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If only these parents would just get more involved in their children’s education we could end all this talk about closing the achievement gap.

Surely you’ve heard a sentiment like that, right?

One friend said to me “all the laws in the world can’t fix bad parenting.”

A local teachers’ union president told me “instead of fighting to let schools pick their teachers, let teachers pick our students.”

True story.

In the past year I’ve seen polling that suggests parents at all levels see parents as responsible when things don’t work for kids in schools. Even poor parents internalize this memo about the uninvolved parent as the ruination of public education.

I see many problems with this line of thought, but the biggest is that it frames black and brown women (let’s be real, that is who we’re talking about) as the problem instead of the solution. That self-fulfilling frame is curse that keeps on cursing.

Which is why I was happy to read a 2012 article in Counseling Today (“The need for advocacy with African American parents“) by Dr. Dana Griffin at the UNC School of Education. She says “the bulk of research and literature on African American parents continues to depict them as uninvolved in their children’s education,” but maybe it’s time to look deeper than the stereotype.

The “uninvolved” tag is mostly reserved for parents presumed to be poor and uneducated, but, as Dr. Griffin points out, educated black mothers are not immune to the label.

In my work, I often hear that African American parents are not involved in their children’s education. Even I — an African American mother, a former school counselor and now a counselor educator — am deemed uninvolved in my child’s education. When viewed through one lens, this is true — I do not volunteer in school, I do not donate money for various funds, I am not a part of the PTA, I do not chaperone my child’s field trips, nor do I help out in the classrooms. For all intents and purposes, I am an “uninvolved” parent. Despite this perception, I feel I am a very involved parent. This discrepancy, among other factors, has led to my current research interests concerning parental involvement of African American and Latino families.

Although the overall parental involvement literature depicts uninvolvement by African Americans, the research using solely African American participants tells a different story. To summarize this literature, African Americans are involved in their children’s education in a variety of ways, but their involvement centers more on home- or community-based activities — activities that schools might not recognize as parental involvement. Further, African Americans typically do not hold leadership roles in the schools, which may further alienate these families from involvement in more school-based activities and can also limit the voice of African American parents. Could it be that African American uninvolvement actually stems from the lack of voice that African Americans have in the schools, which in turn leads to less presence in the schools?

Dr. Griffin conducted research with black mothers using a black feminist framework designed to “unsilence” their voices. The participants in her study were “all highly educated, financially stable, very articulate and well-dressed,” not exactly the group you would expect to experience difficulties with parental involvement. Yet, Dr. Griffin found that these mothers exercise the majority of their involvement at home, rather than at school. There is a lack of trust and the mothers don’t believe “that the teachers and schools had their best interests at heart.” They felt the welcome they receive at schools is different than that for white moms, and their their contributions or input was not valued as much.

There was one very good reason that the mothers have not volunteered to be “room moms.” They hadn’t been invited.

That is surprising given the fact that they are “fairly affluent,” stable mothers. Dr. Griffin says “[t]hese mothers, all with academically and emotionally successful kids, did not feel welcomed in their children’s schools, nor did they trust the schools to educate their children.”

Imagine if they were under-resourced mothers.

While we often chalk up the absence of black parents in schools to their low-income status, their working the proverbial two and three jobs, we can’t discount the story we’re told when black mothers who don’t fit that profile are “unsilenced. In this case it should be clear that the cultural mismatch between black parents and school staff is worthy of deeper reflection. Blaming black mothers is a tree without roots, likely to produce no fruit.

Unsilencing people who feel alienated by schools is probably the better plan.

 

Read Dr. Dana Griffin’s full article at Counseling Today.

Citizen Stewart

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