UW News

July 24, 2017

From volunteer to decision-maker: how parents can play a greater role in schools

UW News

A new study by the University of Washington suggests schools need to partner with parents, rather than offer them limited volunteer roles. In this photo, parent volunteers read to a class of students.

A new study by the University of Washington suggests schools need to partner with parents, rather than offer them limited volunteer roles.U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud/Flickr


Most schools offer parents specific ways to help out: Join the PTA, chaperone a field trip, grade papers for a teacher or assist on a classroom art project.

Those volunteer opportunities, however, not only reinforce the top-down power structure of schools, but also cater to mostly white, privileged families, maintaining the institutionalized racism that marginalizes low-income families and families of color, said Ann Ishimaru, assistant professor of education at the University of Washington.

What schools and districts can do instead, Ishimaru argues in a new paper, is partner with families in meaningful ways that go beyond “traditional, circumscribed” roles. By giving families a greater hand in decision-making, for example, school communities can begin to dismantle race- and class-based power structures.

“Once we really understand the problem, how deep these inequities go, it can be paralyzing,” Ishimaru said. “But if we can get out of everyone thinking they have to see it in terms of their own self-interest, it opens up all kinds of possibilities.”

Ishimaru’s paper appears in a July special issue of the Peabody Journal of Education.

While students of color make up half the U.S. public school population, teachers of color make up less than 20 percent, according to the Department of Education. Ishimaru’s piece presents those statistics as a backdrop to her research about the importance of including and recognizing the knowledge of all families in a school community.

Ishimaru’s paper features a study out of a local, suburban school district whose enrollment is nearly two-thirds students of color, and where more than half of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. There, over the course of the 2014-15 school year, Ishimaru and her research team met with district administrators, principals, teachers and parents at two elementary schools to develop a new parent-education curriculum. The existing curriculum, which aimed to show parents how to support student learning, was more of a guide to supporting the “school’s preset agenda,” Ishimaru wrote in the paper.

The researchers found that by approaching the new curriculum as equal partners, the parents and teachers worked together to create nine lessons, extending the typical “plug-in” opportunities that limit parent participation, such as parent-teacher conferences and open houses.

That “co-design” model also challenged the assumptions of teachers and school leaders, many of whom were used to thinking they have the sole expertise and are accustomed to longstanding frameworks for engaging parents, Ishimaru said. Schools typically treat parents as clients or beneficiaries, she wrote in the paper, not as decision-makers alongside principals and teachers.

“In the current educational system, leaders make the first move, and what that says to parents is, ‘You can have a say in some things, but not all,'” she said.

Schools often work with parents in prescriptive settings such as events, or one-on-one meetings to address a need or problem, she explained. In many schools — usually in affluent and less diverse communities — parents are well-organized and savvy about how to advocate for their children. Teachers and school leaders, meanwhile, can find it easy to dismiss as “uninterested” parents who don’t show up for events, and children who act out as receiving little support at home. In this way, the educational system reinforces the power structure that marginalizes parents, especially those who don’t follow privileged norms.

 But opening up communication to acknowledge how history and power shape expectations and relationships, and loosening the boundaries between parents and staff, Ishimaru said, can begin to build a more equitable, productive and proactive school community.

At the school level, administrators can start by re-examining their own practices and making more collaborative some of their decision-making processes for curriculum, discipline, or even hiring, she said.

In the classroom, teachers can develop proactive relationships with all parents at the beginning of the year. They can start by learning about the cultural values and practices of their students, the hopes and dreams that families have for their children, and how they engage their children in learning at home, rather than calling parents only when there’s a problem. They can turn to families for other kinds of expertise, too, Ishimaru said. She pointed to the example of a teacher who, when launching a unit on leadership, realized nearly all of the leaders highlighted in the curriculum were white, male historical figures. So the teacher opened it up to her students and their families to identify other kinds of leaders, including those in their own communities.

This “co-design” approach is just one way to bridge divides among parents and educators of different race, class and linguistic backgrounds, Ishimaru said.

“At the end of the day, educators cannot address the deep inequities that exist in schools alone,” she said. “When schools and districts can learn from and meaningfully engage the expertise of the students, families, and communities who have been marginalized by our systems, we can begin to work together toward building more responsive and just schools.”

Sola Takahashi of WestEd was co-author.


For more information, contact Ishimaru at 206-543-9840 or aishi@uw.edu.