Instead of telling parents what the school needs, bring them into the decision-making process, a UW professor argues in a newly released paper.

Share story

On the surface, volunteer opportunities in public schools seem like they’re open to any parent who has a few hours available to spend in a classroom or at a fundraiser. But those roles often favor certain families — English-speaking, upper-income, two-parent households with reliable transportation.

As a result, teachers too often assume the parents of the other students aren’t, or don’t want to be, involved in their child’s education. And that’s a problem, says Ann Ishimaru, a University of Washington assistant professor of education.

It’s not true, Ishimaru said, and it can have grave consequences for students.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

“There are lots of troubling racial disparities,” she said. “With the interactions between parents and teachers, how are they either exacerbating or addressing those racial disparities?”

In most schools, Ishimaru has found, the interactions contributed to inequities.

One solution: Involve parents in nontraditional ways, and treat them as equals. That’s one of the proposals in a new paper co-written by Ishimaru and Sola Takahashi of the nonprofit WestEd, which was published this month in the Peabody Journal Education. Instead of telling parents what the school needs, Ishimaru and Takahashi say, educators should ask parents to help make decisions about how they want to be involved.

In the paper, the researchers mention a project in two Seattle-area schools in the 2014-15 school year. Over the course of that year, a group of academic researchers met with leaders, parents and teachers as they created a curriculum for parents to learn more about the public-school system. Rather than having educators create a curriculum for the parents, the two groups worked together as partners.

Typically, such curricula include lessons on how to ensure students do their homework. But the codesigned lessons focused on broader issues that parents said they were concerned about, like how to address bullying, and how to talk with teachers and principals when those issues come up.

As a result, the educators saw that parents cared about and were involved in their children’s education, even if they didn’t always see the parents at school.

Ishimaru also points out that the level of involvement is about the same among racial groups and income levels. But research shows that they’re involved in different ways. White parents, for example, are more likely than parents of black or Hispanic students to attend a school event or volunteer at school, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, the parents of black and Hispanic students have higher rates of checking homework.

“A lot of these parents and families are involved in education, but it’s in ways the educators don’t necessarily see or count because they don’t adhere to their expectations” of how parents should involve themselves in schools, Ishimaru said.

“We’ve had a lot of reform focused only on educators or policymakers or researchers,” she added. ”If we are focused on trying to help every child, we had better tap the expertise of everyone at the table.”