring (Berkeley: University of California Press).

(10.) This version, and all quotes, are from Epstein’s 1995 Phi Beta Kappan article, “School, Family, Community Partnerships.” The six points are reiterated in multiple publications by Epstein, and they appear in materials promulgated by the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University, founded and directed by Epstein.

(11.) But see Epstein’s response to NCLB: Epstein, Joyce L., (1995), Attainable Goals? The Spirit and Letter of the No Child Left Behind Act on Parental Involvement. Sociology of Education, 78(2), 179–182.

(12.) See Shepard & Rose (1995), “The power of parents: An empowerment model for increasing parental involvement,” Education, 115(3), 373. Education Research Complete; Dimmock, Clive A. J., & Thomas A. O’Donoghue, (1996), “Parental involvement in schooling: An emerging research agenda,” Compare: A Journal of Comparative Education, 26(1), 5; Goodall, Janet, & Caroline Montgomery, (2014), “Parental involvement to parental engagement: A continuum,” Educational Review 66(4), 399–410.

(13.) See Anne T. Henderson, (2007), Beyond the Bake Sale (New York: New Press); see also Soo Hong. (2011), A Cord of Three Strands (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press); see Mark Warren (2011), A Match on Dry Grass (New York: Oxford University Press).

(14.) See Robinson & Harris (2014), The Broken Compass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Robinson and Harris used data from two nationally representative sets, the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) and the Child Development Supplement (CDS) of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

(15.) See Robert Putnam, Robert (2001), Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster); Robert Putnam, (2015), Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster).

(16.) See Annette Lareau (1989), Home Advantage (New York: Rowman and Littlefield); also see Annette Lareau’s (2003), Unequal Childhoods (Berkeley: University of California Press).

(17.) Paul Tough makes a version of this argument in his bestseller How Children Succeed. See Paul Tough (2012), How Children Succeed (New York: Mariner Books).

(18.) See Lisa Delpit (1995), Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (New York: New Press).

(19.) See Norma Gonzalez & Luis Moll (2005), Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities and Classrooms (New York: Routledge).

(20.) See Angela Valenzuela (1999), Subtractive Schooling (Albany: State University of New York Press).