"In this study, we show that regardless of parents’ level of involvement, teachers perceive that certain parents are more involved than others, and in ways that suggest the power of racial stereotypes." - Hua-Ya Sebastain Cherng, assistant professor of international education at NYU Steinhardt.

Father sitting on a couch reading a book with his son
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Teachers believe that mothers and fathers of immigrant or minority students are less involved in their children's education, according to research from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture Education and Human Development and the University of Pennsylvania published in Social Science Research. Such perspectives hamper the academic trajectory of those students, leading to lower grades and fewer recommendations for academic honors.

“We know from prior work that parents from different racial/ethnic and immigrant backgrounds have different levels of involvement,” said Hua-Ya Sebastain Cherng, an author of the study and assistant professor of international education at NYU Steinhardt. “But in this study, we show that regardless of parents’ level of involvement, teachers perceive that certain parents are more involved than others, and in ways that suggest the power of racial stereotypes.”

"There's a whole body of literature that suggests that much of what teachers’ view about their students comes from how they view their students' parents," says Penn doctoral candidate Phoebe Ho, lead author on the paper. "In our study, though we don't quite tap into why this is happening, we can show that it matters whether teachers view parents as involved."

To draw these conclusions, Cherng, a sociologist whose scholarly work focuses on the social lives of marginalized youth, and Ho, who studies the sociology of education and family, turned to the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.

Existing studies of this type often analyze data focused either on what parents’ report about their own in-school involvement or what teachers believe about such contributions. This dataset, however, contains both, including independent surveying of math and English teachers, as well as student responses.

Cherng and Ho analyzed several measures from the data. The first included teachers answering the question, "How involved are the parents of this student in his or her academic performance?" for nearly 6,100 10th graders. Teachers could respond one of three ways: not involved, somewhat involved, very involved.

In the second set of measures, parents assessed their own contact with the school, including activities such as attending parent-teacher association meetings and volunteering. Parents also described what happens at home, such as whether they checked their child's homework nightly or what conversations occurred regarding college preparation.

"There is much debate around parental involvement,” Ho Explains. “How much or how little should parents do? How do we best encourage parental involvement? That assumes there's a shared idea about what this looks like from parents and teachers, and we questioned whether this was the case."

The researchers' investigation showed that, in fact, the two groups differ on this matter, particularly for certain immigrant and minority populations. English teachers, for instance, tend not to consider immigrant Asian and Latino parents as highly involved. Math teachers generally perceive Latino parents through this same lens.

“These patterns are consistent with broader racial stereotypes: Asian Americans and Latinx are perceived as ‘forever foreign’ and not fluent speakers of English,” said Cherg. “Perhaps as a result, English teachers are less likely to believe that immigrant Asian American and Latinx parents are involved. However, racial stereotypes of Asian Americans are that this group is exceptionally talented in math, which may explain why math teachers do not think less of Asian American parents.”

In the short- and potentially longer-term, such attitudes affect the students in these families, a finding Ho and Cherng discerned by looking at GPAs at the end of sophomore year and teacher recommendations for academic honors. Two students whose academic potential look nearly identical on paper actually diverged in reality if their teacher viewed their parents' involvement differently; students whose parents were considered less involved had lower grades and less of a chance of being recommended for academic honors like advanced placement courses.

“In other words, how teachers perceive how involved parents are influences the grade that teachers give students and their recommendations for future coursework,” says Cherng. “And if these perceptions are themselves biased, it results in more racial inequality.

When asked about what to do about this, Cherng responded: “To expect teachers, who are typically overtaxed, to do more is unreasonable. I believe that universities, as institutions who prepare teachers to work with students and their parents, must do better. We can do more to prepare teachers to recognize and talk about the importance of race in the classroom, and how, if left unaddressed, biases can perpetuate rather than ameliorate persistent racial inequalities in education.”

The researchers acknowledge some limitations to this work, including the fact that the dataset doesn't account for federal policy changes made since that time, such as No Child Left Behind, and doesn't include an assessment of the quality of interactions between parents and teachers. Despite this, Cherng and Ho agree the study shows the disadvantage placed on minority and immigrant families and students and contributes to the overall conversation about parental involvement in the U.S. In the future, she says she and Cherng and Ho hope to ask these same questions about kindergarten and elementary-age children and their families.

About the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development

Located in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development prepares students for careers in the arts, education, health, media and psychology. Since its founding in 1890, the Steinhardt School's mission has been to expand human capacity through public service, global collaboration, research, scholarship, and practice. To learn more about NYU Steinhardt, visit steinhardt.nyu.edu.