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Practitioners, policy-makers, and researchers consider family engagement with schools to be crucial to student success. When parents and teachers have strong relationships, they are more apt to share information about how a child is doing in home and school environments, and are better able to work together to help a child that is struggling in school. Alas, the quality of the parent-teacher relationship may even shape how teachers treat students in school. With so much at stake in the parent-teacher relationship, federal education law has mandated that schools prioritize family-school engagement and supports their work through the creation of statewide family engagement centers.
For some families, however, engaging with schools is more challenging than for others. In particular, when families come from different racial, ethnic, linguistic, or socioeconomic backgrounds than teachers, the parent-teacher relationship may suffer due to a lack of communication or a lack of common understanding. Latino students are a growing population in U.S. schools, and their families face a particular set of challenges in developing positive relationships with school staff. Research shows that while Latino parents hold high academic expectations for their children, teachers tend to perceive and treat them more negatively than other parents. Latino parents’ educational engagement tends to take place in the home more than at school, making their involvement invisible to teachers. Additionally, teachers struggle to engage with non-native-English-speaking parents due to cultural and linguistic barriers.
In our recently published paper, “Is the Feeling Mutual? Examining Parent-Teacher Relationships in Low-Income, Predominantly Latino Schools,” we examine how racial/ethnic and language background relate to how teachers and parents perceive each other and their relationship, and we explore whether a family engagement intervention might improve these relationships. We focus on how well parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of each other align as a key indicator of the quality of the relationship that is suggestive of levels of communication, trust, and mutual understanding.
“…parent-teacher relationships are less aligned for Spanish-dominant Latino families than for other families. Children of Spanish-dominant Latino families may therefore be missing out on the many benefits of strong family-school engagement, which likely negatively affects their academic performance and social-emotional outcomes.”
We used administrative and survey data collected from parents and teachers in 52 low-income schools with predominantly Latino student populations. In the surveys, parents were asked:
- if their child’s teacher treated them with respect
- made them feel comfortable,
- got along with them
- was a partner to the parent,
- wanted their child to do well in school.
Teachers were asked nearly identical questions about the parents. The schools in the study were enrolled in an experimental study of a school-based family engagement program, Families and Schools Together (FAST). Half of the schools were randomly assigned to receive the family engagement intervention, while the other half were assigned to be control schools. Random assignment into FAST allowed us to estimate the causal effects of the family engagement intervention on parent and teacher perceptions of each other.
How does the racial/ethnic and linguistic background of parents matter for parent-teacher relationships?
Our results suggest that parent-teacher relationships are less aligned when parents are Latinos whose dominant language is Spanish. Spanish-dominant Latino parents have less positive views of their relationship with their child’s teacher compared to English-dominant Latinos and parents from other racial/ethnic backgrounds. In striking misalignment, teachers perceive Spanish-dominant Latino parents more positively than they do other parents.
Can a family engagement program (FAST) improve parent-teacher relationships?
We find that for families who attend the FAST family engagement program, both parents and teachers experience a significant boost in their perceptions of one another. However, participation in FAST did not improve the misalignment between Spanish-dominant Latino parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of each other.
Latino children make up a large and growing proportion of the public school population. However, Latino children and their families navigate an educational system that does not necessarily reflect them ethnically or linguistically. Understanding how race/ethnicity and language affect parent-teacher relationships is critical to understanding outcomes for a group of students (and their families) that is increasingly diverse, and to the effective development and implementation of family engagement programs like FAST. Our study explores this question by examining ethnic and linguistic variation in the alignment between parents’ and teachers’ evaluations of their relationship, as well as the extent to which participation in a family engagement program designed to strengthen relationships among parents, school staff, and children might improve parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of one another or bring these perceptions into closer alignment.
Our findings suggest that linguistic and/or cultural differences between parents and teachers are serious barriers to parent-teacher relationships and family-school engagement. Even when schools make progress toward family engagement goals with programs like FAST, parent-teacher relationships are less aligned for Spanish-dominant Latino families than for other families. Children of Spanish-dominant Latino families may therefore be missing out on the many benefits of strong family-school engagement, which likely negatively affects their academic performance and social-emotional outcomes.
The misalignment we find for Spanish-dominant Latino families may exist in part because, as previous research has suggested, these parents are less likely to actively complain to teachers than parents of other backgrounds. Teachers may then mistakenly believe that these parents are happy with the teachers’ performance and that they are doing an adequate job of reaching out to Spanish-dominant Latino parents, when in reality these parents are experiencing greater alienation and distance from their children’s schools given cultural or linguistic barriers.
Family engagement programs, like FAST, can improve parent-teacher relationships for many families, suggesting that recent policy initiatives to improve family engagement will be effective. Yet we are troubled by our finding that FAST did not alter the misalignment in the parent-teacher relationship for Spanish-dominant Latino families. In addition to programs like FAST, a more proactive, targeted approach by schools to engage and involve less acculturated Latino families may be necessary to overcome these disparities.