Parental Agency in Educational Decision Making: A Mexican American Example
by Margy McClain — 2010
Background/Context: This article explores the experiences of one Mexican American family as they make a key curriculum choice for their 9-year-old son. Relatively little attention has been paid to parents’ beliefs, attitudes, and, in particular, experiences as they actively engage in—and sometimes affect—their children’s schooling. Parents’ agency in utilizing various kinds of educational strategizing, especially immigrant and urban working-class parents, has been overlooked. Deficit theories of low-income families have a long history in educational thought. Although more recent scholarship has debunked these theories, they remain pervasive across the country. Educators often do not recognize the many ways in which urban parents may be involved in their children’s schooling. Voices of parents themselves speaking to their experiences with schools are just beginning to emerge.
Purpose: This article offers a rich example of the educational decision-making process of one Mexican American family. I take a phenomenological approach to examine human agency in specific familial decisions about this child’s schooling that supports the parents’ own vision of education. Here is a story of thoughtful, reflective decision-making that took place over a period of several years, when the parents finally decided to move their son from a transitional bilingual program at a public school to a parochial school taught in English.
Research Design: This is a narrative inquiry based on interviews and observations that took place with one family and one focal child through the course of a calendar year. It is situated within the frame of an ethnographic study on the educational life worlds of the family. The analysis draws on van Manen’s use of phenomenology to examine how parents reflected upon experience to better understand a situation, resulting in “lived experience,” an understanding of the meanings a particular person finds in an event.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Immigrant and other urban parents may be actively engaged in their children’s education, asking important and valid curriculum questions in ways that remain invisible to educators. I suggest alternatives to deficit theories that render parents’ perspectives invisible. Terms usually reserved for teachers can also be applied to parents: “knowledgeable observers” who make “pedagogically thoughtful” decisions about “curriculum.” This perspective would recommend that educational practice and policy use theoretical frameworks stressing parents’ roles as strong, positive, and active agents on behalf of their children and the need to develop dialogue based on respect. Further qualitative research in particular can provide needed depth in our understanding of parents’ struggles to negotiate the boundaries of culture, history and biography as they guide their children through the complex maze of school.
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