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Evaluating Parent Empowerment: A Look at the Potential of Social Justice Evaluation in Education

by Camille Wilson Cooper & Christina A. Christie - 2005

In an effort to improve our nation's underperforming schools, education reformers are designing programs to educate and empower urban school parents. Parent involvement can be critical to a child's academic success, yet the education community still knows very little about the impact of specific parent programs. We evaluated a parent program that was part of a major school-university partnership. A responsive evaluation approach initially guided the design of our qualitative case study evaluation. Our social justiceoriented values, however, prompted us to revise our approach and adhere more closely to a social justice evaluation model. This change caused us to highlight the perspectives of low-income Latina mothers and emphasize the gap between parents' and educators' notions of empowerment. In this article, we describe our evaluation and highlight key findings that offer insightful implications for education practitioners, researchers, and evaluators. The findings pertain to the challenge of educators sharing power with urban parents and developing partnerships that are sensitive to the social and cultural factors that affect parents' values, goals, and modes of participation. We also emphasize the relationship between evaluation theory and practice and point to the potential impact of social justice evaluation in education.


There is widespread acknowledgement that parents should be meaningful partners in their childrens learning. Across the country, urban educators are challenged by the task of better engaging parents. At the same time, parents can be daunted by the prospect of confronting bureaucratic and often nonresponsive school systems. Many urban school parents are working-class or low-income people of color whose first language may not be English. The cultural and class backgrounds of this parent population play a part in relegating them to a low-status position within the educational arena. Thus, urban parents who advocate for their children and demand extensive educational reform face the challenge of seeking the knowledge and power to do so in a system that is inclined to resist their efforts.

In this article, we discuss findings from our qualitative case study evaluation of a university-sponsored parent education program called the District Parent Training Program (DPTP). The DPTP was designed to educate and empower urban school parents in a small Southern California school district. We evaluated the DPTP as members of UCLAs Outreach Evaluation team. The team was a group of evaluators charged with assessing the effectiveness of several outreach and school reform initiatives from UCLAs Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

At the outset, we planned to study the DPTP according to a responsive evaluation approach often associated with the work of Robert Stake (1967). This approach involves designing an evaluation that will be useful to stakeholders. Consequently, evaluators spend a generous amount of time learning the information needs of the persons for whom the evaluation is being conducted. They address the effectiveness and impact of program activities rather than the appropriateness of program goals. Often, they also use qualitative case study methods and capture the different views of the evaluation participants in the reporting of evaluation findings. Key to this kind of evaluation is the responsive nature of the evaluator, whereby he or she responds to naturally occurring events as they arise.

In our effort to be responsive evaluators, we shifted from emphasizing the views of all identified stakeholder groups involved in the DPTP toward capturing the standpoint of the least powerful stakeholder group, the low-income Latina parent participants. These parents shared important perspectives of which other program stakeholders were not aware─ perspectives regarding their educational needs and experiences that we felt all program stakeholders needed to understand in order to ensure the DPTP’s longevity. Consequently, we adjusted our evaluation design. Our approach became more closely aligned with the programs goal of serving local district parents and providing parents educational opportunities for their children. We moved beyond implementing the type of responsive evaluation that Stake promotes and instead began conducting what Ernest House (1993, 1998) describes as a social justice evaluation.

Our evaluation data reveal key contradictions between program and district administrators aims to empower parents by preparing them to be active community members and the parents desire to enact substantive educational change within the district. We found that the parents distinct preferences were linked to important social and cultural factors.

In later sections, we discuss our evaluation findings and explore how the different objectives and intentions of DPTP stakeholders relate to important sociopolitical contexts that can inform the work of educators. Second, we discuss our evaluation process and detail how the shift in our methodological approach can offer insight into the relationship between evaluation theory and practice, which can inform the work of evaluators. By describing both our studys findings and our methods, we hope to show how social justice evaluation approaches can enhance our understanding of educational programs and better enable educators and evaluators to promote educational equity.


Over the past 40 years, scholars have actively engaged in developing a rich body of evaluation theory literature. These theories are mostly prescriptive in nature, meaning that they provide recommendations for how to conduct evaluations. They are intended to guide practice rather than to explain phenomena (Alkin & Ellett, 1990). The various prescriptive theories address the focus and role of the evaluation, the specific evaluation questions to be studied, the evaluation design and implementation, and the use of evaluation results. They emphasize, prioritize, and combine a range of evaluation techniques.

The 1960s marked an important point in the development of evaluation theory and practice. An evaluation mandate was attached to the 1965 Great Society education legislation that introduced new programs into U.S. classrooms (House, 1980). The same stipulation was placed upon other large social government initiatives designed to support people and the communities in which they lived (e.g., Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC]). This new mandate increased the volume of evaluation being conducted, which resulted in a growing field of evaluation practice and hence an emerging body of literature focusing on evaluation theory.

In 1967, sociologist Edward Suchman wrote a seminal book on evaluation research citing Campbell and Stanleys 1963 manuscript, Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research, as the appropriate guide for developing evaluation designs. This citation brought experimental and quasi-experimental designs to the center of evaluation. Given that most of the evaluations at the time were being conducted by university-based social scientists, these designs were valued as scientific, and thus desirable.

Evaluators, however, soon recognized that experimental designs were very difficult to implement in educational settings for a variety of reasons. School life and school district environments were not conducive to the Campbell and Stanley designs, particularly the randomized experiment. Evaluators acknowledged that in many circumstances, experiments were not achievable, ethical, or desirable. Even the alternatives to the true experiment, like quasi-experimental designs that were developed to deal with the messy world of field research, were not always practical or popular. Thus, evaluation theorists began discussing and developing alternative approaches for conducting evaluations that were sensitive to educational contexts. These approaches often involve the use of qualitative methods.

Evaluation theory literature has grown extensively since the late 1960s, and several distinct theoretical approaches have emerged. Theories range from Robert Boruchs (Boruch, Snyder, & DeMoya, 2000), which today is closely linked to traditional experimental design, to theories that support less conventional approaches, such as Elliot Eisners Connoisseurship Model (1985), which likens educational program evaluation to critiquing fine art. Differing theoretical perspectives result from theorists distinct opinions about the role of evaluation─ that is, what theorists believe be to the primary job of the evaluator. For example, Stake (1983a) suggests that the role of evaluation is to provide useful information to a defined group of stakeholders. On the other hand, House (1993) sees the role of evaluation as promoting social justice by representing the voice of the underrepresented.

It could be argued, however, that evaluation theories are prescriptions for the ideal. They provide a set of principles for conducting evaluations that cannot (and may not even set out to) address the range of challenges that an evaluator might confront when in the field. This being the case, it is rare that even a theorist can conduct an evaluation following his or her theory to the word (Christie, 2003). Evaluators face complicated political and social conditions and financial constraints that restrict their ability to conduct an evaluation following a particular theory step by step.

In addition, because educational programs are situated within complex local, district, and state political contexts, it is virtually impossible to replicate the conduct of an evaluation across settings. So, even evaluators using the same theoretical approach must create a new evaluation design when embarking upon a new educational program evaluation. This approach is based on what they believe to be the primary role of the evaluation. Evaluations, therefore, are guided rather than mandated by theory. Principles of responsive and social justice evaluation theories guided our evaluation of a university-sponsored parent education program.

Responsive evaluation approach

Stake describes an educational evaluation as being a responsive evaluation if it orients more directly to program activities than to program intents, responds to audience requirements for information, and when the different value perspectives of the people at hand are referred to in reporting the success and failure of the program (1983b, p. 292). Furthermore, a responsive evaluation approach is less reliant on formal communication, more reliant on natural communication . . . it is based on what people do naturally to evaluate things: they observe and react (p. 292).

Based on this perspective, Stake (1991) views the evaluator as someone who inquires, negotiates, and selects a few issues around which to organize the study (p. 78). The organization of the study must be flexible. As the program moves in unique and unexpected ways, the evaluation efforts should be adapted to them, drawing from the stability and prior experience where possible, stretching to new issues and challenges where needed (Stake, 1983b, p. 303). It is expected that the study be organized in such a way that it is useful to specific persons. Following this reasoning, data, which are collected primarily using qualitative methods, are checked by program personnel for accuracy. Authority figures and other stakeholders are asked to comment on the importance and relevance of the findings (p. 293). Evaluation results are then reported in an accessible format.

Social justice evaluation approach

The social justice evaluation approach contrasts with the responsive evaluation approach (Cronbach, 1963; Guba & Lincoln, 1989; King, 2002; Stufflebeam, 2000). Rather than highlighting the outlook of multiple stakeholders and serving any particular group in an objective fashion, House (1991) asserts that evaluations should promote social justice and benefit those members of society who are in the greatest need of assistance. He describes evaluation as a political activity that takes place within a political context. House (1991) addressed the political nature of evaluation when he wrote,

I interpret the establishment of evaluation as an open procedure for arriving at judgments about public programs to be a move toward increased democratic control, though evaluation can be turned to antidemocratic ends as well. In taking educational programs as objects of public decision, evaluation should further democratic control as opposed to hidden control. Such a practice of public evaluation entails that evaluation be socially just as well as true, that it attend to the interests of everyone in society and not solely the privileged. (p. 244)

Within this context, House asserts that evaluation establishes who gets what (House 1980, as cited in Alkin, 1992) and identifies race, gender, and ethnicity as areas that evaluators can explore in order to promote social justice─ or, at the very least, recognize injustice. He (1991) stated that evaluators cannot be value neutral and that it is morally correct for evaluators to represent the interests and needs of those unjustly ignored within their evaluations (p. 245). According to the social justice evaluation perspective, every evaluation has a value slant from its inception that includes motivations, biases, values, attitudes, and political pressures (House, 1991, 2003; King, 2002; Stufflebeam, 2000). This value slant constitutes the context of valuation (House, 1972). Although this perspective recognizes the inevitable impact of an evaluators subjectivity, it also emphasizes the need to employ methodological rigor and ensure validity. Accordingly, evaluators explicitly state their valuations, verify their findings, and pinpoint data-based conclusions. This is part of what House (1972) terms the context of justification (p. 131). He further states, It is hidden unseen valuation that is damaging and that leads to opportunistically distorted research findings, for covert valuations allow us to pursue our base interests at the expense of proper justification. We trick ourselves as well as others’’ (p. 131).

In practice, conducting the type of social justice evaluation that House (1991) describes requires that program recipients─ the underrepresented group─ be involved in the evaluation process at least as extensively as other program stakeholders (House, 2003). Thus, regardless of limits on resources (e.g., financial, time, and so on), less powerful stakeholders should enjoy the same advantage of participation in the evaluation as other more powerful stakeholders. The aim is to prevent stakeholder bias in the study, a potentially serious bias if the views of less powerful stakeholders (e.g., program recipients) are not represented. To accomplish this, the evaluator begins with soliciting a range of stakeholder positions to minimize stakeholder bias in order to make the evaluation fair and socially just (House, 2003). The evaluator then uses methods that best capture the views of the multiple stakeholder groups with equity. This often includes in-depth qualitative interviews and observations of the program in action. Evaluators then analyze the data, and through a process of dialogue and deliberation with the range of stakeholders, judge the merit and worth of the program. If there is a chance that the collective voice of the less powerful stakeholder group will not receive due attention, it is the job of the evaluator to emphasize that voice and perspective.

Below, we describe our evaluation and the factors, including our social justiceoriented values, that prompted us to alter our responsive evaluation approach. Instead, we adhered more closely to a social justice evaluation. This change required us to recognize the fluidity of the theories guiding our work.


The DPTP, sponsored by UCLA, is a curriculum-based parent education program that strives to inform urban school parents about curriculum content, instruction, subject matter frameworks, academic standards, and assessment.

The DPTP also aims to inform parents about the impact of school reform in their district, to foster positive teacher-parent interaction, and to encourage parents to become school volunteers and community leaders whereby they advocate for all children, not just their own. The DPTP is designed to implement these tasks and ultimately empower parents and to exemplify a parent education program that other schools and districts will want to model. DPTP partnerships exist in three Southern California school districts.

The DPTP is part of the University of Californias effort to increase the admission of educationally disadvantaged students, which involves developing and instituting a vast network of outreach activities within local school districts. This effort was prompted by Resolution SP-1, which the University of California Board of Regents passed in 1995. The resolution eliminated the use of race, gender, and ethnicity in student admissions. Following SP-1, California voters passed Proposition 209, a referendum that abolished the State of Californias affirmative action policy. Both of these policies have contributed to the sharp decline of underrepresented students being admitted to the University of California system and to UCLA in particular.

From 1995 to early 2002, UCLA outreach efforts had two major thrusts. The first, defined as student-centered, involved a variety of extant activities that engaged high school students in mentoring and tutoring relationships. The second was school centered. It included activities such as professional development with teachers, with the intent of improving the capacity of schools with large populations of underprivileged students to better prepare their students for UC admission. University-sponsored parent education programs, such as the DPTP, were part of the school-centered effort.

University officials asked us to evaluate how program stakeholders perceive the DPTPs goals and effectiveness in the Parker Unified School District (PUSD). PUSD serves a community that mainly consists of low-income and working-class Latino and African American residents. The district has low standardized test scores and is classified as a Title I school district because of the high rate of poverty among its students families and its large population of English language learners. Thus, PUSD receives a significant amount of federal categorical funds. Approximately 80% of PUSDs student population is Latino, and most of the remaining 20% is African American, though the district has very small populations of Vietnamese, Filipino, and White students. The DPTP began operating in PUSD during the 1998 1999 school year and continues today.

Program structure

Parents who enroll in the DPTP participate in a 13-week institute, which includes classes that are conducted 2 days a week. The institutes take place at PUSD schools. PUSD schoolteachers, or parent graduates of former DPTP institutes, teach the classes. The DPTP provides participants free breakfast, lunch, and child-care services. The program also pays them a $150 stipend upon completion. The DPTP sponsors additional activities for parent participants throughout the school year, such as professional development workshops and parent conferences. DPTP parents are further encouraged to discuss aspects of their experiences with the program in an online journal that is posted on the programs Web site. Typically, up to 125 parents participate in the institutes during a term.

The PUSD schools that implement the DPTP vary per each 13-week period. Although UCLAs DPTP director oversees the entire program in PUSD, each participating school has its own parent director and parent site coordinator who implement the program at their site. These parent leaders report to the program director, who is a university staff member.

The DPTP institutes are site based. Consequently, the parent director and site coordinator of each are able to structure classes, schedule guest speakers, and plan activities according to the needs and desires of the parents involved and their school community. This is done with the approval of the program director and each schools principal.

At the end of each 13-week session, parent participants present group action plans that they develop throughout the institute. These plans specify what parents see as the key problems that hinder PUSD schools and explain their strategies to help solve them. Parents usually present their action plans at their graduation ceremony, where they also receive certificates and commendations from DPTP directors, school personnel, district officials, and community leaders. The action plans are shared with school administrators and university outreach directors. Upon graduation, parents are eligible to serve as parent directors or site coordinators of their own institute, thereby having additional opportunities to help implement their reform ideas. All parent graduates are encouraged to become school and district volunteers.

Participating schools and parents

Six of Parkers 12 traditional K12 schools have implemented at least one parent curriculum institute since the program began in the 19981999 school year. This includes four elementary schools, one middle school, and the districts only high school.

Most participants of the DPTP are Latina mothers. In fact, Latina mothers constituted 92% of the parent participant population during the period of our evaluation. Out of approximately 236 program participants, only 12 were Latino fathers, and 6 were African American mothers. Many of the Latina mothers we observed and interviewed were immigrants from Mexico and other Central American countries. Most were stay-at-home mothers. The women varied in their educational backgrounds, but most did not complete high school. Almost all spoke Spanish as their first language, several spoke English fluently, and others had limited or no English-speaking skills.

The majority of the participants we spoke with explained to us that they found out about the DPTP from a friend, neighbor, or relative who graduated from a previous DPTP institute. They stated that the DPTP appealed to them because they expected that it would help them better understand the school system, ensure their childrens educational success, and offer them personal growth. For instance, one mother explained, I wanted to learn about parents rights and how to focus so that our kids can go to college . . . If I dont know anything, I cant help my daughter. In addition, a parent director proclaimed, parents are amazed at the opportunity [to take the classes] because this is new for them.


We conducted the PUSD DPTP evaluation in fall 2000 and winter 2001. Our goal was to understand how different stakeholders involved with the parent education program perceived its goals and effectiveness. We used qualitative case study methods to do so.

Case study evaluators investigate a unit of analysis, or rather, a phenomenon of some sort occurring in and bounded by context (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 25; Yin, 1998). They also employ multiple methods and triangulate (cross-check) varied data sources. Case studies are designed to yield analytical generalizability rather than replicable results. Hence, case study evaluators analyze data to offer theoretical insights about a phenomenon, which others can learn from and use to understand similar occurrences that they confront in their own research and practice (Eisenhardt, 1989; Maxwell, 1998; Yin). We sought to understand DPTP stakeholders meaning making; thus, our unit of analysis was stakeholders perceptions.

We determined that using a qualitative approach to our evaluation would be most appropriate because qualitative methods are designed to address how and why research questions (Yin, 1998, p. 253). Qualitative methods enable researchers to study how people make meaning of their lives, while acknowledging that people and institutions are embedded in social structures, relationships, and contexts (Becker, 1996; Maxwell, 1998; Merriam, 1988). In line with qualitative methodological principles, we used purposive sampling techniques and designed semistructured interview and observation protocols (protocols were written in English and Spanish). Our research design helped us capture in-depth narrative data and document essential details about the educational settings in which our research participants worked and learned. Moreover, the iterative nature of qualitative research eased our ability to conduct a responsive evaluation guided by social justice principles. In all, the DPTPs emphasis on parent education and empowerment warranted a qualitative evaluation that brought forth stakeholder voices and multiple perspectives.

We conducted a total of 21 interviews with stakeholders. Specifically, we interviewed 7 parent staff members/program graduates, 7 parent participants (including one group interview with 4 parents), 4 district officials, 3 university staff members, and 3 school principals. In total, we interviewed approximately 10% of the parents involved with the DPTP. We also had informal conversations with parent participants at each of the observation sites. All but four of the interviews were taped, fully transcribed, and translated into English when necessary. We documented the four nontaped interviews in our notes and made a point to quote as many interviewee responses as possible and verify our data.

We attempted to make the interviews as conversational as possible, and at times, we veered from protocol questions to probe interviewee responses. We asked interviewees to discuss their involvement in the DPTP and their general impression of the program, including aspects of the program that they most valued, their suggestions for improvement, and their perceptions about the programs efficacy. Interviewees addressed a wide array of issues, including the DPTPs administration, organization, funding, curriculum content, and recruitment tactics. In addition, interviewees explained their views about UCLAs and PUSDs role in the DPTP. Interviews ranged from 30 to 60 minutes, and we conducted them in English or Spanish, depending on the interviewees English language fluency and preference.

Aside from interview data, we conducted approximately 30 hours of ethnographic field observations. We observed four DPTP classes at different school sites, one parent workshop, three graduation ceremonies, and a meeting of program coordinators and directors. In total, approximately 170 people attended the events we observed.

Our observation data included both descriptive and substantive information, which allowed us to gain an impression of whether the content of DPTP events and interaction among program leaders and participants were consistent with the programs purpose and goals. Our observations also allowed us to view interactions between staff members and parents─ as well as those between parent directors and parent participants─ in their natural settings.

We developed an observation form that we filled out during our visits. The form prompted us to detail information pertaining to our observational setting, group activities, and group dialogue. We described the roles being assumed by district, school, university, and parent stakeholders and noted group decision-making activities and the opinions and concerns that stakeholders expressed. In addition, we wrote reflective memos after each observation, in which we summarized our impressions, noted our questions, and discussed emerging themes.

Most of the program participants we interviewed and observed addressed the curriculum-based objectives of the DPTP; yet, powerful stories about empowerment and personal growth also emerged from the data. Data showed that the DPTP influenced parent participants in ways unanticipated by university and district officials, particularly by inspiring them to seek broader influence and greater decision-making abilities. We felt that examining this phenomenon and emphasizing participants perspectives would align with the DPTPs mission to equitably serve low-income urban parents. We therefore adapted our responsive evaluation study to implement a social justice evaluation approach. Consequently, our evaluation evolved into one that represented the voices and interests of those who are routinely underrepresented.

Though we chose to adapt our evaluation approach and highlight parents perceptions, we made sure to interview as many key university, school, and district officials as possible, especially those connected to our observation sites. Still, we began focusing on interviewing parents and observing their DPTP experiences and interactions. We tried to understand how parents wanted the DPTP to empower them and why.

Once we completed data collection, we analyzed our data. We read each interview transcript several times to pinpoint salient themes, patterns, and relationships. We coded the transcripts and repeatedly reevaluated our coding scheme in light of the data to avoid making premature judgments. Our coding scheme was altered several times and data were recoded when needed according to numerous descriptive labels and a few key analytical themes. We considered the significance of the data that were hard to code and categorize (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Once we were confident of the validity and usefulness of our coding scheme, we clustered the data by code, did a final review, and then pinpointed several major themes. In addition, we triangulated information from documents, interview transcripts, and observation field notes to ensure that our findings were accurate and representative (Maxwell, 1998). Our interpretation of the data was further influenced by our understanding of the DPTPs goals and the educational literature regarding parent involvement and empowerment.

Below, we discuss our findings that relate to stakeholders perceptions about the DPTPs goals and effectiveness. Last, we highlight the contrasting views that university, district, and school officials held about parent empowerment compared with the views of parents.


Our observations show that the District Parent Training Program (DPTP) educates parents in multiple ways. Parents receive classroom instruction during the 13-week institutes, and they learn to assume advocacy in PUSD through developing their action plans at the end of each institute. Parents also participate in educational events outside of the classroom, and many go on to coordinate or facilitate institutes after they complete their coursework. Classroom instruction, however, is the core educational activity in which parents engage. We found that parents hold differing opinions about what the instructional focus of the institutes should be.


The DPTP was designed to offer parents curriculum instruction that relates to the content areas that their children learn about in school, such as math, social studies, and English. Thus, instructors cover these areas during the majority of the 13 weeks that parents participate in the DPTP classes. Parents also receive information on district reform efforts, testing policies and ways to interpret standardized test scores, and college preparation information. The parent participants we interviewed said that learning about these traditional curriculum topics is valuable. Several parents explained that it helps them assist their children with their homework and better gauge if their childrens teachers are effective; these are two of the DPTPs primary program goals according to university program staff. Conversely, some parents explained their desire to expand the content of the classes in order to address topics like sex education and domestic violence prevention. We found that because the DPTP institutes are site based, some parent leaders incorporated these types of classes, along with things like CPR training, while others did not.

Those who wished to maintain a traditional curriculum focus explained that they do not understand how enlarging the programs focus relates to improving schools. One site coordinator stated in reference to adding a domestic violence prevention workshop, I dont see that as being a part of the school issues . . . I think school issues should stay school issues and things of that nature should be community oriented . . . because they have all kinds of hotlines. Similarly, a parent director for an institute at another site asserted that incorporating nontraditional subjects in the DPTP curriculum is getting the program off-target. The DPTPs director, a university employee, stressed that she prefers the programs traditional curriculum content but has sympathy for the parents who are asking for change. She explained, Yeah, so the parents are bringing in new things, which is scary to me. I want them to stay curriculum-based, but there are other things that they feel are important. The director added, It [the DPTP] is evolving because its a safe space for them. So, the program is not as predictable, which presents a real challenge for me. So, thats why I want to see what knowledge is important to the parents. The goals [of the program] havent changed but expanded.

Indeed, several parents we interviewed who favor adding alternative classes are Latino immigrants with elementary-level education who asserted that the DPTP has offered them a forum to explore personal and controversial issues that they feel uncomfortable discussing in their communities and families. They also said that gaining such exposure through the DPTP has helped them help their children. One mother, like many others, spoke of learning about school laws and policies from other parents in the program. Findings like this influenced our evaluation approach and inspired us to identify other salient but unintended outcomes of the DPTP, as shown in the parent data.

For instance, a group of fathers discussed their need to better communicate with their sons in order to persuade them to improve their behavior at home and at school. One father stressed his belief that learning more about sex education through the DPTP would help him do this. Likewise, a mother participating in a different institute explained, As parents we dont talk about sex openly. We need more open communication. Both mothers and fathers linked their parenting practices to the cultural norms of Latino families. They expressed cultural pride, yet voiced a willingness to try new tactics.

Other Latina participants who are stay-at-home mothers said that participating in the DPTP was enjoyable for them not only because it allowed them to help improve their childrens learning, but also because it provided them an opportunity to put their domestic responsibilities on hold and engage in an environment where they felt free to express themselves. One mother referred to this as leaving the little box. Others stressed that the DPTP has indeed become a safe space for women who are in abusive relationships and want to seek help for themselves and their children.

The program director asserted similar conclusions when she reflected on what she views as parents motivation for expanding the DPTP curricular focus. She explained that parents see schooling on a more holistic level. Hence, they perceive the quality of family life as an essential determinant of their childrens academic performance, and the mothers have explained to her that living in an unhealthy home environment hinders their capacity to be involved in schools. The director further stated, in regard to the DPTPs focus, When I started I saw it as more segmented . . . Im learning from what they feel is important.

One of our key evaluation findings aligned with the DPTP directors observation that the essence of the programs original goals had stayed intact, but broadened. In general, university, parent, and school-level stakeholders embraced the programs curricular-based objectives, but a significant sector of the parent participants asserted that expanding the curriculum would help them become empowered in ways that veered away from the scope of the DPTP.

Data also showed that the university staff s efforts to develop a program that offered low-income parents a comfortable and supportive learning environment unexpectedly led to the creation of a safe environment where many parent participants hoped to engage in critical dialogue about a variety of issues affecting their lives. One mother explained how parent participants have made a nice group and every parent is sharing their experiences with their kids [and] some give one type of advice, others another. She characterized this as a very nice aspect of the parent training that complements the programs curriculum instruction. The DPTPs evolving goals and the parents push to expand its curriculum caused stakeholders to reevaluate ideas about what parent education and parent empowerment should encompass.

Participant data reminded us of the need to recognize when the values, attitudes, and norms that stakeholders express are culturally relevant and gender specific (Cooper, 2005). This is particularly important when working with diverse groups because cultural and gender differences can enhance or impede the interpersonal dynamics that impact a programs operation. Further, cultural and gender issues are an important part of understanding stakeholders views and organizational contexts. This understanding aligns with the social justice evaluation goals of revealing the perspectives of underrepresented groups; in education, these are often people of color and women.


Curriculum instruction offers DPTP parents a foundation for understanding more about their childrens schooling and inspires some to improve their life circumstances. Activities like developing school action plans and coordinating parent institutes, on the other hand, align with the programs objective to encourage parents to become school-community advocates. In this sense, the DPTPs effort to empower parents extends beyond the classroom.

We had the opportunity to observe parents presenting their action plans during DPTP classes and graduations. At one of the institutes held at Parker High School, parents were divided into approximately seven groups of five. Each group created an action plan that addressed concerns related to a certain theme, like safety or teacher-student relations. The parents suggested that PUSD educators and district officials need to do more to prevent gang violence, provide adequate supplies and books, maintain clean bathrooms, and serve fresh and healthy food in the cafeteria. In addition, our observation notes describe how fathers involved in the program, along with some other parents, have complained about students smoking marijuana on campus, poor campus lighting and visibility on the stairs, and the fact that there are only two security guards who patrol the large high school campus [4129 students].

During the action plan presentations, parents discussed how they could help address most of their concerns. For instance, in regard to overcrowding, a Parker High School group said that they would volunteer to help verify parent addresses to prevent non-Parker residents from enrolling in PUSD schools. At one elementary school, parents expressed concern about traffic congestion and accidents occurring after school. They volunteered to set up cones to make pathways for students and serve as crossing guards to prevent the students from being harmed. Overall, the parents priorities, requests, and ideas pertained to a range of issues that reach far outside the scope of the DPTPs focus on increasing parents knowledge of curriculum and instruction.

All the principals we interviewed said that they appreciated how the DPTP produced a larger volunteer pool. They also commented on how they would like parents to become more involved at their site. One elementary school principal stated that she would like parents to assist teachers with classroom instruction. Another elementary school principal said that he needs parents to serve as an active parent patrol, monitoring school grounds to enforce trespassing policies. The high schools principal said that he hopes to see DPTP graduates participate in the schools external evaluation and regional accreditation committees.

Across the board, principals, UCLA staff, and parents stressed the need for DPTP participants and graduates to commit to helping PUSD schools on a long-term basis. Parker Districts superintendent further asserted that parents have to determine for themselves how to utilize their education. In doing so, he suggested that they could choose to be a group of complainers or problem-solvers. The superintendent argued that, in the past, district parents have been stiffs because they were not given the chance to offer input and assert their voices, and that the district cant have that. The superintendent added that he would like to see DPTP parents serve on districtwide committees such as the Superintendent Advisory Board or the District Advisory Council.

Indeed, we found that both district and school administrators hoped that parents would fulfill conventional on-site parent involvement roles geared toward helping educators implement their goals. These include serving as school volunteers, helping with homework, attending schooling events, and participating in school-sponsored parent groups like the PTA─ groups that often fail to engage low-income and non-English-speaking parents (Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Jackson & Cooper, 1989; Lareau, 1989; Smalley & Reyes-Blanes, 2001). The DPTP parents explained that they too wanted more decision-making ability and power to influence the districts reform agenda.

Contributions of parent leaders

Parent directors and site coordinators of each DPTP institute exemplify the leadership goals of the program because they too are DPTP graduates. Both the parent director and site coordinator receive a $2,000 stipend for their work. The parent directors are responsible for planning the content and schedule of each institute. They find teachers to instruct classes, gather the necessary materials for parent participants, and oversee implementation at their site. The site coordinator works with the parent director and handles logistical details like processing attendance paperwork and arranging for catering and child-care services. We observed parents in both roles being very attentive to parent participants during classes. They often assisted parents with activities, helped with English-Spanish translation, and served in a troubleshooting capacity. In addition, some of the directors and coordinators, along with other DPTP graduates, taught some of the institutes classes.

Parent participants, UCLA staff, and principals repeatedly characterized parent directors and site coordinators as being very dedicated to the DPTP and willing to put forth a great deal of time, energy, and occasionally, their own limited funds to help maintain the program. These people commonly referred to the parent leaders as wonderful or great. Several of the directors and coordinators are long-time district volunteers who were active in PUSD before they became involved in the DPTP. Others are much less experienced.

Although most of the DPTP leaders we interviewed indicated their intent to remain actively involved in helping to organize the program, parent participants also expressed an interest in assuming leadership roles after completing their institute. One parent noted that the program offers parents a great opportunity to develop leadership and also learn about parents rights, students rights, how to help with school, [and] how to grow up learning district and state guidelines. Indeed, the DPTPs existing cadre of parent leaders may be one of the programs most important assets given their commitment to ensuring that the program continues to benefit other parents and the PUSD as a whole.

We found that although university, district, and parent groups expressed support for developing DPTP parent leaders, as with the notion of empowerment, these different stakeholder groups hold distinct views about what type of leadership parents should exert. Additional data suggest that although most DPTP parents associate empowerment with exerting power within the school system and having the ability to spark substantive reform, district and school leaders advocate for more conservative action. Parents, however, were significantly influencing other stakeholders views and working to broaden the programs scope.


The majority of individuals we interviewed maintained that the DPTP has been very effective, despite some opposing views about its curriculum and organization. Many agreed that the DPTP has helped us grow and learn more about our kids [educational] system.

Indeed, our data revealed four major ways that the program has impacted parents and PUSD schools. First, the DPTP has successfully provided new sources of knowledge to participants that enable them to help their children achieve academically, which accords with the programs curriculum-based goals. A parent director explained,

I was saying before that being in the PTA for four years we havent been able to do what this program is doing for the school and for the parents. Its been able to expand opportunities for parents to learn English, to learn a little bit of reading, a little bit of math and history. I think it really empowers them to feel better about themselves. I think each day theyre opening up more and asking more questions, and getting help with the math and reading. They really want to learn and they really want to help, and there hasnt been anything else besides this thats been able to provide this for them.

Parents further stated that they have learned more about their parental rights, which is particularly important for undocumented immigrants who, upon entering the DPTP classes, were unaware of how they could serve as advocates for their children within schools. A parent director commented that many of these parents are less afraid to speak up for their children as a result of what they have learned in the program.

The second type of impact that several people discussed, including each of the principals, pertained to the DPTPs ability to boost parent confidence. The DPTP has resulted in several parents, especially mothers, wanting to go back to high school or on to college. For instance, an elementary school principal stated that the DPTP enhances their [parents] learning . . . now all these women want to go to school. She added that it gives them self-esteem . . . they can really help their children now, and it gives them a healthy respect for education. They can say to themselves, ‘I’m knowledgeable, I’m worthy.’ ’’

Similarly, another principal explained, ‘‘I’ve seen growth in [the parents] just like I see growth in our students when they go to college. I also see something else─ it’s not really measurable─ but I see pride. I see pride and the attitude and the way the parents have confidence. They are no longer walking around in fear of not fitting [in]. They know they fit, they know they’re part of the school.’’

At the graduation ceremonies, surrounded by spouses, relatives, friends, and their children, we witnessed parents beaming with pride and excitement because of their involvement in the DPTP. Several mothers eyes appeared to twinkle with joy as they marched into the room with bright smiles, passing their families to step onto a stage and receive a completion certificate. A few participants also wept.

Third, as we mentioned earlier, several interviewees characterized the DPTP as offering participants a safe space to convene. Others stressed that the program has provided them support services and a valuable social network. In this regard, one participating mother asserted,

I like the program, and I wish that all the parents could take advantage of it. I think its educational and we get time to socialize sometimes. And sometimes our parents need to do that─ get away from work and home, and our children sometimes [she laughs]. It’s great. I love the fact that you can bring your child to the day care here . . . I think that’s very important. I think some of our parents don’t have a babysitter and this is the sole reason why we dont go out there to work or to take school classes and improve ourselves because we dont have someone to take care of our kids. It [DPTP] provides us [with] a babysitter. It provides us breakfast and lunch. I think its great, very good.

The fourth aspect of program effectiveness that interviewees commonly referred to was their perception that the program has groomed an enthusiastic body of parent volunteers. PUSDs superintendent stated that if 150 parents graduate from the DPTP, he perceives that as having 300 more hands to help the district. He added, I hope they see it the same way.

In addition to asserting positive remarks about the DPTP, interviewees suggested ways in which the program can improve. Principals and parent leaders stressed their need for more facility space to hold institutes because the schools they are working in are overcrowded. Several others recommended that the DPTP expand by offering parents longer classes and implementing more institutes at additional schools. Moreover, one principal expressed the desire to be kept better informed about DPTP activities and events. Parkers superintendent suggested that parent leaders invite their schools principals and district administrators to visit the classes and talk to participants about ways that they can best help improve the PUSD.

Similarly, a DPTP site coordinator expressed concern over how to ensure that parents remain active volunteers after completing the program. With regard to this, she questioned, Where does it go from here? Two parent participants further asked what real power parents were going to have in the district after graduating from the institutes. These concerns highlight the opinion that more should be done to address parents long-term contributions and benefits from the DPTP.

Although the main program stakeholders agree that the DPTP has positively impacted parents and schools, the types of effectiveness they describe indicate their varied notions of parent empowerment. Those who pointed to DPTP parents becoming stronger advocates for their children, increasing their personal confidence to seek school change, and expanding curriculum and developing a peer support system, appear to view empowerment as parents ability to challenge the status quo. Conversely, those who emphasized the DPTP preparing parents to become school volunteers and helping hands alluded to the benefit of parents helping to maintain the status quo. School principals and Parkers superintendent expressed the latter point, and they are the stakeholders who would be most concerned about parents obtaining the power to bring about structural change in the district. Again, their discussion of the programs benefits to parents relates more to traditional ideas of parent participation or involvement rather than parent empowerment.


Educational researchers have characterized true parent empowerment in schools as being that which enables parents to help implement systemic school reform (Cochran, 1987; Fine, 1993; Vincent, 1996). Cochran explained that being empowered is about impacting power relationships between those governed by and those governing such institutions, on behalf of more equal distribution of power in the community as a whole (p. 108). We found that DPTP parent participants were far more likely to call for this type of change compared with the district and university partners. Indeed, Parkers superintendent conceded that numerous district officials and some school principals feel threatened by the success of the DPTP and UCLAs involvement. He even suggested that the university offer more information to the PUSDs employees to help remove threats of [parents] taking over the district.

The superintendent emphasized his commitment to supporting PUSDs parents when we spoke with him. At DPTP graduation ceremonies, the superintendent commended parents on their accomplishments and urged them to become more involved in the district. Some parents and university staff members we spoke to, however, questioned the degree to which the district official is sincere about wanting parents to wield substantial power.

Some also cast doubt over his motives for supporting the DPTP. For instance, a couple of university staff members contended that the superintendent is aware that he must maintain good public relations with the parent community so that they will continue to support him in his administrative role and not complain to the Board of Education, to whom he reports. One person said that he sees this [supporting the DPTP] as a good way to bring attention to himself and that he wants to make himself look good to the parents and to the Board. This same university staff member argued that this is particularly true because the hiring of the superintendent, who is African American, initially upset much of the districts Latino population, many of whom originally told the PUSDs board that they wanted a Latino administrator to fill the post.

Likewise, the principals we interviewed voiced their backing of the DPTP, yet university staff and a few parents explained that some principals do not value the DPTP. One person said the principals are afraid of losing power and being held more accountable by parents. Others noted that a few principals have developed a more positive attitude about the DPTP after observing the programs positive impact.

When we asked one parent director whether the principal at her school is supportive of the DPTP, she replied,

At first no. At first we kept hitting roadblock after roadblock . . . I think [the principal] was resistant because [the principal] felt that by giving this information to the parents they would have questions. Like right away when we [parent leaders] gave them the Title I information, they wanted to know, Where is your Title I? How much is it? And it kind of intimidated [the principal]. But now the parents are volunteering. The parents are going to conduct the Halloween Festival that is coming up. Theyre going to do the school beautification. They want to get CPR certified so they can have those resources and all those things. And the parents are willing to get quite a bit of education because they are committed to helping the school. And the only request that they made of [the principal] is that they want to have more education in English and computers. So [the principal is] trying to find the money right now to fit that into the schedule, and [the principal is] trying to find an outside company that would run that program.

Indeed, each of the principals we interviewed strongly endorsed the DPTP, and one even characterized himself as the proud papa of the program at his site. Yet overall, our data revealed stakeholders perceptions that Parker principals (and the superintendent) hold varied opinions about the program, with some being sincere supporters and others remaining suspicious and fearful of the programs empowerment effect.


Over the past few years, UCLAs District Parent Training Program (DPTP) has developed into a program that has informed nearly 400 parent graduates from Parker Unified School District (PUSD) about increasing their childrens chances for academic success. Moreover, data show that everyone directly involved with the DPTP views it as a program that has enriched parents and contributed to school improvement.

Still, we found that the projects empowerment goals are not clearly defined, nor are the programs methods of achieving its goals. For instance, stakeholders do not agree on the type of empowerment that the DPTP should facilitate, under what circumstances, and how. All groups report that the DPTPs efforts to offer Parker parents curriculum-based learning about subject matter have been effective. Parents and principals further stress that the DPTP has had a much greater impact because so many parents have become empowered not only to advocate for their child within the school system but also to seek a deeper level of educational change or even alter their life paths. This is true particularly for the majority of Latina mothers we interviewed and observed. These women constitute the programs largest, yet least powerful, stakeholder group.

Data show that the DPTP has prompted many mothers to reevaluate the conventional gender roles that they have assumed and has motivated them to seek more power than they originally aspired to gain. According to all stakeholder groups, many of the Latina women involved with the DPTP have shifted away from being stay-at-home mothers reluctant to participate in their childrens schooling because of fear, intimidation, and feeling like an outsider. Their DPTP experiences have helped them to want to learn more about their rights, exert their voice, encourage their children to go to college, and advance their own educational pursuits.

Parents sense of personal investment in the DPTP, their program expansion goals, and their desire for institutionalized power within PUSD will likely force the program to evolve. Indeed, the programs director told us that since our evaluation, the parents have become more active and vocal, organizing to meet with district officials more often and seeking advisory positions within the Parker Unified school system.

The sustainability of the DPTP is uncertain even though everyone we spoke with stressed its value. At the end of our evaluation, the DPTP director explained that district officials were reluctant to fully support and increase the programs funding despite having federal monies available to do so. She attributed their hesitance to their inability to relate to the parents cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The director stated, My gut feeling is that they [district officials] are afraid of it [the DPTP], they look at that community as being very different from them. I dont see them as really connected to the community. She added, I think it is strongly, strongly related to class and it gets even more complicated by language and things like that.

One of the few African American DPTP parent leaders we interviewed further questioned whether Parker officials had parents interests at heart. She maintained that they have an interest in keeping parents disempowered. She further remarked that there is no way to partnership with oppressors until youre on equal ground, and said that she is dedicated to educating parents and trying to level the playing field.

We assert that district and school administrators level of commitment to the DPTP may also be influenced by the extent to which they perceive the university and DPTP parents as a threat. Parent empowerment and involvement research indicates that the fear and suspicion that some Parker officials may have is common, particularly in urban school districts (Fine, 1993; Jackson & Cooper, 1989; Lopez, Scribner, & Mahitivanichcha, 2001; Noguera, 2001).

Fine (1993) stated that parents enter the contested public sphere of public education typically with neither resources nor power. They are usually not welcomed, by schools, to the critical and serious work of rethinking educational structures and practices (pp. 682683). This is so given school officials desire to maintain their power. Their resistance to empower parents can increase particularly if they equate parents disadvantaged economic status and racial, cultural, or linguistic background with their lack of the knowledge and experience to offer valid and meaningful input (Delgado-Gaitan, 1993; Fine; Lopez et al., 2001; Noguera, 2001). Our data do not prove this to be the case with the DPTP and its district partners, but it is a possibility given the cultural background and low-income status of parent participants and leaders. The parents, who are mainly poor Spanish-speaking Latina women, must confront a district administration that is dominated by middle-class African American and White men.

In our final evaluation report, we emphasized that the collaboration between the university and district remains an integral part of the DPTP, but the dedication, enthusiasm, and energy of parent leaders and participants have maintained the program. University and PUSD resources combined with parents leadership will determine the DPTPs future success. Our evaluation findings, in total, stand to assist UCLA, the Parker Unified School District, and parents in solidifying a three-way partnership. If the DPTP continues to operate in PUSD with adequate funding, parents voices and their self-defined goals should guide the programs development.

Parents input and involvement, coupled with researchers and educators expertise, can help the district implement equitable urban educational reform. The DPTP was founded on the premise that informing parents about their childrens school system and assisting them in teaching and supporting their children will ultimately increase their childrens academic success. Parent data show that they indeed value the English, math, and science instruction that the program provides, yet parents emphasized other issues that the district should address, such as safety and sex education. In addition, they underscored the value of the DPTP offering families more support services in order to enhance parents ability to offer their children adequate attention and nurturing.

We observed that parents holistic view of educational involvement and their desire for the power to influence the districts reform agenda has caused a healthy tension. This tension has motivated university and district officials to revisit DPTP goals. We hope that our social justice evaluation also helped them reconsider how parents can be viewed and approached as true partners rather than threats.


The District Parent Training Program (DPTP) evaluation began as a study in search of information to be used by key university stakeholders who wanted us to assess the programs efficacy. We used a responsive evaluation approach to understand and document stakeholders views. As we engaged in the interview process with parent participants, it became apparent that program and district administrators were either not aware of or receptive to their perspectives. Even the superintendent of Parker Unified School District (PUSD) observed that education as an institution has programmed itself to listen to a few. We conducted our study knowing that those who constitute that few typically are not low-income parents of color, such as the parents we focused on in this evaluation.

We chose to emphasize the parents standpoint with the hope that our evaluation could serve as a platform for the parents to express their views and inspire the more powerful stakeholders to take heed. In effect, we became particularly responsive to the underrepresented stakeholder perspective and adopted a social justice evaluation approach as a result.

House (1993) contends that the input and interests of the powerless and the poor are often unjustly excluded from evaluations (p. 121). Our work counters this trend. We, in accord with the social justice evaluation tradition, took conscious steps to develop an inclusive study design through which both the powerful and least privileged stakeholders had opportunities to share their views. Moreover, we recognized the importance of addressing issues related to culture, class, and gender that pertain to the DPTP─ issues that are often disregarded during the evaluation process (House, 1993).

Findings from our evaluation have implications for educational practitioners, and the insights that we have gained into the evaluation process offer implications for evaluators. First, data suggest that educators and district administrators who wish to serve and empower parents would benefit from giving those parents the opportunity to articulate their own needs and pinpoint the ways in which they want to gain from parent-oriented programs.

Moreover, school and district reformers wishing to involve parents in school change efforts should prepare for the likelihood that parents will support some existing reform goals, challenge others, and develop their own agendas as well. Establishing true partnerships with parents entail educators acknowledging and validating parents views and ultimately sharing power. It further requires practitioners to show sensitivity to the culturally relevant values that influence parents educational priorities and demands, and recognize that cultural, socioeconomic, and gender factors affect how parents participate in their childrens education.

Second, our evaluation methods demonstrate the importance of evaluators maintaining flexibility. Our initial responsive approach allowed us to capture the perspectives of various program stakeholders, yet our desire to emphasize the voices of the programs largest but most underrepresented stakeholder group helped us see the value of adopting social justice evaluation techniques. Our interviews and other interactions with program participants reminded us that we could not conduct our evaluation in a strictly objective, value-free manner. Instead, parent data indicated that we had the opportunity to pinpoint themes and program implications that showcased parents views, which we believed were being unwittingly or inappropriately overlooked. We seized this opportunity while using sound methods and ensuring that our conclusions were data based. Our methodological shift aligned with the programs parent empowerment mission.

Our evaluation experience demonstrates the fluidity of evaluation theory. It shows that theory can be a helpful guide to evaluators who must ultimately make methodological choices that consider the social and political contexts affecting the program they are evaluating and the environment in which they work. In addition, it indicates the potential for social justice evaluation to contribute to education. A social justice approach enables evaluators to highlight the standpoint of historically disempowered and marginalized groups in order to benefit those groups and inspire practitioners to conduct equitable educational practices. This could particularly benefit students, parents, and educators functioning within urban school settings. Evaluation, as result, could become even more meaningful for all stakeholder groups and evaluators themselves.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 10, 2005, p. 2248-2274
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12192, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:11:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Camille Cooper
    University of North Carolina, Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    CAMILLE WILSON COOPER is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her research focuses on school-family partnerships, race and equity issues in school reform, educational policy, and qualitative methodology. Dr. Cooper has written articles and book chapters on the school choices of African American mothers, charter school reform, and teacher bias towards African American students. She is currently investigating how educators and parents are striving to build equitable and culturally responsive school-family partnerships in Southern schools that are experiencing demographic change due to increased immigration rates. She has authored papers that have recently been published in the Journal of Negro Education and Teacher Education Quarterly.
  • Christina Christie
    Claremont Graduate University
    CHRISTINA A. CHRISTIE is an assistant professor, director of the Masters of Arts Program in Psychology and Evaluation, and associate director of the Institute of Organizational and Program Evaluation Research in the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences at Claremont Graduate University. Her research focuses on investigating the relationship between evaluation theory and practice, and issues related to the development of descriptive theories of evaluation. Dr. Christie co-founded the Southern California Evaluation Association, a local affiliate of the American Evalua- tion Association. She is also the 2004 recipient of the American Evaluation Associationís Marcia Guttentag Early Career Achievement Award. Dr. Christie also guest-edited two issues of the journal New Directions for Evaluation (v. 97 and v. 106 with Dr. Marvin Alkin), and authored several other papers on evaluation theory, practice, utilization, and teaching of evaluation that have been published in the American Journal of Evaluation, Studies in Educational Evaluation, and the Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation.
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