October 16, 2017

6 Reasons Why the “Parents Just Need to be More Involved” Argument Needs to Go

By Ariana Kiener

Working in education advocacy, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard, seen, or read the argument that parent involvement is the solution to improving academic outcomes for students of color. At first, it made sense to me. It just sounds kind of right. But, over the years, I’ve seen too many articles and Facebook comment threads end there, shutting down meaningful conversation about other potential factors and solutions. I’ve also met too many parents of color who are involved and whose kids are still struggling in school. Of course, engaging parents, and parents of color in particular, is critical. But relying on the “parents just need to get involved” argument, and putting the burden of improving student outcomes exclusively on families, is out-of-touch and unhelpful. Here’s why.

1. IT IMPLIES THAT MOST PARENTS OF COLOR AREN’T ALREADY INVOLVED

At the core of the argument is an assumption that, overall, students of color are behind academically because their parents are not currently involved. This assumption—which, I would argue largely stems from mainstream media portrayals of people of color, and conversely, whiteness—undermines the deep day-to-day efforts of parents who are fighting to support their kids, and the realities they face in our schools and communities. If parent involvement is the key to student success, how do we explain children of color who struggle despite very involved parents? To see their kids succeed, must parents of color just get involved even more—more than many white parents, including my own? (More on this below).

2. IT ASSUMES THAT SCHOOLS ARE WELCOMING TO PARENTS OF COLOR, IF ONLY THEY’D SHOW UP

This argument also relies on the assumption that schools are equally welcoming to all families. As a white parent, you might feel very comfortable calling your child’s teacher or walking into your child’s school, where the majority of teachers and administrators look like you and speak the same language as you, both literally and figuratively. But the fact of the matter is that not all parents are treated equally, nor feel equally comfortable engaging with their kids’ schools.

I’ve heard from parents of color who have been followed around their kids’ school building, as if they’re a potential threat. Parents who, after trying repeatedly to connect with their kids’ teachers about concerns, have been told that the staff is “afraid” of them. Parents who, due to their immigration status, do not feel safe entering a public school building. Parents who want to communicate with their kids’ educators, but can’t, due to language barriers. Parents who have to push schools so hard to meet their kids’ basic needs, they treat their advocacy as a part- or even full-time job. 

3. IT’S OFTEN HYPOCRITICAL

Frequently, I hear white people say that parents need to get more involved in one breath, only to turn around and criticize the educational choices that parents of color make in the next. Many bemoan, for example, the existence and expansion of charter schools (which parents of color support at greater rates than the national average) and efforts to increase access to private schools. And they often do so from a place of privilege, having many solid school options whether through the decisions they make about their housing, their ability to afford private school tuition, or their confidence that, at their neighborhood school, kids who look like theirs will do just fine (even if their friends of color will not).

Parents of color who choose schools that best meet the needs of their children are engaged in their kids’ education. We should honor their choices, even if they’re not the choices we think we would make if we were in their shoes.

4. IT TAKES THE ONUS OF EDUCATING CHILDREN OFF THE SYSTEM THAT’S SUPPOSED TO EDUCATE CHILDREN

There’s a common belief, in Minnesota and elsewhere, that education is the great equalizer. To realize this aspiration, Minnesota taxpayers invest a lot of money into the public education system, with the expectation that our schools will educate all children, despite their background. Yet when it doesn’t work, we’re quick to write it off as a failure of parents. This approach enables us to maintain systems that cater to the needs of dominant groups, and wash our hands of responsibility when that system does not meet the needs of students of color.

5. IT SERVES TO MAKE WHITE PARENTS FEEL GOOD ABOUT THEMSELVES

If your child does well in school, and if you believe parent involvement is key, it’s easy to feel good about yourself without thinking very hard about how active a role you really played. For example, my white parents (as my mom would agree) were not very involved in my education. Sure, they expected and encouraged me to do well, but they didn’t help me with homework, volunteer at my school, or talk to my teachers outside of parent-teacher conferences.

Unless “parent involvement” is really just a proxy phrase for whiteness, to imply that my parents’ engagement with my schools was the main factor behind my success is not only disingenuous—it also overlooks the other variables at play, including teachers and a society that held high expectations for me and provided me the resources and opportunities to succeed. Sure, parent involvement is important. But, on its own, it can’t explain why I did well in school and why so many students of color with more involved parents do not.

6. IT’S NOT TRUE

Lots of research shows that parent involvement has a positive impact on student achievement. Schools, organizations, and individuals seeking to engage parents are doing important work—work that doesn’t live in a silo. We can, at the same time, address other factors that also impact student achievement, from rigor to teacher diversity, curriculum to educator expectations. But when we end the conversation with “parents just need to get more involved,” we avoid talking about many other issues we can and must tackle within schools, and essentially just protect the status quo.

It’s time to have an honest, inclusive conversation about the many ways our education system must change to see, value, and hear parents of color, and ultimately help their children succeed. Rather than finger-pointing or throwing our hands up in the air, we need to shift the conversation. How can we truly empower more parents and make space for them to lead? How can we support them, not just outside of school walls, but also through what goes on within them?

Parents want what’s best for their kids. It’s time to retire arguments that assume or imply otherwise.