Chapter Eight: Parents and Families, Communities and Schools

8.2 Families and Schools

We have suggested throughout this book that schools, classrooms and teachers are inextricably linked to the wider social settings within which they are embedded, and that the influences of these external realities invade the classroom in both obvious and subtle ways. The relationship between families and schools represents a critical element of that linkage, only a small part of which constitutes the formal and concrete interactions between parents and teachers.

Regardless of whether teachers commute considerable distances to school, arriving just before the start of the school day and leaving immediately after it is finished, or whether parents ever physically set foot in their children’s school, teachers and parents meet vicariously every day in the lives of students. The consequences of these invisible meetings have been shown to have profound influences on the type and range of experiences provided to students in school, and ultimately to contribute to their success in school. Peter Coleman, in an important Canadian book entitled Parent, Student and Teacher Collaboration: The Power of Three summarized well this pervasive but often invisible presence noting:

Within the classroom setting there are in fact three actors ever present—the teacher, the student and the parent(s), who are “present” in the sense that the beliefs, attitudes, and habits of mind of the family are thoroughly embedded in the mind of the child. The interactions amongst these three actors largely determine the student’s willingness and readiness to learn; predict student satisfaction and commitment to school and schooling; and hence largely shape both the attitudes towards school and learning, and the level of achievement of the child.…

Furthermore, these interactions are all alterable, largely but not exclusively through the initiatives of teachers. In general, educators hold decisive power in interactions with parents and students. Thus, anyone who wishes to understand how and why children learn more or less in school needs to understand the range of possibilities within … [these] interactions. (Coleman, 1988, pp. 1–2)

Parents do many things that influence their children’s experiences of schooling: they feed and clothe them and deliver them to school (or to the school bus); they teach them many things before they enter school, and continue teaching them over the course of their school life. Parents also provide their children with educational resources, toys, books, computers, workspace and educational experiences that complement school experiences. They monitor and support students’ work in school by reinforcing the importance of school success, by taking an interest in their children’s work, and by helping them understand the relationship between effort and outcomes. Parents also advocate on their children’s behalf in their dealings with the school, asking for help, requesting particular placements and teachers, or even transferring their child from one school to another.

But “families” and “parents” cannot be treated as a monolithic mass with a common set of characteristics. In fact, the only characteristic they share is that they are responsible for children. Families vary markedly in terms of material circumstances, structure, and culture. However, family circumstances do not define “good families” and “bad families.” Nor do they make children more or less intelligent or more or less educable. Nevertheless, they have been consistently shown to have powerful effects on students’ treatment and experiences in school and on school outcomes.

A great deal has been written on how families affect educational outcomes. Much of this literature has attempted to link school success with particular family characteristics, and to explain school failure in terms of families that lack these desired qualities. This approach of defining students, and their families, by their perceived weaknesses rather than their strengths has become known as a deficit perspective (Gorski, 2008) or more broadly as deficit theory. It is prevalent and it is inadequate because, among other things, it leaves unquestioned the organization of schools, their curriculum and teaching practices; and it is particularly dangerous because it offers teachers a stereotype of students that encourages them to expect success from certain children and failure from others based on factors that have nothing to do with the abilities of the child. In other words, it can result in ‘blaming the victim’ and lowering expectations for what children can do.

A more useful strand of the literature on school success emphasizes the relationship between families and schools. Reproduction theorists suggest that school success is closely related to the degree to which the culture of the home corresponds with the culture of the school. Each child brings to school knowledge, values, skills, and dispositions that are acquired outside of school, primarily through their family interactions. This cultural capital is often differentially recognized, valued, and rewarded by the school system, with schools generally possessing a systemic preference for dominant white, middle-class male values, language, and views of the world. The consequence of this world view is that children’s school experiences vary greatly. Children are labelled differently, exposed to different learning experiences and subject to different relationships with their teachers. In Canada, this analysis has perhaps its sharpest illustration in the history of Residential Schools for Indigenous students (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and is also central to much of the literature and reform initiatives of multicultural/anti-racist education (Bengezen et al., 2019; George et al., 2020; Ghosh & Abdi, 2013; Howard & James, 2019; Marom, 2019) and gender inclusive schooling (Bain & Podmore, 2020; Burkholderr et al., 2021; Davies et al., 2019; Herriot et al., 2018).

A kindergarten art class, for example, might illustrate the ways in which educators may make very explicit assumptions about the work that the family (stereotypically the mother at home) has already done. When children initially learn how to paint, they tend to mix paints indiscriminately. Red paint brushes are dabbed into a variety of other colours and the result of this cross mixing is that the paint is soon a uniform grey that is undesirable to both student and teacher. If a parent has done some prior work at home, such as instructing the child to “place paint brushes only in similarly coloured paint jars,” then one can proceed to other, more complex levels. If no one has given such instructions at home, the teacher must help develop the child’s skills until they reach this level. Generally, the practices of middle-class parents tend to complement the work expectations of teachers, while the demands of child care, employment, and meeting basic needs with which less affluent families must struggle often conflict with the demands of teachers (see also Griffith, 1995). When observing differences in “who can draw” the teacher is really seeing differences in experience with drawing and not innate talent or ability. What is insidious about such a judgment, is that it leads to formal and informal forms of tracking and stratification based on explicit and tacit labelling procedures (Manicom, cited in Olsen, 1991).

The research on schools and families concludes that families have a powerful influence over all aspects of children’s lives, including their experiences of schooling. This impact occurs irrespective of any formal interaction between parents and teachers, and can work to disadvantage or to assist students in their schooling. In examining the formal ways in which schools and families interact, and the ways in which such interactions might be expanded and improved, the theoretical perspectives introduced above provide a conceptual framework for raising important questions of power and participation: which parents are being involved, on whose terms and in what areas of school life, and with what intended and actual outcomes for which students?

Box 8.2.1

Schools, Families, and Communities as Co-Producers of Student Learning

Schools, families, and communities “co-produce” student learning. Those of us working in and about schools sometimes like to think, however, that our part of the production is the main action. Indeed, the relatively recent appearance in the media of school rankings according to student performance on province or state-wide tests even encourages us (and the public at large) in the belief that differences in the characteristics of schools are enormously important explanations for how well our students do.

While the work that occurs within the school’s walls is undeniably important, it would be delusional of us to believe that little else matters for a student’s success. Evidence from large-scale studies of school effects now suggest that differences in the characteristics of schools explains only 12-20% of the variation in students’ math and language achievement across schools. So, what explains the rest? Well, a pretty compelling body of research now suggests that families and communities are a big part of the answer – perhaps accounting for as much as half of the variation in student achievement across schools.

Besides wringing our hands in the face of such evidence, how should we respond? Hand wringing might be a rational response if we had to view what families and communities do as “givens”, things outside our influence. An increasing number of educators, however, no longer see families and communities in this light. Instead, they work with families and communities to help ensure the best possible educational experiences for their students both inside and outside the school building. It would not be too extravagant to claim, in fact, that contributing to the co-production of student learning is one of the most promising conceptions of professional educators’ work, especially for those who teach younger students.

Source. Kenneth Leithwood, “The road to success”. The editorial introduction to a special issue of the journal Orbit, 34(3). Published in 2004 entitled, “Schools, families and communities: Which relationships matter most?”