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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.

This article provides a rich example of one urban, Mexican American family’s journey toward and through making an important educational decision for their 9-year-old son. Urban parents may be “involved” in their children’s schooling in ways that go unrecognized as such by schools and educators. This study focuses on the process by which these parents were active agents in guiding their child’s education. It follows how they came to their decision, which included interacting with the son’s public school over a number of years, regularly reassessing their child’s knowledge, and consulting with extended family.


What parents think and desire in terms of their children’s schooling is becoming increasingly critical. Pressure is ever greater on parents to “help their children succeed.” In addition, current efforts in school reforms to create charter schools and provide vouchers and other versions of “school choice” build on many assumptions and claims about the kinds of schooling that parents want. However, 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. What parents do want has not been rigorously or extensively examined. Although the literature on parents and schools has grown tremendously in the past decade, voices of parents themselves speaking to their experiences with schools are just beginning to emerge. Parents’ agency in utilizing various kinds of educational strategizing, especially immigrant and urban working-class parents, has been overlooked.


The current landscape of the relationships between families and schools are explored in a number of reviews of the “parent involvement” literature (Jordan, Orozco, & Averett, 2001; Auerbach, 2001; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Boethel, 2003). These reviews point out that, while parents are accepted as a key part of a child’s success in schooling, there are enormous holes in the research and scholarship. Much of the literature shares a “school-centric” focus rather than problematizing parent–school relationships. Research reviews call for additional research on fundamental assumptions and definitions (Auerbach, 2001; Jordan et al., 2001).


The beliefs, values, and child-rearing practices of middle-class parents are often presented as the way for parents to support schools in the home. These beliefs situate parents as “helpers” to the school and are reified in school policies and other structural barriers that may serve to place parents and educators on opposite sides of the schoolhouse door. Although parents are widely accepted as essential stakeholders in schools and an important component of creating excellent education for their children, even the participation of well-educated, native-born parents in the schools can be controversial outside of these narrowly defined roles and expectations generated by the schools and educators (Auerbach, 2001; Carger, 1996; de Carvalho, 2001; Jordan et al., 2001; Getzels, 1974; Hulsebosch, 1992; Lareau, 1989, 2001; Leichter, 1974, 1977; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1978; Valdés, 1996). Since such school-centered expectations of parents mirror the values, attitudes, beliefs, and child-rearing behaviors of the European American middle-class, it is not surprising to find that such parents fare best overall in terms of access to schools.


Following this logic, educators often ignore and disregard the values, beliefs, and practices of urban families, believing that they “don’t care about education” and/or seeing them as incompetent parents. Yet, many parents of children in these traditionally underserved communities are part of extended family and social networks considered the main source of information on family matters. They call on culturally based values, beliefs, and practices of child-rearing that are accepted and validated in their home communities. These parents may not share all “mainstream” child-rearing practices and values or be comfortable turning to a mainstream expert for advice. Since dialogue with parents and the notion of collaborative problem solving is not a widespread part of the “culture of school” in the U.S., parents and schools may be locked in a cycle of misunderstanding and miscommunication in ways that affect children’s learning and educational opportunities.


One central component of this situation is that deficit theories continue to be widespread in schools. These beliefs hold that parents who are immigrant, low income, and/or from communities of ethnic or racial minorities “don’t care about education” and may hold back their children’s schooling rather than support it. Although deficit theories have been examined and repudiated by scholars such as Valdés (1996) and Valencia and Black (2002), they remain an active part of the beliefs enacted in school practice. I have heard such beliefs expressed in almost every school with which I have worked over the past 25 years, up to and including the time of writing. One important example of how these theories remain embedded in schools is the current widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne on “understanding children in poverty” (Payne, 1998), which implicitly incorporates deficit beliefs about a “culture of poverty” (see the dialogue between critics and Payne in the online version of Teachers College Record: Gorski, 2006a; Payne, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Ng & Rury, 2006a; Payne, 2006b, Ng & Rury, 2006b).


The rapid growth of Mexican and other Latino immigrant students in U.S. schools in recent years has spurred a particular focus on this community. Educational research on improving Latino educational success has often included work with parents as an important theme (Carger, 1996; Delgado-Gaitan & Ruiz, 1992; Gonzalez, 2002; Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992; Soto, 1997; Valdés, 1996, 1998). As a whole, this research provides both a growing body of knowledge about Latino immigrant families and their interactions with U.S. schools and new insights into the structural relationships between U.S. schools and parents. This article contributes to both perspectives.


Before “school choice” and charter schools, urban areas offered choices between schools of different kinds, such as magnet schools within the public system; between schools in the public sector and private schools; between different districts; or even among different neighborhoods within the same district. Parents have had the opportunity to “vote with their feet” by moving a child from one school to another. This study documents one case of this strategy used in pursuit of specific educational goals for a child. The importance of this single case lies in the story of the parents’ “curriculum journey” over a period of several years, as a chronicle of their perceptions of their son’s schooling, their interactions with the school, decision-making process, and final action. This seemed to be the only way available to them to seek a different schooling environment for their son.


Their story reflects how parents often feel frustrated about their communications with schools about what kind of experiences might be best for their children. While it may be that middle-class parents have access to better options among the choices available, such as often-expensive private schools, the fact that parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds may use a similar process in considering the schools available to them is an important aspect of understanding the structural relationships between parents and schools.


Here, I take a phenomenological approach (van Manen, 1990) to examine human agency in specific familial decisions about children’s schooling. This is a parents’ perspective on a decision-making process that took place over a period of several years. Alejandro and Isabel Torres pondered and finally acted to transfer their child from a public school bilingual program in Chicago to an English-speaking parochial school. In its particulars, this study speaks to the experiences of Spanish-speaking immigrant families and the issue of language of instruction. In a more generalized way, it illuminates how thoughtful and concerned parents may struggle to make sense of a limited array of schooling options, none of which seem to fit their vision of schooling for their children.


Over a number of years, the Torreses tried to find schooling that would enable their son to know well both the language of their home and that of the larger society. These efforts came from their strong desire to provide their son with an education that would help him to survive and thrive within his minoritized family and community in addition to within mainstream society. They believed their responsibilities as parents included making decisions about the kinds of knowledge their son should have the opportunity to acquire as well as how to pursue those opportunities.


These parents wrestled with heartfelt curriculum questions: What knowledge is worthwhile? Who benefits? Who decides? (Schubert, 1986). As they struggled, they found it difficult to have a dialogue with their son’s school about his schooling. While this particular curriculum dilemma focuses on bilingualism, it also illuminates parents as grassroots educational decision makers, negotiating the borderlands between parents and schools.


METHOD


This story of parents making an educational decision emerged slowly as a narrative inquiry embedded in a year-long intensive ethnographic study exploring the educational life worlds of the Torreses’ three children. The ethnography focused on observing the children’s learning and teaching experiences (each a curriculum) in the home, community-based organizations, and schools, and how those experiences (curricula) interacted. Because of the depth and breadth of the documentation of family activities (observations in the home before and after school, in the classrooms of each of the three children, and in each child’s after-school community activities), one family was chosen as the focus of the study.


To my surprise, I discovered that the “curriculum of the home” included Alejandro and Isabel’s engagement with a major curriculum dilemma affecting their oldest son, Hugo. This curriculum dilemma came from the parents’ desire that Hugo become a fluently bilingual speaker of Spanish and English. In the beginning weeks, I conducted “educational biography” interviews with Alejandro, Isabel, and Roberto. Periodically, I conducted more formal interviews with Alejandro and Isabel to address questions that arose during the observations and informal talks. As the theme of parents making educational decisions for their children emerged, I recognized it as a phenomenon I had encountered in my own lived experience as a parent in the same school district and had explored with other parents (McClain, 1993).


I found van Manen’s (1991) concepts of “pedagogical thoughtfulness” and “an attentive, pedagogical gaze” to be a powerful lens through which to understand parents (not just teachers) as curriculum decision makers and to see them living with and learning from children in the home rather than the classroom. Van Manen suggested the notion of pedagogical thoughtfulness be used in curriculum inquiry and in educational research in general. What “counts,” he argued, what is worthy of note and of reflection, is the details of the situation considered by a “knowledgeable observer” who also brings to bear understanding of the context and processes at hand.


Human science is the study of meaning...the activity of explicating meanings. In this respect the fundamental research orientation of all human science is more closely aligned with the critical-hermeneutic rationality of the humanities and philosophy than with the more positivist rationality of empirical-analytic or behavioral cognitive science. (1990, p. 181)


Human science constitutes phenomenology because it begins with things that occur in the real world—a phenomenon—and seeks the meaning of the phenomenon through hermeneutics, or interpretation of the events. In practice, van Manen created portraits of people and events based on his detailed and compassionate observations and reflections about children and the adults who care for them and help them learn and grow. Here, I seek the hermeneutics of the Torreses’ process in order to understand their subjective realities as they experienced, noticed, and detailed the happenings in their son’s educational life. This process includes exploring how they drew on a variety of contextual knowledge to interpret their son’s experiences and address the curriculum dilemma they perceived.


Van Manen (1990) described knowledgeable observers reflecting upon experience to understand better a situation, resulting in “lived experience,” an understanding of the meanings a particular person finds in an event. The concept of knowledgeable observers, originally applied to teachers, can also be applied to parents. They too are knowledgeable observers of their children and can bring to bear important understandings of the contexts and processes of the situation of concern. While their understandings may be different from those of educators, parents’ interpretations are what motivate their behavior and have real-life outcomes for their child. This study explores the Torreses’ lived experience, the conscious meanings that Isabel and Alejandro derived from their situation, and, in a second layer of interpretation, sets their conclusions and actions into other contexts to explore the implications of their experience for others.


I met Isabel and Alejandro Torres in the course of another project, 10 years before I conducted this research with their family. I was the director of a nonprofit arts/education agency, and they were the directors of a Mexican folkloric dance group. Over the course of those 10 years, we collaborated on a number of projects and performances for schools and the general public. When I searched for a family for this project, the Torreses agreed to participate in order “to help other parents.”


During one calendar year (summer to summer), I spent over 100 days with the family. Much of the data I gathered through observations in the home, schools, and at the children’s activities outside school. Through the year, I observed Hugo in his new school, but gathered the “back story” to this change through narrative inquiry that included both formal interviews and informal conversations (recorded in fieldnotes) with the parents as we sat together around the kitchen table or drove to the children’s activities. Later in the year, the inquiry included conversations that took place during visits to schools with Isabel as she researched kindergartens for her younger sons. I also conducted formal interviews with Isabel, Alejandro, and Alejandro’s younger brother, Roberto, focusing on their educational biographies.


This article does not include the “school’s side” of this story for several reasons. Throughout the research, I focused more on the perspectives of the children and parents, and this particular piece of the analysis emerged after fieldwork had ended. I also considered the

substantial literature directed at practitioners devoted to telling the schools’ side of parent involvement. These focus on school-centric strategies to involve parents, with little attention to parents’ perspectives. In a kind of balance, this is a story told from the parents’ point of view.


A CURRICULUM DILEMMA FOR THE TORRES FAMILY: THEIR STORY


The Torreses’ decision to move Hugo to a new school evolved over time. Hugo had been in bilingual classes at the local public school for four years, and his parents had considered the change almost every year before they finally transferred him to a nearby parochial school. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) (then and now) used Transitional Bilingual Education as the major mode of working with what are now called “English Language Learners.” In this approach, children begin with subject instruction in their first language, along with English as a Second Language instruction. Over the three years often mandated in such programs, English is gradually used more as the language of subject instruction until the child is, hopefully, ready to succeed in an English-speaking classroom. Since research suggests it can take five to seven years for students to achieve competence in their academic language (Thomas & Collier, 1997), students who transition out of the bilingual program still need language support.


Considering the national controversies over bilingual education, I wanted to understand why Isabel and Alejandro had made this decision. During the summer between Hugo’s second- and third-grade years, when the decision to move him was made final, the issues seemed focused on the language of instruction: Should Hugo be in a Spanish- or English-speaking classroom? Further exploration revealed that language issues were interwoven with the parents’ perceptions of how to prepare their children for success in the United States.


THE NEIGHBORHOOD/SCHOOL CONTEXT


The Torreses’ neighborhood is located in the heart of La Villita/Little Village, a Chicago neighborhood with a majority of Mexican-origin residents. The 1990 census found that Chicago had become home to the third-largest Hispanic population in the U.S.; the Mexican-origin community continued to grow rapidly in the mid-1990s, reaching 27% of the city’s population in the 2000 census (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). In the Torreses’ zip code, 20% of the population was aged between 5 and 17 years, or approximately 21,000 children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).


Their neighborhood was home to hundreds of children, and all the schools were filled to overflowing. The older neighborhood public school, two blocks from their home, occupies an entire city block: A three-story building from the early twentieth century stands next to a more recent playground and a one-story building addition. It has been bursting at the seams for many years, with an enrollment in 1994 of over 1,300 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade (Mead, 1995). In 2004-05, the school had 1,121 students. Even with the newer building, the school could only admit children in kindergarten; older children trying to transfer in (for example, if families moved to the neighborhood) were bussed to other schools with available space. This was not a recent situation. When Alejandro Torres’ family had originally moved to the neighborhood in the late 1980s, his younger brother, Roberto, was in middle school. Roberto was bussed to a less-crowded, predominantly Black school in a nearby neighborhood, where he attended a transitional bilingual program.


Besides the public school, within a four-block radius of the Torres home were two other elementary schools: a Lutheran parochial school, and St. James Roman Catholic School. In addition, a brand new, smaller public elementary school, designed to accommodate 600 students, was being built. When it opened in 1996, it immediately filled to capacity.


HUGO IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL


In 1989, when Hugo Torres was ready for preschool, Alejandro and Isabel Torres enrolled the boy in their neighborhood public school’s preschool program. It was conveniently located two blocks away. During that year, Isabel was pregnant; identical twins Paco and Pedro were born in June as Hugo finished preschool. Hugo continued in kindergarten at the school, while Isabel had her hands full at home caring for two babies, and her husband worked long hours to support the family.


Isabel did not pay much attention to the language of instruction. “I just let it go, in preschool and kindergarten. I didn’t know it was a bilingual school. In first grade, that’s how I realized that he was in a bilingual school,” she said. When asked if the school invited parents to come to school to discuss the children’s activities, she explained, “I don’t remember that, probably they did. Maybe I missed [them].” Considering the challenges of caring for two babies, it seems likely that the infants’ needs overwhelmed everything else on the home front that year. Isabel continued:


After he went to first grade…it was not a bad school. He was in bilingual, and we were undecided [about bilingual classes.] Some people said that the bilingual wasn’t worth it. And...some other teachers said that it was a good program to be in, bilingual. So, we were concerned. I realized it was bilingual, and I went to talk to the person in charge of bilingual, that I wanted him to be in a regular class. [i.e., Isabel tried to have Hugo put in an English-speaking classroom.] And she started to tell me that it was a good program and things like that and...she convinced me. [But when Isabel talked with Alejandro] He didn’t want it, so I told him to go and talk to the lady, because she was in charge of switching over. And he said, ‘Well, let’s see what happens.’ So, we really liked the first [grade] teacher.


[Even before] he started first grade, for some reason we thought that Catholic school, private school, would be better than the public schools. Especially because, you know, every two years they always have strikes. That was probably my main concern…[but at] that time, we were undecided. So, we just put [him] in a public school for the first and second preschool years [i.e., preschool and kindergarten]...But we still had our doubts, and we wanted to transfer him into regular class.


Isabel thus expressed two main concerns that contributed to these parents’ thinking about schooling for Hugo: the threat of strikes in the public schools and concerns about the bilingual program instruction.


Isabel’s concern about strikes was based in the reality of regular teacher strikes that plagued CPS during contract negotiations for many years. Frequent strikes throughout the 1970s and 1980s had created a great deal of uncertainty for students and families. When Hugo entered school in 1989, Chicago’s school reform legislation of 1988 was just being implemented. Many parents were not familiar with the changes that the school system was undergoing, nor was it certain what effect these changes would have. In fact, since the school reform bill passed, there have been no teacher strikes in Chicago. But Isabel and Alejandro had lived in Chicago and attended school there long enough to be familiar with the standing threat of strikes, and indeed, a long and bitter strike in 1987 had been the catalyst for the 1988 school reform legislation. Teacher contracts and the threat of strikes closing schools, arising from the complex political and financial situation of the governance of the Chicago Board of Education, were beyond the power of one family to control.


This lack of stability in CPS’s year-to-year operations was an important reason many families in Chicago chose other alternatives (such as private schools in the city or a move to the suburbs). Thus, the possibility of moving Hugo to the neighborhood parochial school was considered early in Hugo’s schooling and remained present as an option in the family’s thinking, aside from issues of language of instruction.


Language issues, however, were not far away. According to a long-time bilingual education administrator in CPS, when a child enrolled in the Chicago school system, a Home Language Survey was included in the documentation. It asked two questions: “Does your child speak a language other than English?” and “Does anyone in the home speak a language other than English?”


The Torreses’ answer to the question of what language is spoken at home was clearly Spanish. The family lived in an extended family setting in a Chicago “two-flat,” a two-story building with one apartment on each floor and additional space in a converted attic. The building’s eight residents included Alejandro, Isabel, Hugo, 4-year-olds Paco and Pedro, Alejandro’s half-brother Roberto, Alejandro’s mother, Doña Elena, and Doña Elena’s sister. Both older women spoke very limited English, although the younger people were fluent in spoken Spanish and English. Alejandro explained that, “In the house we speak Spanish, out of respect to my mother.” During my visits in the Torres home, Spanish was the primary language of conversation among the family. The adults spoke primarily Spanish among themselves, although Alejandro sometimes switched into English. Hugo spoke only Spanish to his grandmother, primarily Spanish with some English to his parents, and mostly English to his brothers.


The answer to the public school’s question about whether a language other than English was spoken in the home was, of course, yes. According to district policies, if the answer to either of these questions was yes, then a Functional Language Assessment in English would be administered. If the assessment determined that the child was eligible for bilingual education services, a letter had to be sent to the parents explaining the placement. The parents then had the option of refusing the placement, but they were required to sign a statement to that effect. This meant that they refused both native language (i.e., Spanish) and English as a second language instruction, which are combined in the bilingual education program.


In practice, because of the large numbers of students, the CPS administrator noted, testing was not always done in a timely fashion at the beginning of the year. Therefore, it is possible that Hugo’s placement letter was delayed. In addition, bilingual teachers in the system told me that sometimes the fact that a family’s home language was Spanish was interpreted to mean the child was Spanish dominant and should be placed in one of the school’s bilingual classrooms.


When I asked why Isabel and Alejandro had decided to put him in a bilingual classroom, Isabel pointed out, “Well, they didn’t ask me…if I want him in bilingual or regular class…. Maybe they asked me…what language did we speak at home.” The Torreses did not recall any language testing that may have been done to determine Hugo’s language proficiency in Spanish or English.


WHAT ISABEL AND ALEJANDRO REALLY WANTED


Had Isabel and Alejandro clearly understood their choices, they believed they would have requested an English-speaking classroom when Hugo began school. Their belief that he knew enough English to be placed in a “regular” or English-language classroom came from the fact that, as a preschooler, he had been exposed to English as well as Spanish in a variety of ways. At that time, Isabel still worked outside the home, and Hugo was often cared for by his padrinos/godparents, Mexican Americans who spoke relatively little Spanish. Further, as in many Mexican-origin extended families, the boy played primarily with cousins and the older children taught English to the younger ones.


As Hugo progressed in elementary school, Alejandro and Isabel became concerned because Hugo began to come home speaking “bad Spanish.” They began to fear that Hugo was not learning English well and would also lose his native-like Spanish. As a result, in first grade, they tried to have him transferred into an English-speaking classroom, but were unsuccessful.


Then, Hugo entered second grade. Isabel explained:


We tried again [emphasis added] to put him in a regular [i.e., English-speaking] class…. The principal was new at that time, and he said he was gonna make several changes and that the bilingual teachers were going to be selected, people that knew the language, that knew how to pronounce, that knew how to write it and say it correctly. He convinced us to leave him in [a bilingual program classroom for] second grade. If we weren’t satisfied after the second grade, that we could go ahead and transfer him in the regular. Since he was new and he did good things [in the first months], I thought he might really deal with the problem. We [still] saw other teachers that were [teaching in the] bilingual [classrooms], but they didn’t know the language…. After talking with him [the principal], we decided to leave [Hugo] in the second grade [bilingual classroom] and see if he really meant it.


But the teacher wasn’t that great…. Everything [Hugo] knew in first [grade], he did the same thing in second grade. And the teacher sent us some notes in Spanish that were really terrible. So we thought ‘That’s what’s going to happen. He’s going to learn Spanish not really proper. And we didn’t want it to happen…. [When the time came to plan for third grade], they sent us a note that if we weren’t comfortable with the kid going in bilingual to go there [to the school] and talk with the principal. [But] we didn’t go and argue again [emphasis added]. We could afford private school, so that’s what we decided.


Isabel and Alejandro were fundamentally concerned about Hugo’s progress in both languages. They felt that Hugo was not learning English fast enough and believed that an English-only environment would provide better opportunities for him to become fluent. However, what ultimately drove them from the public school was Hugo’s command of Spanish.


THE TORRESES’ BASES FOR DECISION MAKING


PARENTAL GOALS


At the time Alejandro and Isabel moved Hugo to the parochial school, they were very clear about the goals they held for Hugo in the areas of language and culture. He needed to be fluent in both English and in Spanish. The U.S. is Hugo’s native land. His future is here, they said, and it was therefore paramount in their eyes for Hugo to be able to speak English fluently. Part of this concern was that Hugo not face linguistic discrimination. Alejandro was very aware that, although he himself had excellent English skills, he was clearly marked as a non-native speaker by a slight accent and occasional non-native usages. In addition, being identifiable as a “foreigner” or as “Mexican,” by language, appearance, or last name, had not served him well. More than once, Alejandro said, “I want my son to speak English without an accent.”


Equally important, the Torreses wanted Hugo to be able to speak “good” Spanish. They explained that good Spanish would mean that he would sound like a Mexican native speaker of Spanish. Hugo’s grandparents and many other relatives in Mexico spoke little or no English. The Torreses traveled each summer to Mexico to visit Isabel’s large extended family. It was important to his parents that Hugo be able to function as a competent Spanish-speaking member of his transnational family. What language skills this included in the areas of reading and writing were not clearly spelled out, although Alejandro spoke of sending him to school in Mexico to improve his command of Spanish.


PERCEIVED OPTIONS FOR SCHOOLING


Isabel and Alejandro had two main schooling options available in their neighborhood, the public school transitional bilingual program and the de facto English immersion experiences of the local parochial schools. They began with the public school, the system that all the American-educated adult family members had attended. When the Torreses finally realized that Hugo was in a “bilingual” program, they believed that it would teach Hugo both English and good Spanish. When these expectations were not met, defining fluency in English as a critical key to academic achievement, the Torreses chose the English-speaking parochial school. They decided to accept the responsibility to pass on the home language and culture, maintaining Hugo’s Spanish and Mexican sense of self. Alejandro explained, “We can teach him to be Mexican. The school needs to teach [Hugo] what he needs to succeed in the United States.”


In an effort to understand better Isabel and Alejandro’s position, I explained the concept of dual language instruction, in which two languages are used equally throughout the school curriculum, and bilingualism for the students is a major goal. Alejandro and Isabel responded that yes, this was closer to their ideal. They liked the idea that students could learn English (their first goal for Hugo’s schooling) and maintain and enrich their knowledge of Spanish (a life goal for Hugo). Although the dual language concept met the Torreses’ goals more completely, at the time of this research, the only Chicago public schools that used this approach were on the other side of the city and had not been well publicized. These relatively well-informed, English-literate parents did not even know that dual language programs existed. And, had they known, they indicated, they would not have wanted Hugo to ride a bus halfway across the city to attend school.


CONTEXTS OF DECISION MAKING FOR THE TORRESES


BELIEFS ABOUT LANGUAGE LEARNING


In formulating their concerns and beliefs regarding their educational goals for Hugo and in making this decision, Alejandro and Isabel drew primarily on their own experiences along with those of family and friends and perhaps other families in the community. Researchers such as Valdés (1996) have noted that Mexican-origin families see their social networks as a prime source of advice for life decision-making, rather than looking first to “experts” and books as a mainstream family might. The Torreses certainly did not turn to teachers at Hugo’s school nor return to the administrators for further discussion. As Isabel said, “We didn’t want…to argue again [emphasis added].”


Alejandro and Isabel drew on their own English-learning experiences in Chicago public schools in their thinking about language learning. Both had come from Mexico as young teenagers and were placed mostly in English-speaking classrooms. Having experienced English immersion and successfully learned English, this strategy seemed to both the “best” way to learn a second language. Alejandro persisted in this stance, perhaps paradoxically, since he had also participated in one of Chicago’s early, pilot programs in bilingual education and spoke positively about that experience.


The parents also looked to their own educational experiences. In the contexts of their families and communities, both had had advanced schooling opportunities. Unlike their sons, Alejandro and Isabel grew up and attended school in Mexico into middle school. There, they were in a monolingual situation during their formative childhood years. They heard and learned a rich command of their native language, the dominant language of their native country. With strong academic skills and a firm command of one language—oral and written, social and academic¾already mastered, they then learned English.


It may seem paradoxical that the schooling Isabel and Alejandro received in Mexico better prepared them to become bilingual than that of their son growing up in the U.S. Yet, research on second-language acquisition (Collier, 1989; Thomas & Collier, 1997) has concluded that the most important factor in determining success in acquiring a second language at school is the amount of schooling students receive in their native language.


Alejandro noted that he had access to excellent schools in his home city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. There, he proudly said, he attended “the best secundaria [grades 7-9] in northern Mexico.” He attended junior high and high school in Chicago, but due to family circumstances was forced to leave high school. He later completed a GED and one year of college.


Isabel also attended middle school in Chicago, though she moved back and forth to Mexico several times over the course of a few years. She completed a business course in bookkeeping at the high school level in Mexico and worked as a bookkeeper. After the birth of the younger boys, she did not work outside the home. At the time of the study, Alejandro was working full-time as the technical director of the auditorium of a large high school, with additional sideline work as an artist-in-residence teaching Mexican folkloric dance.


Isabel and Alejandro also used their own command of English as a baseline. They both spoke English well enough to communicate verbally, go to school, carry out daily life, and hold jobs in an English-speaking environment. Neither, however, “performed” as a “native speaker” in English. In Spanish, Alejandro was confident of his skills in speaking, reading and writing, and enjoyed translating articles from English into Spanish for friends. His English at the time of the study was more fluent than Isabel’s, but he consulted with me for fine points in choosing words, phrases, and ways of expressing ideas in English at the level that he can accomplish in Spanish. Comparing his command of Spanish to his knowledge of English, he pointed out that he did not always use native-speaker idioms and that he could express himself with more nuance in Spanish.


Both parents said their English was better when they were working in English-speaking environments. After the children were born, Isabel became reimmersed for almost 10 years in the Spanish-speaking environment of home and community, and in our conversations, she often paused to search for a word or phrase in English. She sometimes used Spanish constructions in English and had a stronger accent than Alejandro.


EXPERIENCES OF THE FAMILY


The Torreses also took into account experiences that Alejandro’s half-brother Roberto had had in his public school’s elementary bilingual program. Like Hugo, Roberto was born and raised in the United States, spoke Spanish at home, and first started to learn English from older cousins.


Isabel explained:


[Alejandro] said it was because of bilingual that [Roberto] repeated one year, and he thought that might be the problem. [Roberto] got confused with the language…. I guess [he] got behind because of that. So, I guess we were undecided…. We thought that [Hugo] might be affected with the regular classes after he was transferred to [an English-speaking classroom]. It was the three regular years bilingual—first, second, and third grades, they have them in bilingual and after that they just switch it...I didn’t understand how they’re gonna be able to do everything in English if they don’t [learn English], if they combined both languages. I guess that’s how we thought it might become confused [for Hugo].


The Torreses interpreted Roberto’s experience of being held back a year while in bilingual classes as a result of the program’s instructional practices. They were concerned that Hugo should not lose time in his schooling for similar reasons.


From their accounts, the cause(s) of the problems Hugo and Roberto encountered remained unclear. Their experiences most likely reflect the challenges that schools face in providing high-quality bilingual programs. These include the diversity of the Spanish language, as well as the national shortage of adequately trained bilingual teachers. Chicago has struggled with this problem since bilingual education was instituted. Bilingual teachers who are U.S.-born children of immigrant parents may be English dominant or otherwise speak Spanish in a way that is not completely “native-like,” especially to the ears of more recent immigrants. Some native Spanish speakers may speak a different dialect or version of Spanish that is perceived as “bad Spanish” by children’s parents (and vice versa). Finally, bilingual teachers could be teaching with “provisional certificates” (due to lack of qualified personnel) and be insufficiently prepared as educators or lack full proficiency in either Spanish or English (Dell’Angela, 2001).


Conversations with bilingual educators and administrators at the school seem to have explained the typical sequence of the transitional bilingual program to Isabel. From the standpoint of this program, Hugo may have been placed in the most supportive, appropriate educational environment offered at the school. It seems that the school administrators were trying to keep him in the bilingual program at least through third grade, a common timeframe. Although the school’s perspective is not part of this story, the Torreses’ account seemed to describe educators who were trying to make the best placement available in that school for a child whose first language was not English. Research and experience in bilingual programs have consistently shown that children whose first language is not English and who are growing up in a home where another language is dominant usually need language support in order to learn the academic English necessary for success in school.


Yet the Torreses’ very pertinent questions about how this process worked, questions that they based upon their interpretation of Hugo’s performance in both English and Spanish as inadequate, seem not to have been adequately addressed. The rationale, program content and sequence never made complete sense to Alejandro or Isabel when she compared it with the instruction that the students seemed actually to be receiving. “How can children learn enough English in three years, if Spanish is the main language of instruction?” she asked. “Wouldn’t ‘total immersion’ in English be a better and faster method of instruction?” Yet, Isabel’s fundamental questions about the program were not addressed or at least not answered to her satisfaction. Efforts by school faculty and the principal to persuade the parents to leave Hugo in the bilingual program influenced the family to leave Hugo in the neighborhood school bilingual program for four years (including the two years preceding first grade), but seemingly did not directly address their questions. Hence, Alejandro and Isabel continued to have doubts.


COMMUNICATION FAILURE WITH THE SCHOOL


Finally, the Torreses may have left the public school in part because they were tired of frustrating communications with school personnel about the best placement for their children and being continually disappointed in the outcome of these discussions for their child. It seemed to be, in part, the “hassle factor.” When Hugo started first grade, Isabel went to the school and asked for him to be placed in an English-speaking classroom. The teacher apparently persuaded her to leave him in a bilingual first grade. When Alejandro found out about Isabel’s discussion with the school, he still wanted to change Hugo’s class. However, Isabel did not want to go back. She told Alejandro to go talk to the school again, but he did not go.


When Hugo started second grade, Isabel and Alejandro asked, again, to have Hugo put in an English-speaking classroom. A new principal persuaded them to give him a chance to make improvements. They agreed to give the new principal a chance. As second grade unfolded, once again the Torreses were disappointed with the teacher’s “bad Spanish” and low-level curriculum. Still unhappy, when it seemed that they would have to struggle again the next year to have him placed in a English-speaking third grade, they just decided to “vote with their feet” and leave the school altogether.


Another factor in their decision was that Isabel and Alejandro could afford the modest parochial school tuition. (Parochial schools in Chicago provide a lower-cost private school alternative to high-tuition secular schools.) Their perception of the parochial school as a somewhat more stable environment compared to the political storms that had long shaken the public schools was a plus for them as well. They placed Hugo in a religious context with which they were comfortable, joining many other CPS parents in voting with their feet.


HUGO AT PAROCHIAL SCHOOL: ENGLISH IMMERSION


Hugo’s new classroom illustrated another facet of this complex dilemma in the education of immigrant children—what happens to second language learners in English-immersion classrooms. With 89% of second language learners not enrolled in any kind of bilingual program, this was the default situation for thousands of students across the nation at the time of the study. More recent attacks on bilingual education have further decreased the number of such programs.


Once at St. James, Hugo’s experiences illustrated how an “English-speaking classroom” may be such in name only. Research suggests that important elements of second language acquisition include native-speaker peers who provide the opportunity to learn age-appropriate language, teachers prepared to work with second language learners, and materials designed for their needs. The only native speakers of English in the school were the teachers. Hugo’s new classmates were immigrants or the children of immigrants, considered to be English-speaking but in reality what are currently termed “English language learners.” Most were not able to fully function at academic grade level. Classroom instruction was primarily teacher-centered, based on texts and workbooks prepared for native-speakers, using low-context instruction. Students had little opportunity to practice new language skills.


Hugo himself struggled with the use of academic English, although over the year he progressed to the highest reading group. Word problems in arithmetic, an “innovation” for native-speaker students, made the subject more difficult for Hugo and his classmates. At year’s end, however, his parents were satisfied with the classroom instruction and his academic progress.


At the same time, Isabel and Alejandro discovered an unintended consequence of the change. During the year, it became clear that Hugo’s English was improving, but at a cost to his command of Spanish. These concerned and thoughtful parents had not anticipated that the school context might contribute to, even hasten, Hugo’s loss of Spanish; they were not aware of all the barriers that existed to Hugo’s continuing to learn good Spanish at age-appropriate levels. No resources existed in the community to aid the family in reinforcing the language outside of school. Over the years, as we stayed in touch, Alejandro seemed increasingly resigned to Hugo’s “bad Spanish.”


Drawing on their own educational experiences in two languages and two countries, Alejandro and Isabel expected English immersion would help Hugo develop bilingually. Yet, as a child born in the U.S. of immigrant parents, Hugo’s language-learning environment differed in important ways from that of his parents. Like his uncle, Roberto, Hugo was exposed to two languages from infancy. In addition, when one language is that of the dominant society, and the other that of a subordinate community in the society, the children internalize pressures to favor the dominant language (Wong Fillmore, 1991).


ENGAGING PARENTS: DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY AND PROCEDURE


The diversity of perspectives, experiences, beliefs, and efforts of urban parents, including immigrants, to educate their children under often enormously difficult circumstances is rarely heard. One of the main reasons the Torreses gave for participating in this research was “to help other parents.” Their story shows how one family negotiated its way through a maze of important educational decisions using their own cultural capital and resources. It illustrates the argument that immigrant and other urban parents may be engaged in their children’s education, asking important and valid curriculum questions, yet efforts at communication with the school may fail to address their concerns sufficiently.


Alejandro and Isabel were active agents in making an important educational decision about their son’s schooling. They formulated educational goals for Hugo, in this case, central to their position as an immigrant family. They gathered information from several different sources and considered what options were available to them. They posed excellent curriculum questions about the efficacy of the bilingual program, based on their assessment of Hugo’s learning experiences. Yet, although they took the advice of teachers and administrators to leave Hugo in the bilingual classroom through second grade, the Torreses still did not feel that a conversation had taken place, that their questions had been addressed. This frustration contributed to their ultimate decision to transfer Hugo.


Difficulty in communication between parents and schools is a structural problem in U.S. education (Cutler, 2000; de Carvalho, 2001; Getzels, 1974; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1978, Valdés, 1996). Expectations for the roles and responsibilities in educating children of both families and schools have been continuously debated and negotiated since common schools were established. The notion of authentic dialogue or collaborative problem solving including both schools and parents is still contentious. While there are emerging efforts to develop “partnerships” with parents, many districts and schools still are unprepared to work collaboratively with parents, even though schools that do often experience welcome benefits. Teacher education programs do not always prepare preservice teachers to work effectively with parents, and district in-services on this topic often draw on theories that stress the deficits of families.


The issue is especially problematic for working-class and low-income families. While middle-class parents may have communication problems with schools, they are much more likely to share schools’ expectations regarding parents’ role in educating their children, accepting the schools’ desire that the parents will “work with their children at home” on academic skills. Teachers value family expectations and behaviors in which parents are adjunct academic teachers, teaching letters and colors and preliteracy skills, helping children with their homework. These families are more appreciated by the school and are seen as “caring about education.” By contrast, families who do not do these things may be characterized as not caring about education and being unwilling to help them at home (Valdés, 1996). The strengths of these Mexican-origin families often remain invisible to schools.


Many low-income urban families may hold expectations of family responsibilities for “supporting their children’s education” and supporting their schools and teachers that differ significantly from those of the school. Like native-born working-class and low-income parents, immigrant parents often share the expectation that the school carries the responsibility for teaching the child academic knowledge; the parents’ responsibility is to send the child to school “ready to learn.” To them, this may mean that children are healthy, clothed, fed, and ready to behave appropriately (Lareau, 1989, 2003; Valdés, 1996). Since such families may not show how much they care about education in ways that schools expect, teachers do not always respect the excellent care and support for schooling these families often do provide their children.


Such attitudes are deeply part of the culture of urban schools, formed during the great immigrations of the late nineteenth century in part to “Americanize” immigrant students. City schools emerged, partly in the process of progressive urban reforms of many kinds, using a professionally directed approach to education. This contrasted with the original model of common schools, where “local control,” in the sense of control by parents and other community members with social and personal ties to the children being educated, was a reality. Schools for urban immigrant and migrant children provided an opportunity for a new class of educated pedagogues to take control of designing and implementing education that would assimilate children into the American mainstream, or at least enable them to function as workers in the burgeoning industries of the times (Handlin, 1982). In a diverse urban setting, where many of the groups in the lowest socioeconomic situations had little political power, schools were cut off from direct control by parents and communities (Tozer, Violas, & Senese, 1995). In fact, the “discouraging and managerial attitude of many school principals” was identified by a sociologist of the time as “the reason ‘why there are not more parents’ associations,’” for principals “feared…the loss of their prerogatives and resented parents who butted into school business” (Tyack, 1974, p. 237). This same struggle over the appropriate forms of parental engagement in urban schools is seen in the most recent national waves of school reform.


Yet, individual parents are concerned most about the education of a particular child, at a particular time and place. Parents approach the school on a purely personal basis to address the needs of their child. This may include whether the child is receiving educational experiences appropriate to that child. They look to the school to provide those experiences. However, urban parents who look to the school to impart skills and knowledge that will help their children succeed in American society may be deeply disappointed.


The Torreses’ experience raises the issue of parents’ translating life goals for their children into curriculum goals. Isabel and Alejandro first expected that the school would educate Hugo to become fluently bilingual, speaking native-like Spanish and English. On one level, they did not understand the nature of a transitional bilingual program. The use of the term “bilingual” in such programs may be misleading. The goal of Transitional Bilingual Education is not to support the students toward fluent bilingualism, but to maintain their learning in subject matter while learning English. The result has been called “serial monolingualism,” or “subtractive schooling” (Valenzuela, 1999). From this perspective, the quality of the teacher’s Spanish was not the most urgent issue, but whether or not the children could understand and learn subject matter from the teacher. An underlying conflict, then, was that the goal of bilingualism the Torreses had in mind was not the goal of the program.


Also surrounding Hugo’s schooling were the wider structural barriers to becoming fully bilingual when one language is socially and culturally dominant and the home language is seen as of lesser value by the larger society. These issues are daunting but often invisible to immigrant families. These barriers are enacted in schools where English language acquisition services, of whatever kind, are often underfunded and under-resourced, contributing to the kinds of problems Isabel and Alejandro identified at Hugo’s school.


The continuing national debate on the best way to educate the children of immigrants is not new; it is part of a national discourse on cultural pluralism dating back to the eighteenth century that has repeatedly represented “being American” as “speaking English.” Claims that immigrants “do not want to learn English” are patently incorrect (Tse, 2001; Valencia & Black, 2002); what they seek is for their children to learn English. This is very clear in the Torreses’ search for a school where Hugo would learn English well. Parents know that their children must speak English. Many parents also share the hope that their children will become fluent bilinguals. Yet, the policy debate has recently resulted in gutting even transitional bilingual education programs in California and Arizona, two states with large immigrant populations.


Thus, bilingualism itself as a life goal, a curriculum goal for the children of immigrants is both a contested site and a site of great promise in educational policy and practice. Families’ desires for their children to be fluently bilingual and bicultural coincide with a national need in the age of globalization for bilingual individuals whose skills are increasingly necessary as international interdependence increases. In addition to being a potential resource for the nation, encouraging children to lose the ability to communicate richly with their parents, grandparents, and other community members is bad social policy. It is difficult enough for families to negotiate generational differences, as well as the cultural and social changes that come with immigration and adaptation to a new society, without losing their common language.


The Torreses’ choice of an English-speaking school for Hugo, however, may also seem to echo claims that immigrant parents want English immersion for their children. A major curricular problem with the English immersion experience of the parochial school was that the only native speaker of English in the classroom was the teacher. Since language learners need rich language experiences in order to learn the new language, Hugo’s classroom was not even an adequate English immersion experience. He could not learn age-appropriate language from native-speaker peers, and the teacher did not know how to adapt the curriculum to make content comprehensible to second language learners.


Due to limited choices among urban schools, parents’ decisions may be in reaction to, not in favor of, school offerings. For Isabel and Alejandro, choosing an English immersion option reflected only their understanding that Hugo must speak English; it did not reflect their concern that he maintain and develop his first language as well. Yet, it turned out that neither school option offered what they really wanted for their son. Making choices among limited options may contribute to a state of affairs where parents’ real concerns are marginalized, almost invisible. Families such as the Torreses who believe that their educational choices for their children are either English immersion or some version of bilingual may choose English immersion. Larger forces seeking to undercut bilingual education use the very desire of parents that their children learn English to end other options that might better serve these children.


As the Torreses carefully worked through this curriculum dilemma, they used a Mexican cultural model for their decision-making. They drew on their own experiences and those of their extended family. These collective experiences provided skills to negotiate the U.S. educational system and economy and to ask important questions about their son’s schooling. Their curriculum questions were reasonable: Why are people whose Spanish [to their ears] was not fluent teaching children in Spanish? Why is English immersion not a better approach? Communication with teachers and administrators always seemed problematic. The Torreses sought to make meaning from these experiences, to come to understandings that could guide their choices for Hugo.


CONCLUSION


Using the notions of agency and engagement as lenses through which to view parents’ perspectives and actions supports the conceptualization of families as sources of promise and strength in urban schooling and undercuts the argument presented by educators that urban parents do not care about education. If many urban parents do care about education and do take on active engagement in their children’s education, albeit invisible to the school, what lessons can we learn? Isabel and Alejandro exemplify parents enacting van Manen’s concept of pedagogical thoughtfulness in raising their child. Their thoughtfulness, reflection, efforts to work with the school, and consideration of the options available to them, demonstrate their active engagement and agency in addressing a curriculum dilemma that meant a great deal to this family.


At a policy and practice level, it is necessary to support efforts that will foster a new sense of respect for parents upon which to build innovative avenues of dialogue and partnership. Universities, government agencies, districts, and schools all need to employ theoretical frameworks based on a view of parents stressing their role as strong, positive, and active agents on behalf of their children.


This proposal is not exactly new. The work of such scholars as Valdés (1996, 1998), Valencia and Black (2002), and Lawrence-Lightfoot (1978, 2000) has made similar suggestions. The emergence of programs using collaboration and dialogue with parents indicates efforts in this direction, and hopeful practices are being found successful. The efforts of Alejandro and Isabel offer another lens through which to view the promise and possibility of such frameworks, as a rich example of parents as positive and thoughtful agents on behalf of their child. Yet, the slowness with which such proposals are being accepted and implemented in educational policy and practice indicate this is an issue that requires continued attention and work. Important questions to address include deeper examination of the ways in which challenges and barriers to creating and implementing frameworks of promise are enacted in schools.


The path of policy and practice for parents considered incompetent to guide their children’s schooling has largely been one of “parent education” and one-way communication, in efforts to redress this deficit. Such perspectives do not foster respect as an element in educators’ attitudes toward urban families. Further qualitative research in particular can provide needed depth in our understanding of parents’ struggles to guide their children through the increasingly complex maze of school, to negotiate the boundaries of culture, history and biography: What are parents’ experiences and expectations of their children’s schools? How can parents’ voices be more effectively engaged in the schooling of their children? How can the resources of parents and communities be used as strengths for the larger society in creating self-supporting, contributing citizens? Exploring these questions further, using paradigms that respect families’ strengths and agency, can help guide us towards ways of working more productively with students who are still being left behind.


Acknowledgments


The author would like to thank the Torreses’ extended family for their hospitality and collaboration in this project, and for their continued friendship. They graciously shared their family and community worlds, and provided a foundation for my continued learning over the years since.


The author would also like to particularly thank the anonymous reviewer whose insightful and encouraging comments helped me refine and shape the argument.


This research was originally conducted as part of a doctoral dissertation, supported in part by a University Fellowship from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Fellowship from the Center for Urban Education Research and Development, University of Illinois at Chicago. The analysis has been expanded.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 12, 2010, p. 3074-3101
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16059, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 1:58:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Margy McClain

    E-mail Author
    MARGY MCCLAIN is an independent scholar affiliated with the Oklahoma City Public Schools. She has also served as faculty member at several midwestern universities in the fields of social foundations of education and qualitative research, teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Her research interests include relationships between parents and schools, education in the “new Latino diaspora,” and parents’ life histories and their impact on their children’s education, especially in families from Mexico and Guatemala. A current project focuses on young English Language Learners (ELLs) acquiring spoken English while they are learning to read. Placing ELLs in regular classrooms with only supplementary English language development instruction is a widely used approach. What is the experience of young children who must simultaneously acquire listening and reading comprehension in a second language? Does this educational experience prepare them for success in US schooling? Recent articles include “The New Latino Diaspora and Education” in The Praeger Handbook of Latino Education in the U.S. (edited by Lourdes Diaz Soto).
 
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