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Bringing High Stakes From the Classroom to the Parent Center: Lessons From an Intervention Program for Immigrant Families

by Susan Auerbach & Shartriya Collier - 2012

Background/Context: As accountability pressures have mounted toward ever-higher targets under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, low-achieving schools have sought new tools for raising achievement. The association between parent involvement and student achievement is well established, though the association is an indirect relationship mediated by other variables. Schools have sponsored a variety of parent education programs attempting to influence achievement; evidence on their results is mixed. Among the most popular efforts at the elementary school level are family literacy programs, which generally take an intervention-preventive approach that aims to supplant home literacy practices with school-based norms and practices. The Families Promoting Success (FPS) program was an intervention that trained parents in reading skills to improve student test scores in schools that had not met targets under NCLB. This series of workshops was unusual for specifically targeting families of low-scoring students and for focusing on tested word analysis skills. One of the few empirical examinations of the intersection of parent involvement and NCLB, this study shows how parent programs mirror broader forces in urban schooling and how the high-stakes climate affects home-school relations.

Purpose/Focus: The purpose of this study was to investigate what happens when low-performing urban schools bring high-stakes accountability pressures to parent programs, to shed light on possible new directions in family engagement. How do educators and immigrant parents make meaning of a parent education program geared to accountability goals? The study examined processes, interactions, and meanings related to FPSís design, implementation, and perceived outcomes for families and educators and considered alternative approaches to parent engagement suggested by the findings.

Research Design: This multiple case study used mainly qualitative methods to examine the FPS program at four low-performing Los Angeles elementary schools with predominantly low-income, Latino, English learner populations and immigrant parents. Data sources included staff interviews, bilingual parent focus groups, and extensive observations of program workshops and planning meetings, supplemented by a parent questionnaire and document review. This study was part of a larger investigation that examined the programís influence on student achievement.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Findings suggest that staff designed a narrow, test-driven parent curriculum to address accountability pressures without considering parentsí needs or concerns. The program represented an intensification in parent education that parallels the intensification in student instruction under accountability-driven reform. Though the program was well-intended and made parents more aware of testing and reading skills, related research showed that the program did not influence student achievement. Instead, parents and staff described various benefits on intangible aspects of family and school-family relationships. These unintended consequences suggest the pitfalls of imposing high-stakes pressures, school agendas, and interventionist approaches on parents, as well as the promise of finding common ground and the need for relationship building with marginalized families.

As accountability pressures have mounted toward ever-higher targets under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, low-achieving schools have sought new tools for raising achievement. Families Promoting Success (FPS), a series of workshops to train parents to help their children with reading, was created by the Parent Unit of Local District X of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in 2007 to improve test scores in low-performing schools.1 The program was unusual for specifically targeting families of low-scoring students and for focusing tightly on word analysis skills. This qualitative case study, part of a larger investigation of the program (Auerbach, Yi, & Collier, 2010), explored what happens when schools bring high-stakes pressures to parent education programs with immigrant families.2 As an intervention for parents, FPS represented an intensification in parent education that parallels the intensification in classroom instruction under standards-based, accountability-driven reform. Though the program was intended to improve student achievement, parents and staff agreed that the main effects of the program were on intangible aspects of family and school-family relationships. We argue that these unintended consequences suggest the limitations of a relentless focus on achievement in parent programs, the need for relationship building as a first step in outreach, and the pitfalls of imposing high-stakes pressures, school agendas, and interventionist approaches on marginalized populations. As one of few empirical examinations of the intersection of NCLB and parent involvement, this study shows how parent programs mirror broader forces in urban schooling and how the high-stakes accountability climate affects home-school relations.



The association between parent involvement and student achievement is well established, though the association is an indirect relationship mediated by other variables (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Jeynes, 2005; Jordan, Orozco, & Averett, 2002). Parents—especially lower socioeconomic status (SES) parents of color—are more likely to be involved when schools and teachers invite the parents’ participation and support it in culturally responsive ways (Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Epstein, 1990; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). Yet schools typically do not develop comprehensive parent programs to address achievement, and researchers have not determined precisely which parent involvement strategies are most effective (Baker & Soden, 1998; Epstein & Sanders, 2006; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 2001). Many parent activities are social events disconnected from learning or formal occasions in which parents and educators encounter one another as “polite strangers” (Henderson et al., 2007; Pushor, 2010).


The National Center for Educational Statistics compiles national data on parent involvement indicators such as participation in parent-teacher conferences, school events, and volunteering but does not track the prevalence or nature of parent programs. Parent education programs related to academics are typically devised by individual schools; organized by districts, such as Miami-Dade County’s Parent Academy; or sponsored by nonprofit organizations, such as Families in Schools or the Home and School Institute, or school-university partnerships, such as UCLA’s Parent Curriculum Project.3 Thus, these programs vary widely in focus and approach. For example, reading-related parent programs deemed exemplary by the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) tend to be fun, interactive celebrations of children’s literature (NNPS, 2008) in contrast to the skills-centered FPS workshops that this paper describes. Among the most common academic parent programs in urban elementary schools are family literacy programs (see below) or one-time workshops such as Family Math Night that introduce parents to the curriculum and ways to reinforce it at home. These programs are typically offered school-wide or by grade level to all interested parents rather than to a targeted group.

The evidence is mixed on the impact of parent programs on student achievement, with reviews not differentiating between academic and nonacademic programs. A review of 41 evaluations of K–12 programs with mostly at-risk populations found little evidence of achievement gains and called for more rigorous study, as well as more demographic information on participants, to gauge program effectiveness (Mattingly, Prislin, McKenzie, Rodriguez, & Kayzar, 2002). Conversely, Jeynes’s (2005) meta-analysis found a significant positive association between parent involvement programs and the achievement of urban elementary students, although the association was stronger between achievement and parent expectations or between achievement and parents’ reading with their children at home rather than with participation in programs per se. Pomerantz, Moorman, and Litwach (2007) stressed that even when there are no immediate effects on achievement, certain types of parent involvement benefit children’s mental health; this, in turn, affects learning. For example, the authors demonstrated the positive effects of parents’ autonomy support, which encourages students to solve problems by themselves, and of a process orientation focused on effort and mastery. The authors warned against pressuring parents on student performance because this harms positive affect between parent and child. These studies suggest that home-based involvement may have greater influence on student academic success than parents’ visibility at school. This understanding has implications for educators’ perceptions of parents’ involvement, as we will discuss later.

In addition to the aim of raising achievement, other common goals of academic parent education in urban schools are to raise parent awareness of the educational system, promote home-school communication, and encourage college planning. For example, the nine-workshop series for immigrant parents by the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) focuses on general knowledge of American schools and the need for parent involvement rather than on specific academic skills. One of the largest parent education programs in the United States, PIQE has trained more than 470,000 parents in five states since 1987, including many Los Angeles–area schools. Chrispeels and Rivero (2001) and Chrispeels and Gonzalez (2004) found that PIQE participation led to changes in parenting style, parent contacts with the school, and home literacy activities, with families establishing reading routines and taking on a more active role in their children’s education. The authors cautioned that short-term programs are more likely to affect awareness of the school and of involvement options than to establish new patterns of behavior.

Critical scholars suggest that parent programs in urban schools should also help families navigate the school system; encourage parent voice, leadership, and advocacy; and provide networking opportunities to enhance family social and cultural capital (see, e.g., Auerbach, 2004; Bolivar & Chrispeels, 2008; Fine, 1993; Olivos, 2006; Pushor, 2010). Marginalized parents who are not traditionally involved in school activities are more likely to absorb complex information when they are personally and emotionally engaged, hearing information from people who look like them and validate their culture (Auerbach, 2004; De Gaetano, 2007). Educators need to recognize that parents come to school with educational orientations—values, goals, and beliefs about their role—that may be a match or mismatch with school culture (Cooper & Christie, 2005; Diamond & Gomez, 2004). For example, Latino families in the Scribner, Young, and Pedroza (1999) study took a more holistic view of education than teachers, valuing involvement in informal activities at home for students’ overall well-being rather than formal activities at school focused on achievement. This fits with the traditional Latino immigrant ethos of educación (moral training, respectful behavior), in which parents stress moral and emotional support for learning behind the scenes in ways invisible to the school (Auerbach, 2006; Valdés, 1996).


Family literacy programs have been widespread since the 1980s, most notably at the preschool–second-grade level as part of federal Head Start and Even Start programs. These programs typically model enjoyable literacy experiences by bringing families together to read aloud, discuss stories, and create books or book-related art projects (Paratore, 2004). The programs are grounded in evidence that engaging in literacy activities at home improves young students’ reading acquisition (Dail & Payne, 2010; National Human Services Assembly, 2007; Senechal & Young, 2008). In one review, programs that taught parents how to tutor their children in specific literacy skills were twice as effective in improving student reading than those that simply taught parents to listen to their children read (Senechal & Young, 2008). Among the other benefits of family literacy programs are improvements in parents’ understanding of instruction, access to materials, home-school communication, and family self-efficacy (National Human Services Assembly, 2007).

Family literacy programs are controversial among some scholars for taking a deficit approach to “fixing” what is assumed to be lacking in the homes of poor, minority, and immigrant parents and privileging school-based literacy (Auerbach, 1995; Rodriguez-Brown, 2004). When such programs are “familial and culturally competent,” they encourage “practices that fit into their family routines” (Dail & Payne, 2010, p. 332). However, Dudley-Marling (2009) found that African American and immigrant parents felt school directives for family literacy were disrespectful and insensitive to their needs. He proposed that “school-to-home practices considerate of the cultural and material lives of families must be informed by the experiences and perceptions of parents” (p. 1745).

Family literacy approaches in LAUSD in the current high-stakes climate are oriented less toward cultural bridging and more toward external mandates. For many years, Local District X parent centers in Los Angeles offered a family literacy program called Family Storytime with a focus on promoting a love of books and shared family reading. Recently, district leaders came to see parent involvement chiefly as academic training to help raise student achievement (Auerbach, 2007b). This singular focus was an artifact of accountability pressures under NCLB, parallel to the district’s increased attention to teacher professional development in instructional strategies. Parent training around reading became more “sophisticated,” according to a former District X superintendent: “We now offer workshops on the most frequent vocabulary words your child will encounter so that you can help that child learn those words” (Auerbach, 2007b). High Frequency Words workshops later provided a template for FPS. The program’s design indicates a tendency to bring high stakes from the classroom to the parent center.


Educators have been concerned with the dangers of high-stakes testing, especially in poor communities and among populations such as English learners who face greater pressure to improve performance under NCLB (Menken, 2006). Under the law, teachers paid more attention to testing in urban schools and exposed urban students to intensive test drills at the expense of authentic learning (Firestone, Schorr, & Monfils, 2004; Wood, 2004). Overreliance on tests may undermine not only quality instruction but also the intent of assessment as a tool for improving instruction. With hundreds of state content standards, no single test can measure what students have been taught; rather, many believe that high-stakes tests measure what children bring to school, such as family SES (Popham, 2009). Thus, any program driven by standardized tests should be viewed with caution.

It is unclear how accountability under NCLB has affected parent involvement and parent programs. Tollefson (2008) contended that, in the current climate, “the common-sense understanding of ‘parent involvement’ has been politically constructed around the ultimate value of individual student achievement,” (p. 171) with parents positioned instrumentally as “the means to an end that they did not author” (p. 146). The rhetoric of involvement increasingly reflects the accountability movement’s singular focus on achievement, as in a textbook’s call for “outcomes-based school-community partnerships” with “high impact strategies” (Crowson, Goldring, & Haynes, 2010). Similarly, there is a new emphasis on training parents to understand student data in programs and resources of the Harvard Family Research Project and the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, which currently receive funding under NCLB.4

Little-known provisions of NCLB’s Section 1118 required schools to work with parents on devising parent involvement plans, school-family compacts, two-way communication, and a variety of parent activities to improve student achievement. Henderson et al. (2007) urged schools to capitalize on these mandates as opportunities for expanded partnerships. However, the law’s parent involvement provisions have been neglected or only superficially enforced (Rogers, 2006), and there are indications that parents as well as educators feel disempowered by its top-down imposition (Stanik, 2007; Tollefson, 2008). The legislation funded state Parental Information and Resource Centers to provide technical assistance for NCLB’s parent involvement requirements and public relations about the law as part of promoting policies and programs leading to improved achievement (WestEd, 2007). Few published studies about the centers’ efforts or parent programs prompted by NCLB have been published.

The present study breaks new ground in examining the intersection of parent involvement and accountability through a parent education program that was a direct response to NCLB pressures on Program Improvement schools that failed to meet test score targets. This study shines a light not only on how high-stakes accountability may be reshaping parent programs and notions of parent involvement but also on how the broader social and political context of urban education affects families and home-school relations.


This paper is informed by sociocultural perspectives on family literacy and critical perspectives on family engagement. Children benefit from diverse forms of literacy and funds of knowledge beyond the classroom (Auerbach, 1995; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Families from nondominant groups should be understood as “differently literate” rather than deficient (Dudley-Marling, 2009). Family literacy programs should recognize and build upon, not supplant, family values and practices (Dail & Payne, 2010; Rodriguez-Brown, 2004). Parents are a key influence not only on discrete literacy skills but also on the worldview and attitudes that are part of the multifaceted nature of literacy as a social practice (Dail & Payne, 2010). Yet some programs devalue home literacy and make school-based literacy norms the standard for all (Prins & Toso, 2008)—a long-standing approach that predates the current high-stakes climate.

The intervention-prevention approach in Elsa Auerbach’s (1995) framework is most common for family literacy programs. This approach aims to change home literacy practices, viewing parent behaviors (such as presumed lack of time to help children with reading) as the problem and school-based literacy practices as the solution, particularly in poor, immigrant, or minority communities. Alternatives in the framework to this deficit-based perspective on parents are the multiple-literacies approach, which validates home culture and educators learning from families while teaching parents school-based literacy, and the social change approach, which empowers parents to transform school policies. Instead of simply telling parents how to read, for example, educators could learn about what parents do at home and what support they would like from the school (Dudley-Marling, 2009).

The intervention-prevention approach to family literacy is comparable to traditional deficit-based approaches to parent involvement. The traditional discourse on involvement frames immigrant and poor parents as objects rather than subjects, “empty vessels” in need of the training the school provides (Lightfoot, 2004). Families are positioned as the passive recipients of information from educators in Swap’s (1993) “school-to-home transmission” model of home-school interactions, as seen in many parent programs. Similarly, Ordoñez-Jasis and Jasis (2004) contrasted the widespread service approach, in which schools provide information and social or health services to families, to an empowerment approach, in which parents collaborate in developing programs to meet their own needs. While Epstein’s (1990) influential school-family partnerships model is a great improvement on the transmission or service model, her model tends to privilege White, middle-class norms and school agendas while downplaying issues of power, advocacy, and culture (Cooper, 2009; Graue & Hawkins, 2010; López & Stoelting, 2010).

Critical perspectives on family engagement, by contrast, view it as influenced by race, class, gender, culture, and language, with home-school interactions reflecting social inequalities and power imbalances (e.g., Fine, 1993; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Olivos, 2006; Pérez Carreón, Drake, & Barton, 2005). Educators may be unaware of marginalized parents’ aspirations, their “invisible strategies” for supporting children’s education, and goals for their own involvement and learning (Auerbach, 2007a; Cooper & Christie, 2005; Lopez & Stoelting, 2010). Rather than seeking to understand home practices and “allow[ing] parent life experience and culture to inform schools’ cultural worlds,” educators see immigrant parents through deficit lenses as “subjects to be manipulated” (Pérez Carreón et al., 2005, pp. 494, 468).

Alternative models of family engagement call for disrupting “taken-for-granted practices” with parents in schools (Pushor, 2010). For example, Delgado-Gaitan’s (1994) empowerment model posits shared power between home and school, two-way influence, and mutual accommodation based on dialogue. Similarly, Rosenberg, Lopez, and Westmoreland (2009) stressed “co-constructed roles” for families and educators and opportunities for learning from one another. Most relevant here, Warren, Hong, Rubin, and Uy (2009) proposed a “relational approach” to parent involvement that, rather than imposing school agendas, “engages parents around their own interests and values and respects their contributions” (p. 2243). In these authors’ view, the building of relationships with and among families is foundational to family engagement and the first step in collective action toward school improvement. Likewise, authentic school-family partnerships may be seen as respectful alliances grounded in relationship building, dialogue, and power-sharing as part of socially just, democratic schools (Auerbach, 2010).

We bring together these critical models of family engagement and family literacy to examine how participants made meaning of the FPS program. How did an intervention-prevention approach to planning and implementing FPS shape its impact as understood by participants? How did educators view the program, and to what extent did it reflect or alter their views of family engagement? How might initiatives such as FPS benefit from more of a multiple-literacies approach to reading and a relational approach to parent involvement?


What happens when low-performing urban schools bring high-stakes pressures to parent programs? Specifically, how do educators and parents make meaning of a parent education program geared toward accountability goals? This multiple-case study used mainly qualitative methods to address these questions, focusing on processes, interactions, and meanings related to the program’s design, implementation, and perceived outcomes (Rossman & Rallis, 2003).


The study was conducted in Local District X, a division of the Los Angeles Unified School District with about 90,000 students that was known for its history of parent outreach (Auerbach, 2007b). Four District X elementary schools (Turner, Gabriel, Wilson, and Eliot) with similar demographics and Program Improvement status (failing to meet targets under No Child Left Behind) were selected from 15 that offered the FPS program in 2009. Students at the four schools were predominantly low-income, Latino/a English learners eligible for free or reduced lunch. All schools had an Academic Performance Index (API) state rank of 2 out of a possible 10, with API 2008 Growth scores between 680 and 730 (well short of the state target of 800). About 27% to 34% of students (19% to 27% of English learners) scored proficient or above in English Language Arts on the California Standards Test (CST) in 2008.

Each school developed its own version of the program based on the local district’s framework and materials (see Table 1). Three schools targeted parents of low-achieving third graders; one targeted parents of struggling first and second graders. Workshops in Spanish or Spanish and English were held on Saturdays, weeknights, or weekday mornings for about 90 minutes each for 6 to 8 weeks. The main presenters were the schools’ literacy coaches5 with the principal presenting at the first workshop. Attendance ranged from 10 to 45 participants per meeting, including third graders at Turner; adults present were mostly Latina immigrant mothers with a few fathers and grandparents, including 1 African American grandmother. Two schools had childcare, three had refreshments, and all had weekly reminder calls, bilingual materials, and culminating celebrations.

Table 1. FPS Program Sites and Arrangements


Turner Elem.

Gabriel Elem.

Wilson Elem.

Eliot Elem.



Weekday eve, 7 @ 1.5 hours each (with child care)

Weekday a.m., 8 @ 1.5 hours each

Weekday a.m., 6 @ 75 min. each

Saturday a.m., 7 @ 3 hours each (with child care)

Target audience

Parents and students: 3rd graders scoring Basic (B), Below Basic (BB), Far Below Basic (FBB) on CST (80 families)

Parents of 3rd graders scoring BB, FBB

(32 families)

Parents of 3rd graders scoring B, BB, FBB

(70 families)

Parents of 1st and 2nd graders below grade level on Open Court assessments

(60 families)


at workshop

15–30 parents + 15–30 students

8–12 parents

8–12 parents

20–25 parents

Language of workshops

Spanish and English

Mostly Spanish

English & Spanish

Spanish only

Study participants included a convenience sample of about 80 mostly Latino/a immigrant parents who attended the workshops across the sites and a purposeful sample of 14 school and district staff who were chosen because they were directly involved in planning or presenting the workshops. Among parents surveyed, 43% had fewer than 10 years of schooling, and 65% spoke mostly Spanish at home. Staff participants (9 Latinas, 4 Whites, and 1 African American) included 4 principals, 1 assistant principal, 1 Title I coordinator, 5 literacy coaches, 1 parent center director, and 2 staff from the local district Parent Unit.


Data were drawn from 80 hours of fieldwork, including 12 interviews of 1 to 2 hours each with 14 administrators and staff after the end of each workshop series; seven parent focus groups conducted in Spanish (six) and English (one) just before the final workshop in each series; and 35 observations of planning meetings and parent workshops across the four sites. Additional data came from a bilingual parent survey with 20 closed-response items on family demographics, parent involvement practices, perceived program impact, and content comprehension, with the latter designed in consultation with FPS literacy coaches (see Appendix A). The survey was administered to a total of 53 parents one week before or as part of the culminating session in each workshop series. We also reviewed program documents such as reports, attendance rosters, and handouts given to parents (test score charts, sample test items, lists of synonyms, word game instructions, etc.), as well as artifacts made by families, such as posters and letters about the program.

Semi-structured staff interviews focused on insider perspectives on program goals and rationale, target audience, parents and parent involvement, program impact, and recommendations for improvement. Questions were open-ended with follow-up probes to elicit more depth and detail (Rubin & Rubin, 2005) (see Appendix A). Voluntary 1-hour focus groups with 5 to 10 parents each were conducted in Spanish or English near the end of each workshop series with open-ended queries on parents’ reason for attending, home literacy practices, response to seeing test scores, and views of the benefits or weaknesses of the program (see Appendix A). All interviews and focus groups were tape recorded, transcribed verbatim, and translated if necessary into Spanish.

The first and second authors plus a research assistant did the observations, with regular team debriefings. In addition to open-ended, holistic observation during workshops, we looked specifically for evidence of parent engagement; interactions between parents or parents and staff; staff views of parents or parent involvement; the fit of instruction with program goals; and impact on parents, students, and educators. Evidence of parent engagement, for example, was the extent and quality of parent participation in the workshops, such as asking questions, offering comments, responding to presenters’ questions, taking part in word games, as well as emotional responses to workshop activities, such as laughter during icebreaker activities. To ensure consistency across the three workshop observers, we read each other’s field notes, offering queries and clarifications, and resolved discrepancies at debriefing meetings. Similarly, the first author, during observation of planning meetings, looked specifically for evidence of conceptions of the target audience, sensitivity to language and cultural issues, views of parent involvement, and rationale for curriculum choices. Field notes recorded shortly after each observation strived for thick description supplemented by observer comments (Rossman & Rallis, 2003).


Preanalysis included analytical memos on commonalities and tensions in the data and a review of all data to create summary case reports for each site. We did open coding, compiling rough coding lists of topical, theoretical, and en vivo categories (Merriam, 1988). Topical codes label and break down general subjects of interest in the research setting; for example, those under parent participation included parent attendance, engagement in workshop content, and parent-parent interactions. Theoretical codes are linked to relevant concepts in the literature; examples included deficit views of parents and scaffolding EL learning. En vivo codes arise from recurring emic or insiders’ expressions used by participants; examples of this among parents included “paying attention” and “dedicating the time” with children, and among staff included “giving parents the tools” and “sacrifice.” We took notice of emic expressions when at least a few participants in the small sample used them, often more than once, across sites and data sources. Coding lists were merged and refined as we conferred, reread the data, and sought broader patterns in higher levels of analysis, using the constant comparative method (Rossman & Rallis, 2003). Appendices B and C illustrate sample codes and coded data excerpts. We created data matrices to facilitate cross-case comparison of topics such as emphasis on tests, opportunity for parent voice, and access to the curriculum for Spanish-dominant parents (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Study validity was enhanced by significant time in the field, thick description, and the use of multiple methods and data sources for triangulation (Merriam, 1998; Rossman & Rallis, 2003).

Qualitative researchers experience “hot” and “cold” spots while in the field according to their subjectivities, which shapes how researchers receive and interpret data (Peshkin, 1988). The choice of themes to explore in this paper arose in part from our personal concerns with parent advocacy and voice in urban schools and in part from analysis of topical and en vivo codes around the unique features of the program (targeted audience, NCLB connection, highly focused curriculum). The themes featured in the three findings sections below are invisible parents, teaching to the test, and improved relationships as an unintended outcome. Recurring instances of staff phrases such as “hard-to-reach parents,” “new population,” and “the parents we don’t see,” for example, led us to a broader pattern code of invisible parents and to question how educators conceived of their audience. Parents’ and staff use of phrases such as “brings us closer,” “have a connection,” and “bond/bonding,” along with participants’ views of parent confidence and comfort led us to highlight enhanced relationships as an outcome. As we pursued intriguing tensions and discrepancies in the data and compared these with the literature, we made graphic representations to push our analysis of convergence and divergence in educators’ and parents’ goals and concerns as well as gaps between intended and unintended outcomes.


How a program is targeted has implications for its design, implementation, and ultimately, participants’ response. The program’s founder, a district staff member, was deliberate in targeting FPS to the parents of the lowest achievers, originally those scoring far below basic or below basic on the CST.6 “One thing different about this program is that it is targeted,” she explained to school teams in introducing FPS. “Usually what we say [with parent programs] is, ‘We’re having Family Math Night – y’all come!’ Usually the students of the ones who come are doing fairly well in school.” By contrast, FPS since its inception in 2007 aimed for a new audience of parents who were considered “hardest to reach,” by implication the parents of low achievers. Both the tactic of limiting the invitation and the goal of reaching the least involved parents challenged business as usual in parent programming.

How well did staff teams know their intended audience? Staff perceptions of targeted parents were based on assumptions and past experience with other parents at the school. At its outset in 2007, FPS planning began with a telephone survey about targeted parents’ education, language preference, concerns, contact with the school, and workshop scheduling preferences. This step was omitted in 2009 due to staff time constraints. Few efforts were made at workshops to learn about parents’ needs and preferences, other than to ask whether everyone could understand Spanish.7 Though FPS was meant to target parents of the lowest achievers, attendance rosters and prior year student test scores showed that it actually reached a mix of those parents and others at the four schools, including 45% of parents of third graders who scored basic (average) in Language Arts, as opposed to below basic or far below basic. Staff at two schools decided in planning meetings to include parents of students at the basic level, yet the staff referred to their audience collectively in interviews as the parents of the lowest achievers. It was perhaps easier to erase differences and categorize all parents under this one label, much as No Child Left Behind frames students as either below or above the proficient threshold.


Staff agreed that the FPS target audience was “the parents we don’t see” at school. “Those are not my day parents,” said one principal, referring to a small group of parents who came to school during the day for volunteering and advisory councils. “The night meetings brought out parents I’ve never seen before; it did hit another population.” Staff contrasted the targeted parents with those who came to school, equating parent involvement with parent participation at school and making a direct link between parent involvement and student achievement. “Those parents that we never see, their kids are not doing well for the most part,” according to the Turner principal. “Knowledge is power,” agreed the Wilson principal. The principal also noted:

I believe that students of parents who are involved in the school have more of a chance of being successful—just that the parent knows what’s expected of them . . . They know the standards for the grade level, they can help them at home.

Staff assumed that parents targeted for FPS were uninvolved and did not have this information.

Staff’s description of their audience as “the parents we don’t see” conflicted with data from observations and the parent survey. For example, one program included an active member of the school’s parent advisory council and several attendees at another program participated in the literacy coach’s monthly meetings for parents. Most parents across the sites reported on the survey that they attended school events such as Open House and had spoken to their child’s teacher about the child’s progress at least three times during the year. About 40% also reported attending other parent activities at the school. Parents may have given socially desirable responses on the survey, as in a national survey that found a wide discrepancy between parent and school reports on parent attendance at Open House and Back to School Night (NCES, 2001). The report noted that “schools and parents may both have a vested interest in reporting parent behavior in a certain light” (p. vii). Perhaps because educators in the present study held fixed ideas about parents, the parents of low achievers were invisible even when they came to school.


Most staff described the target parents in deficit terms that focused on what the parents lacked. For example, they were said to be “needy” like their children, “needing the most support,” having low expectations, “disenfranchised” or “intimidated” at school, working long hours, and inclined to delegate to educators rather than get involved in their child’s education. “We need to teach parents to have higher expectations,” staff agreed at a planning meeting at Eliot. “If we want to move our kids along, we need to move the parents along.”

School staff assumed that parents of low achievers were not involved because they did not have time or had other priorities and obligations. “These are the hardest parents to reach because the kids are not doing very well and there is a reason—I don’t want to say, maybe the parents are working a lot,” said a district parent facilitator at a planning meeting. Coming to evening workshops “is a great opportunity for the dads since they’re probably never very active [in their child’s education],” said the Turner coach. “It’s an opportunity to bond with their child and be part of their education. In the past, maybe they can’t because of work or other duties.” At a district meeting, a district official mentioned assuming that parents of low-performing students were not interested in their child’s education and being surprised to find, from visiting FPS workshops, that they were “so intelligent, so articulate, so interested in being involved.” When this person posed the question of why the children of these parents did poorly, another administrator suggested that many families of low achievers were “dysfunctional.”

Staff involved with FPS varied in how they viewed the learning ability of the targeted parents. The program founder conveyed a strong message at planning meetings:

In the past, some people thought that the parents we work with were not capable because of the background they come from, and we don’t believe that. Language and culture and economics do not negatively affect how parents feel about their kids and their willingness to help them.

Likewise, she told parents at workshops, “The school believes that you want to help your child be successful.” One principal was initially dubious, as recounted in an interview: “At first, I was a little scared because most of the parents are native Spanish speakers and maybe wouldn’t be able to help their kids in English because the work [for the program] was in English.” She was reassured to hear parents report that they were “learning along with my child.” The staff at Eliot felt that parents were capable of more than they or others realized; they needed only assistance and encouragement. “We should keep an open mind when it comes to parents,” advised the principal. “They often say ‘I can’t’; sometimes we have to get past that, to show them that they can do it.” The Eliot literacy coach said that parents left workshops feeling that “I can help, it’s not out of my reach, as long as someone just guides me through.”

In sum, staff considered their target audience to be uninvolved, “hard to reach,” and in need of training. The staff tended to lump targeted parents together in one category as not being visible at school and having the lowest-performing students. Staff members assumed they understood parents’ needs and did not try to learn more about this new audience.


The FPS program was test-driven from its inception. When district Parent Unit staff created the program, they were seeking ways to use parent involvement to help schools exit Program Improvement status under NCLB in order to avoid sanctions. The staff conceived of an intervention for parents much like an intervention for students: classes targeted to the parents of the lowest achievers in reading at the grade level with the lowest scores (third grade). The FPS framework was designed to inform parents about testing, introduce them to the mandated Open Court Reading curriculum, and improve test scores in word analysis skills. “In the CST . . . 30% of the exam is based on word analysis,” a literacy coach explained in an interview. “In the test release questions, the majority revolved around word analysis, which were the areas we covered [in FPS].” The FPS curriculum focused on word analysis skills even though, as staff noted in interviews, students’ weakest area on tests was reading comprehension.


The program was test-based and skills-based, as the Turner principal explained:

The purpose was to increase test scores of third-grade students and by doing so, we are training parents to work with their kids at home to help support them. I think we accomplished that. We wanted to give parents tools that they could use, even though they might not be fluent in English—things they could encourage their kids to do at home, games to reinforce skills, letting them know the importance of the test and what would be on the test—kind of empowering them and giving them more confidence to really focus on their child’s learning.

Topics covered in the district’s framework for FPS included high frequency words, synonyms, antonyms, prefixes, suffixes, homophones, homographs, and compound words. Schools were encouraged to adapt the curriculum as they saw fit; two added vocabulary and reading comprehension strategies while Eliot incorporated writing, parts of speech, and rhyming.

Presenters taught word analysis skills to parents without connecting them to literature. In this sense, the program mirrored trends in instruction in the Open Court Reading program, which is viewed by some educators and researchers as marked by fast pacing, information overload, and a focus on decontextualized skills that make it especially difficult for English learners (Alvarez & Corn, 2008; Dewitz, Jones, & Leahy, 2009). Eliot and Turner were the only schools to include short passages from stories in a few sessions. For example, parents at Eliot read a passage aloud in Spanish as fast as possible with a partner monitoring accuracy, just as their students did in fluency practice with Open Court. While this gave parents a concrete understanding of fluency, there was no discussion of the passage’s content or the challenge of scaffolding comprehension.

Most FPS sessions consisted of brief direct instruction on word analysis skills, followed by games and exercises using words or phrases out of context. For example, presenters showed parents examples of synonyms and antonyms in English or Spanish and then demonstrated how to play Bingo or Concentration at home with simple word cards to reinforce skills. Some parents readily played the games at the workshops while others showed hesitancy or confusion. At Turner, the one program that included students, we observed many third-grade students who could not match grade-level English synonyms such as “damp” and “moist” during the Concentration game, presumably due to their limited English vocabulary; their parents had difficulty helping the students with these words out of context. Likewise, parents at Gabriel were unresponsive when taught vocabulary strategies in Spanish with examples of words in isolated sentences in English, rather than in the context of meaningful text.

Indeed, Spanish-dominant parents did not have full access to the curriculum even when it was taught in Spanish (Collier & Auerbach, 2010). Many parents reported that their limited English curtailed their ability to help their children with reading. Staff spoke in interviews about how families reading together and discussing reading in Spanish aided students’ overall literacy. However, staff did not discuss this issue in either planning meetings or parent workshops, thus neglecting the challenges of bilingual literacy that were a reality in the homes of the targeted families.


District staff marketed the program to principals as a strategy to help schools raise scores and exit Program Improvement status, meeting with staff teams to target families and plan curriculum and outreach. Student test data were minimally discussed during planning meetings, mainly to agree that third-grade scores in Language Arts were the lowest or to count numbers of students scoring at each testing level. District staff told school staff that there had been achievement gains of one or more levels on the CST by more than 80% of students of participating parents at an early FPS adopter school, using student data that could not be verified. At planning meetings, the program founder noted the importance of showing parents test reports on their child from Open Court; it “raised the anxiety level . . . to hook them in” to the program since most students were doing poorly, thus motivating parents to keep attending the workshops.

At FPS workshops, the message of the importance of tests was ever present. The principal began each series with a presentation of school-wide test score trends on the CST and a plea for parents’ help in reversing the downward trend in third grade. In subsequent sessions, presenters often pointed out which skills would be on the test, handed out test release questions, and reminded parents of testing dates. At one school where parents took a short sample test in Spanish, staff commented that parents were nervous “just like their children.” Only one presenter out of 14 observed mentioned broader learning goals and opportunities for students in relation to testing, telling parents that the program “is not about the test, it’s about giving kids choices as they grow up.”

A critical moment in each series was when staff handed out individual children’s Open Court assessment reports from the previous year. Parents pored over the charts with visible worry and confusion; several parents cried when they saw their child’s low level. Presenters explained the color-coded scoring system and the 10 categories of the Open Court assessments, such as fluency or comprehension, though presenters took time to answer individual parent questions at only two of the schools. A district staff member reassured parents: “Don’t worry, that’s why we’re here—to give you help and materials so your child can move up.” The implication was that if parents were worried, they should keep coming to the workshops so they would know how to help their children.


The pressures of a high-stakes accountability climate and shrinking resources were evident during program implementation in 2009, with staff conveying the pressure they felt to parents in the parent center much as teachers do to students in the classroom. For example, FPS workshops conflicted with emergency budget meetings; thus, principals could not attend. Teachers, at the union’s behest, stopped recording Open Court assessment data to protest layoffs (thus depriving staff, parents, and our study of expected data), and at workshops and interviews, staff pointed to the “sacrifice” of time that they made to run the program and the sacrifice they expected in turn from parents.

The most dramatic instance of educators transferring high-stakes pressure to families was at Turner, where the principal called for a “mandatory meeting” for parents on the problem of low test scores. She told the FPS planning team while pounding the table:

Maybe we should have an urgent third-grade parent meeting, have it at 7:15 a.m., explain that this is a mandatory program that they must participate in for their child—kind of lay down the law, get a pool of parents there . . . We need to say, “You know what, we have a program, it’s very important, even if you have other things going, you need to put them aside for 8 weeks. This is for your child.

The literacy coach agreed that “we need to create a sense of urgency. They [parents] need to be held accountable” for students’ low performance. About 40 parents attended the mandatory meeting several weeks later, where the principal told them:

We are very concerned for our students because standards become more difficult in third grade. So to help our students, we asked you here today to see if you might be willing to sacrifice some time in the evenings to work with your child . . . give up your favorite TV program, maybe the kids will have to eat earlier, bring your third grader with you [to FPS workshops] and together you will work on a lot of skills we do in the classroom and some fun things.

When parents at the meeting asked if the FPS program had worked in the past, a district administrator claimed that data showed it made a “tremendous difference . . . So we encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity that the school is offering. It’s extra work for them.” These exchanges speak to the intensification of workload that educators experience under accountability pressures and their wish to hold parents accountable to share the burden.


The FPS program was intended to affect student achievement, and was marketed by the district and supported by schools as such. An analysis of 2009 CST scores among targeted third-grade students showed no significant difference between those whose parents attended the program and those whose parents who did not attend (Auerbach et al., 2010). This finding was not surprising in light of the program’s limited scope (word analysis skills), relatively short duration, uneven attendance, and timing 1 to 2 months before the test. As a literacy coach noted in an interview, improving achievement is a long-term process, not the “quick fix” that the district wanted.

Ironically, though the ostensible goal of the program was to improve test scores, many staff downplayed its likely effect on student scores in interviews at the end of the program before testing. They said it was “not realistic” to expect big gains and that the program was just a “first step” to “open the conversation” with families about reading achievement. Instead, educators stressed intangible effects on feelings and relationships that went “beyond the academics.” Specifically, the staff believed that FPS had a positive impact on relationships and parent confidence, as we will see.

Parents, for their part, said in focus groups that they came to the workshops because they wanted to find out how to help their children. Only a few mentioned the goal of improving their child’s test scores; significantly, these parents were in the English focus group and more assimilated to school culture. Most parents were more concerned about how to motivate their child to read, how to get them to focus on homework, and how to make sure they understood what they read. Though goals like this are often addressed in family literacy programs, such goals were beyond the scope of the skills-based FPS framework, other than one school that regularly taught comprehension strategies. Nor did the workshops address parents’ frustration with limited English skills when trying to help their children with reading. While a few parents pointed to their children’s improved fluency scores as a result of FPS, most noted less tangible effects, much as the staff did.

In sum, improving test performance was the driving force behind the program’s creation, curriculum, and instruction. Presenters narrowed the reading curriculum to decontextualized word analysis skills and taught to the test with parents. Staff conveyed high-stakes pressure to parents and called on them to sacrifice time to help their children, and hence the school, do better. Though no measurable achievement effects for the program were found, staff and parents pointed to its intangible benefits.


While the evidence from a related analysis was that the parent program did not influence student achievement as intended, study participants believed that FPS had important effects in other areas. Staff described the program as having raised parent awareness of school expectations while introducing school literacy strategies to a new population. Focus group and parent survey responses indicated that parents felt they had gained new knowledge about reading, testing, and words in English. About 72% of parents surveyed said they felt “a lot more confident” about helping their child with reading since they participated in the program; 64% reported playing some FPS word games at home. In focus groups, parents expressed appreciation for the program, and most were reluctant to suggest changes to its content or approach. This reluctance may signal a deference to educators common among Latino immigrant parents (Rodriquez-Brown, 2004). Perhaps the most intriguing perceived benefits, and those most emphasized by participants, were the unintended ones that fell outside the agenda of raising test scores—namely, benefits to parent-child and home-school relationships.


The most important outcomes of FPS in the view of staff and many parents were enhanced parent confidence and parent-child relationships. Parents in focus groups claimed that they related to their children in new ways regarding reading because of the program. Before FPS, the parents often relied on older siblings, neighbors, or community tutors to help with homework or assumed that just having children read was enough. After FPS, parents claimed to be more aware of the reading skills taught to students in class and more confident about helping their children. “Before I would tell the girls, ‘Go read,’” explained one mother. “But I would only have them read, and I would never say, ‘Let’s see, what did you understand from what you read?’ Now, whenever they read, [I say] ‘What did you understand from what you read?’” Some parents said they reviewed high frequency words with their children, used games as an incentive for reading, or asked students and teachers about Open Court and fluency scores.

Staff and parents alike stressed the benefits of FPS for family bonding and parent-child relationships. “I have seen something different in this program,” the local district superintendent told parents at Gabriel’s culminating celebration. “It gives an opportunity for parents to have a connection with their child. This is a big gift.” This comment was an extraordinary admission from an official who was urgently concerned with raising scores, as was evident in her remarks at district meetings for parent center directors. As the program founder told parents at the same event, a goal of the program was “that sharing learning, learning together, becomes a critical part of the bond you have with your child. That learning together helps you become closer.” Similarly, the Eliot principal suggested in an interview that FPS may improve the home atmosphere for learning:

It’s a more positive experience for the families because they are not fighting with their child to get their homework done and raise their skills. [The games] often bring families together because everyone can play together. It’s moving everyone’s knowledge along. So it’s changing the family environment to a more positive one.

Parents in focus groups agreed, saying that the program “brings us closer as a family.” “It’s fun for me because this is the time that you are dedicating to your child and you are playing at the same time as you are learning,” said one mother. Another mother wrote in a reflection on the program, “I learned how to communicate with my child, how to understand her better.”

Participants’ views of parent-child relationships based on reading were often discussed in terms of time. Staff said in interviews that they believed that there was inadequate time for family learning support at home and that the program motivated parents to spend more time with their children. “For a lot of children, this might be the only quality time they have with the parents, productive one-on-one time [doing FPS activities at home],” according to a principal. “The program created more of a bond emotionally.” Likewise, a literacy coach stated:

These parents don’t have a lot to time to dedicate to their children because of circumstances—work, other children—so we felt that having that 1.5 hours just dedicated to them would also improve their self-esteem, help with the bonding.

When asked in focus groups how they helped their children at home, many parents said that with the program, they recognized the need to “sit down with your child,” “dedicate time to them,” “show an interest,” or “pay more attention to them.” Students who drew pictures about FPS for the culminating celebration depicted houses with family members together around a table playing games, suggesting that they, too, associated the program with family time.

The culminating celebration at the end of each series, including potluck food, speeches by district officials, certificates, gifts, and parent testimonials, marked a dramatic last-minute shift in atmosphere.8 These events were notable for opening the program more to parent voice and featuring parents rather than school staff as the main speakers. Rather than emphasizing instruction in tests, skills, and exercises, per the school’s agenda, the culminating sessions stressed feelings and relationships—parents’ implicit agenda in coming to the program. In letters written to their children, posters about the program, and spontaneous speeches, parents tearfully expressed gratitude for the program for making them feel more connected to their children and more able to help them, as in the frequent remark, “I am the one who is learning.” Educators responded in kind by congratulating parents for their participation and affirming the importance of their bond with their children, as in the superintendent’s remarks. The Turner principal—the same one who had demanded a mandatory parent meeting—even tried to orchestrate bonding, exhorting students to “give your mom and dad a big hug and kiss and tell them thank you for coming!” The emotional atmosphere of the culminating events may well have influenced how staff viewed parents and described program benefits in subsequent interviews.


Another benefit of the program according to staff and parents was improving connections between families and the school. “The program opens doors to the school, gives parents the tools they need” to ask questions, the Eliot assistant principal observed. For example, some parents from FPS asked her to accompany them to meetings with teachers because the parents said they trusted her due to her role in the program. Similarly, the principal at Wilson believed that parents in the program “went away feeling that the school cares about the specific needs of their child. . . It made the school look good in terms of us wanting to help them out.” A few parents reported appreciating the chance to “meet the parents and the teachers, the principal, who I didn’t know and now I know her.” Many stated that their children were more motivated to read or do homework with the incentive of the FPS games. The Turner principal also mentioned students coming up to her at school for a hug because, due to the program, “they feel a connection, a positive attitude about school.”

At the core of perceptions of these improved parent-child, parent-school, and child-school relationships was the notion of greater parent comfort, leading to greater confidence for parents and students at school. Staff related this to creating a “safe environment” at the workshops so parents would feel comfortable coming to school and using the FPS activities at home. For the coach at Gabriel, parents’ comfort came from offering the program in families’ primary language in a “relaxed, user-friendly” atmosphere. An assistant principal explained:

The parents now feel more comfortable, because they have . . . a deeper understanding of what happens in the classroom, how the students are graded . . . It’s an opportunity [in the workshops] to try things, have hands-on experience so they are able to go home and feel more comfortable doing the games or the rhymes.

Likewise, according to the Wilson literacy coach:

My philosophy is to make the parents feel comfortable with anything they can do that is going to help [their child]. If it’s only 10 minutes, it’s 10 minutes more than they would have had . . . The first step is making them feel comfortable; they’re not going to be treated differently [at school] because of their language and their socioeconomic background.

Another coach believed that “those parents that came [to the workshops] feel more comfortable coming back to the school, no matter what—that’s the biggest impact.”

Staff were aware of the need to make parents feel comfortable rather than overwhelmed at workshops so that the parents would be motivated to come back and build confidence in helping their child. As the Turner principal put it:

I think parents get intimidated if they have not gone to college, don’t have white-collar jobs; they think they don’t have the skills to help their child. In families where parents speak Spanish and the kids are speaking English, they [parents] think they can’t keep up with what the child is doing [in school]. I think the program raised the confidence level of parents. They got to see how their child learns in school. They are able to use the skills they had to work with their child so their child could see them as knowing and valuable and knowledgeable.

The Wilson coach was concerned that immigrant parents not feel “ashamed” because of their lack of formal education or English skills, and consistently validated their efforts at the workshops. At three of the four schools, staff mentioned in interviews that some parents were not comfortable coming to the school because some teachers “write off” non-English-speaking families or do not make the effort to communicate with them. “Sometimes it’s easy for teachers in this kind of neighborhood to write the parents off,” according to one coach. “[They say] ‘The parents don’t speak English, they just don’t care.’ I know that’s not true.” The prevalence of deficit thinking about immigrant parents was cited by a few staff as a barrier to family engagement at their school.

Despite pervasive staff concern in interviews about creating a safe space for parents, this was not always evident in the atmosphere and teaching style at the workshops. For example, one principal stressed making presentations “parent-friendly, not like a college course” in an interview, yet the workshops at her school were among the most didactic and formal. Only Eliot staff took deliberate steps to put parents at ease and break down the typical formality of home-school interaction with culturally responsive approaches. The parent center directors there decorated the tables and provided generous refreshments, warming up the atmosphere of the cold auditorium. The literacy coach personalized instruction with funny anecdotes from her own Latino immigrant family experience, creating a “rapport” with the parents that she found gratifying because it reminded her of her own parents:

I said at one of the sessions that when I was growing up, there was no bilingual support for parents like mine. My mom was at home with us; she didn’t speak English, she couldn’t just walk into a school and say, “I need help.” I remember wishing that there was someone that could translate. Parent workshops were not really available like they are today. I really like working with parents; it reminds me of helping my own parents. So I don’t mind [the time involved]. I feel rewarded. There’s something inside [gestures to her heart] that happens when you’re ready to culminate the whole thing.

Parents at Eliot credited their motivation to keep coming to the workshops to what one called this coach’s sabor (enthusiasm, passion). The parents at Eliot were notable for asking frequent questions, making jokes, and chatting with one another in a lively atmosphere, in contrast to the formality and minimal parent participation at the other schools.


According to school staff, FPS also had the unintended consequence of enhancing their views of immigrant parents as learners and motivating staff to engage more with parents. One principal who had taken a hard line on parent attendance at the planning stage said that when she “saw how committed the parents were” to FPS, “it was a joy, not a chore” to attend the workshops. Likewise, a veteran literacy coach who had been reluctant during planning to undertake the program said that being with “motivated parents” motivated her, compared to working with resistant teachers; another was inspired to try new types of parent-teacher communications in the classroom after FPS. “It’s nice to see the parents putting in that time” to come to workshops and follow through on reading journals or other homework, said the Wilson coach; this confirmed her sense that they cared about their children’s education. “Our teachers are overjoyed at the fact that parents are showing an interest because these are the parents of our far below basic kids, so they’re not the easiest ones to get to school,” commented a principal.

Staff and parents alike expressed enthusiasm for continuing and expanding FPS with workshops held earlier in the year. Some schools in Local District X continued to offer the program in 2009–2010 while others suspended it due to budget cuts and staff changes, including the loss of literacy coaches. New program materials from the district Parent Unit, prompted by preliminary results from this study, recommended incorporating more parent interaction and discussion into the workshops.

In sum, while the intended aim of FPS was to raise student achievement, staff and many parents emphasized the program’s unintended outcome of enhancing connections between parents and children and between parents and the school. These consequences were linked to increased parent confidence in relating to their children around reading and increased comfort coming to school. Staff expressed more motivation to work with parents due to positive contact with parents in FPS.


As we have seen, the Families Promoting Success program was a well-intentioned attempt to inform the parents of low achievers about reading skills to help their children do better on tests, using two unusual approaches to parent outreach programs: targeting specific families and focusing on tested word analysis skills. Overall, FPS was viewed by the participants in our study as having a positive impact on the parents of lower achievers, who do not usually participate in parent programs, and on school staff, who do not generally facilitate programs of this type and duration. Consistent with the work of Chrispeels and colleagues (2001, 2004), parents gained an increased awareness of testing and the reading curriculum, with most trying program activities at home and some spending more time with children reading.

However, the evidence suggests that the program missed opportunities to have a more profound influence on family literacy and to build an authentic partnership with families. FPS illustrates what Tollefson (2008) called the common sense, instrumental view of parent involvement that is exclusively geared to raising student achievement. Driven by accountability pressures in low-performing schools, staff “gave parents the tools” to help children succeed and offered a narrowed curriculum that taught to the test with decontextualized skills. Thus, lessons for parents mirrored the pitfalls of classroom instruction for English learners in the highly scripted Open Court Reading Program (Alvarez & Corn, 2008; Lee, Ajayi, & Richards, 2007). With an intervention rather than multiple-literacies approach to family literacy, FPS did little to bridge home literacy in Spanish-dominant households and school-based literacy (Auerbach, 1995; Collier & Auerbach, 2010; Dail & Payne, 2010).

FPS also took a school-to-home transmission approach to parent involvement (Swap, 1993) that privileged the school agenda and positioned families as deficient in time, interest, or skills to help their children. Staff missed an opportunity for a relational approach to parent involvement in which educators listen to parent voice, share power, and seek out common ground for action (Warren et al., 2009). Had staff taken the time to get to know parents and their educational orientations, invited their input in setting the agenda, and allowed for greater dialogue and interaction during workshops, the staff may have been able to address shared goals and concerns in a form of mutual accommodation or co-construction (Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Rosenberg et al., 2009). For example, presenters could have elicited and responded to parents’ concern about motivating their children, validated parents’ efforts, and made the link to student performance. Pomerantz et al. (2007) pointed to the importance of parents “promoting children’s motivational development” for emotional functioning and ultimately achievement; the authors recommended that schools create interventions that enhance “positive affect” in parent interactions with their children. FPS staff recognized the importance of these bonds only belatedly in culmination celebrations.

There was convergence as well as divergence between the goals and orientations that staff and parents brought to the program (see Figure 1), consistent with the literature (Cooper & Christie, 2005; Scribner et al., 1999). District and school staff had specific achievement goals that reflected a high-stakes agenda, such as helping to raise scores, helping schools to exit Program Improvement status, informing parents about curriculum and testing, and teaching parents specific tested skills. This school-based agenda was driven by school needs to meet NCLB targets; educators were essentially transferring high-stakes pressures from the classroom to the parent center in the way the staff conceived of and delivered the program. Parents, on the other hand, came to FPS with the goals of helping their children, especially with reading comprehension, motivation to learn, and the ability to focus on homework. Significantly, parents discussed these goals not in terms of raising test scores but in terms of relationships with their children and the moral and emotional support for learning that is traditionally characteristic of involvement among Latino/a immigrant parents (Auerbach, 2006; Valdés, 1996). For the most part, staff planned and implemented FPS without acknowledging or responding to these concerns. However, staff and parents shared goals of parents learning more about school policies and programs, how to help their children, and making learning fun, which FPS addressed.

Figure 1. Goals and Concerns for FPS Program Participants


Although the ultimate goal of staff who designed and implemented FPS was a quantifiable one (i.e., to improve student test scores), there was no measurable effect on achievement for students of parents participating in the program (Auerbach et al., 2010). Instead, parents and staff alike stressed the program’s intangible, unintended benefits to parent-child relationships and family-school relationships. Thus, the initial logic model for this program, as expressed by staff and program documents and observed by researchers, differed markedly from the implicit model at its conclusion, as expressed by staff and parents. At the outset, the model was a simple interventionist one based on an instrumental view of parent involvement: Staff assumed that if they “give parents the tools” they lack through training, parents would use the tools to reinforce reading at home, and thus, students would perform better on state tests. Ultimately, this would give schools a better chance of meeting proficiency targets under NCLB and exiting Program Improvement status.

In practice, the program had unintended consequences that highlight the relational nature of family engagement and the educational orientations of immigrant families, complicating the trajectory of the intervention. With training, parents said they gained greater awareness of reading skills and tried some FPS word games at home. This awareness led parents to express greater confidence in helping their children with schoolwork, and greater comfort with the school. This confidence and comfort also seemingly affected the staff’s motivation to work with parents since they had better understanding of their target audience. Thus, a central program outcome from participants’ perspective was an improved climate for family and school relationships.

Overall, our results suggest that families and their educational and cultural orientations may have been the missing link between parent training and the elusive goal of higher test scores. In the zeal to comply with accountability mandates, schools transferred pressures from the classroom to the parent center without regard for what Dudley-Marling (2009) called the “cultural and material needs” of their audience and the relational aspects of teaching and learning. Only gradually over the course of the program, especially through hearing parents’ emotional testimonials at culminating celebrations and reflecting on the program in interviews, did school staff begin to see their target audience more clearly, “the parents that we don’t see.”

Staff’s apparent belated recognition of the importance of relationships may mark a shift in educators’ conception of parent involvement programs from an instrumental to a more holistic, relational approach. Just as an exclusive, laser-like focus on raising test scores prompted by accountability pressures distorts the purpose and spirit of classroom instruction, a parallel focus with students’ families distorts the purpose and spirit of parent education and outreach. If schools are to increase parent involvement and engage in authentic partnerships, educators may need to broaden their goals for parent programs beyond narrow achievement and accountability goals and incorporate intentional relationship building into parent outreach (Auerbach, 2010; Warren et al., 2009). Likewise, as Dudley-Marling (2009) wrote, “An approach to family literacy that is sensitive to the cultural and material needs of parents of varied backgrounds must create opportunities for parents to talk back to schools—and for schools to listen” (p. 1745).


As we have seen, Families Promoting Success suggests the problems that can ensue when high-stakes accountability pressures, an exclusive focus on raising test scores, and interventionist approaches to family literacy are imposed on a little-known target audience of immigrant parents of low and basic achievers. The FPS experience raises questions about what counts as valued outcomes for parent education and the extent to which high-stakes testing may influence arenas beyond the classroom. Staff in this study wanted partnerships with families but transferred high-stakes pressures for achievement from the classroom to the parent center without thoughtful, inclusive planning or an understanding of their audience. Family engagement may be an underutilized tool in improving student achievement, but the effect on achievement is indirect, and working with families remains fundamentally a process of building relationships (Henderson et al., 2007; Mapp, 2003; Pushor, 2010; Warren et al., 2009). Conducting parent programs without taking the time to get to know parents and listen to their concerns implies a lack of care and respect and misses a crucial opportunity for partnership. The culminating celebrations in FPS and district staff’s recommendation that future workshops include time for parent discussion and reflection are promising moves toward a more relational approach.

As is typical for qualitative case studies, our findings are not intended to be generalized to populations, though the findings may offer insights for urban schools with similar demographics and accountability pressures. Among the limitations of this study are use of self-reported data and the possibility that parents and staff gave socially desirable responses regarding parent involvement. In addition, immigrant parents with limited formal education may not be accustomed to completing written surveys, affecting the accuracy of their responses. Follow-up research with parents in individual interviews and in observations of home routines could address some of these issues. Future research on other parent education programs instituted in low-performing schools since the authorization of NCLB could also help determine the nature and extent of the influence of accountability pressures on outreach and home-school relations.

Urban schools that wish to engage Latino immigrant families in helping to improve student reading as part of authentic school-family partnerships might consider the following recommendations for practice implied by the study’s findings:

Build a school culture that values relationships and invites parents to participate in joint responsibility for student learning. This long-term, ongoing process involves getting to know parents, bridging home and school cultures, supporting families’ needs, and engaging in dialogue about everyone’s hopes and dreams for children.

Meet parents where they are. If they are new to parent education and school activities, design a program that will introduce parents to the school, the curriculum, and each other in a warm, welcoming, interactive way. If parents are new to helping their children with school-based literacy, begin with an approach that promotes a love of reading and tips for families on reading together in Spanish or English. Based on that foundation, offer programs on more specific skills that will help with reading achievement.

Nurture parent voice in planning and implementing parent programs. Anticipate, seek out, and respond to families’ needs and concerns. This can be done through surveys, focus groups, or discussions before and during programs, or through study circles, advisory councils, action planning teams, and other deliberative groups. Use this information to guide program planning and improvement, ideally with teams of parents and educators.

Ensure that the skills and concepts taught in parent programs are accessible to Spanish-dominant families. This entails more than oral and written translation (Collier & Auerbach, 2010). Since these families tend to read and discuss reading with their children in Spanish, offer practical guidance on bilingual family literacy.

Personalize instruction to help build relationships among families and between families and school staff. Use presenters who can readily share personal experiences that are familiar to participants, including fellow parents and teachers.9 Create a welcoming climate where parents feel free to share their experiences and challenges, and have time to get to know one another.

Take the long view and plan a sequence of literacy workshops over the elementary years as part of a school climate conducive to authentic partnerships. Parent participation in a 6-week program shortly before a standardized test may not have a measurable impact on achievement, but participation in a carefully planned series of varied literacy activities over children’s elementary school years may influence home practices in ways more likely to affect student learning.


1. The massive Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is divided into eight local districts. All local districts, schools, programs, and educators named in this study are pseudonyms. The FPS program was devised by the Parent Unit of Local District X in 2007 and was approved for dissemination to interested schools in that local district.

2. This work is part of a larger mixed methods study on the impact of the FPS program on student achievement, parent knowledge, home literacy practices, and educators’ view of parents and parent involvement (Auerbach et al., 2010). The first author was the primary investigator. The authors are grateful to Teachers for a New Era at California State University, Northridge, for grant support that made this study possible. We are also thankful for the invaluable participation of research assistants in this project: Carmen Camberos, Terry Deloria, Jesus Vaca, and Donna Zero.

3. For descriptions of parent education programs, see the many resources on the websites of the Harvard Family Research Project, National Network of Partnership Schools, and Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

4. The Harvard Family Research Project and Southwest Educational Development Laboratories are prominent national organizations in research, advocacy, and training related to family and community involvement. They jointly run the National Parental Information and Resource Center (PIRC) Coordination Center under a federal grant, providing technical assistance to state PIRCs that help implement parent involvement provisions of NCLB.

5. Literacy coaches in LAUSD are out-of-classroom teachers who provide professional development and support for teachers in reading. These coaches had the main responsibility for planning and delivering FPS. Other presenters in addition to the coaches and principal included the assistant principal, Title I coordinator, and district parent facilitators, varying with each school’s plans for the program.

6. The program founder did not mention parents of “bubble kids” as a target audience, even though students scoring close to higher levels on standardized tests are a key focus of many student interventions. Her interest in parents of the lowest achievers may be linked to concern about schools doing more to bring in “hard-to-reach” parents.

7. The one exception was a paper-and-pencil bilingual version of the telephone survey that was distributed to parents at the first session of the workshops at Turner School. We deem this survey of little import since it reached only a fraction of the eventual audience at Turner, its open-ended questions appeared to confuse some parents, and its results were not compiled or discussed at planning meetings.

8. These celebrations were a tradition of other parent programs of the District X Parent Unit. District staff helped schools to organize these celebrations at the close of each workshop series.

9. The FPS program relied on support staff such as literacy coaches and parent center directors rather than teachers to implement outreach and instruction, ostensibly because teachers were overburdened with other responsibilities and because there was no funding to pay teachers for out-of-classroom time. The tendency to bypass teachers in parent programming in LAUSD is described in Auerbach (2007b).


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From Parent Survey

1. Did you try any of the games or activities from the classes with your child at home?

__ no

__ yes, a few times

__ yes, 4 times or more

2. How do you feel now, after the parent classes, about your ability to help your child with reading?

__ I feel the same as I did before

__ I feel a little more confident

__ I feel a lot more confident

3. What does fluency mean in reading?

__ pronouncing the words correctly

__ the number of words a child reads correctly in a minute

__ how well the child speaks English

II. From Staff Interview Protocol

1. How would you describe the FPS program? What are the program’s goals, components, target audience? Why did the planning group decide on this particular focus?

2. Looking back, what do you think were the most effective aspects of the program? Why were they successful? Were there particular people, resources, or policies that made it work?

3. How would you describe the parents in this program? Did the program have any influence on how you view or think about parents?

III. From Parent Focus Group Protocol

1. Can you tell me a little about why you decided to come to the parent classes?

2. I’d like you to think back a few months to before you came to these classes. Were you able to help your child with reading at home? What did you used to do to help them? What was most difficult for you?  

3. Let’s say you had a friend or relative who had a child in this school but did not come to the parent classes. What would you tell him or her about the program? What advice would you give him or her about helping his or her child with reading?



Parent participation in FPS


Staff concern re: numbers

Parents need to “sacrifice” time, see staff effort

Why parents came


Parent engagement, responsiveness

Ask questions

Answer questions

Play games




Parent-parent interaction (before, after, during workshops)

Parent-staff interaction (before, after, during workshops)



Main code & related codes

Turner Elem

Gabriel Elem

Wilson Elem

Eliot Elem

Parent-child relation-ships/target parents, time, home literacy practices, bonding,


“The parents don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to their child, because of other circumstances— work, other children—so having that one and a half hours [workshop] just dedicated to them [the child] would also improve their [students’] self-esteem, help with the bonding.” (literacy coach interview)


“It brings us closer as a family.” (parent focus group)

“For a lot of children, this might be the only quality time they have with the parents, productive one on one time. The program created more of a bond emotionally.” (principal interview)


“I have seen something  different in this program. It gives an opportunity for parents to have a connection with their child. This is a big gift.” (superintendent’s speech, culmina-ting session, field notes)

“A lot of times, because of time, parents don’t interact and talk with their kids. I’m just trying to get parents to interact with them [with home activities].” (literacy coach interview)

“The other goal that we have for this program is that sharing learning, learning together, becomes a critical part of the bond you have with your child.” Several parents nod during transla-tion. (district staff at culminat-session, field notes)

“It’s a more positive experience . . . because they are not fighting with their child to get their homework done. [The games] often bring families together because everyone can play together.” (principal interview)

 “She [daughter] likes that I’m there [when she reads] because before . . . she wanted me to be sitting there, but I had things to do, but now I take more time to sit with her and listen to her [read] and everything.” (parent focus group)  

Parent comfort level as helper/

home literacy practices, target parents

“All we offer is help so you can feel more comfortable helping your child” (principal presentation at parent meeting, field notes)

“Most parents felt comfortable enough to come back and accept these tools [reading strategies], take them home, work with their child.” (literacy coach interview)

 “I remembered what I did in the past [as student]. I asked my son what is a suffix. I feel comfortable now because I will be able to help my son and my nephew.” (parent at culminating session, field notes)

 “I feel more relaxed to sit down with my son. I’ve always helped him. But now, I’m more relaxed and I understand more and I feel more capable of explaining to my son.” (parent focus group)

Family-school relationships/

Connection, comfort, appreciation, staff views of parents

“I see the kids [from FPS at school], they come up to me, want a hug, because I’m there with them every week as well [at workshops]. They feel a connection, a positive attitude about school.” (principal interview)

“Parents were comfortable with the program because we communicated with them in their primary language . . . Those parents that came [to FPS] feel more comfortable coming back to the school, no matter what – that’s the biggest impact.” (literacy coaches interview)

“The parents went away feeling that the school cares about the specific needs of their children. You heard the comments they were saying [at the culminating session]. They were very appreciative.” (principal interview)

“A couple parents who attended [FPS] asked me to come to a meeting with their child’s teacher because they said ‘I already know you’ or ‘I feel like I can trust you.’” (assistant principal interview)


“Well I’m very happy that there . . . are these classes; it’s very fortunate because in other schools there aren’t these kind of programs to help us.” (parent focus group)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 3, 2012, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16292, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:32:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Susan Auerbach
    California State University, Northridge
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN AUERBACH is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at California State University, Northridge, with a doctorate in urban schooling from UCLA. She has published on parent involvement, college access, and leadership for school-community partnerships in Teachers College Record (2002), Harvard Educational Review (2004), Urban Education (2007), Journal of School Leadership (2007, 2010), Journal of Latino Education (2006), Journal of Hispanic Higher Education (2004), and elsewhere, and is working on a book on leadership for authentic partnerships.
  • Shartriya Collier
    California State University, Northridge
    E-mail Author
    SHARTRIYA COLLIER is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education at California State University, Northridge. Her research interests include biliteracy development, immigrant family literacy, immigrant female entrepreneurs and language use, and the writing workshop in English learner classrooms. She has published in the Bilingual Research Journal (2009) and Journal of Language, Identity & Education (in press).
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