Academic journal article School Community Journal

Parents Don't Do Nothing: Reconceptualizing Parental Null Actions as Agency

Academic journal article School Community Journal

Parents Don't Do Nothing: Reconceptualizing Parental Null Actions as Agency

Article excerpt


This paper presents findings from a larger study that examined the roles that parents and caregivers are given and/or choose to enact to support their children's mathematics learning, particularly in relation to their children's math homework. Based on interviews with parents of elementary-age children from three different urban school districts in the northeastern United States, we propose a conceptualization of parental engagement that uses a framework of human agency to understand both beliefs and rationales underlying parental actions as well as the apparent lack of actions. Our findings identify challenges parents encounter in relation to their children's school mathematics and reveal the limits of school-centered conceptions of parental engagement.

Key words: parental engagement, homework, parents, agency, learning, elementary schools, mathematics, null actions, urban, involvement, perceptions


Attempts to support and improve the learning and performance of American children in mathematics, and in particular the mathematics education of children in traditionally underserved urban environments, have looked to curriculum, assessment, teacher education, and even to the home. Parents are increasingly viewed as "an untapped resource for improving the mathematics performance of American children" (Hyde et al., 2006, p. 136), and research suggests that there is a relationship between parent involvement and improvements in student achievement and outcomes (Sheldon & Epstein, 2005). Acknowledging research that frames parents as potential resources or partners in student learning, even textbook publishers have developed curriculum-related instructional materials to go beyond the school walls-to the home. This study examined parents' involvement in their children's homework as a lens through which to understand parents' engagement with their children's math learning. (Note: In this paper, we use the term parent to refer to the child's primary caregiver, most frequently a mother or grandmother.)

From curriculum materials to government and district policies which try to promote parent involvement, an implicit, and at times explicit, vision of what parent involvement ought to look like and of what counts as parent involvement emerges (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). This conception of parental involvement typically revolves around school-prescribed behaviors in which parents are encouraged to engage rather than interactions generated and directed by parents. Despite efforts on the part of advocates for more egalitarian home-school relationships (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Weiss, 2008), the prevailing picture of effective parent involvement which still dominates in many urban schools evokes concomitant images of disengaged parents and ineffective parent involvement. Lightfoot (2004) has described the language centering on parental involvement in urban schools as carrying an implicit "discourse of deficit" that shapes the perceptions of parents and their involvement.

Within the mathematics education community, many researchers have worked to establish frameworks for examining parental roles in children's learning and schooling that challenge the traditional, school-centric assumptions about what constitutes effective and appropriate parental involvement. In their work with Latino families, Civil and Bernier (2006) countered the deficit view and low expectations of minority families and students by positioning parents as intellectual resources (see also Anhalt, Allexsaht-Snider, & Civil, 2002). Remillard and Jackson (2006) illuminated the questions and challenges African American parents in a low-income neighborhood experienced as they encountered reform-mathematics curricula through their children's schoolwork. While the parents viewed themselves as critical players in their children's learning, they had little understanding of the reform-oriented curricular approaches, which influenced (and at times limited) how and when they engaged with their children's school mathematics. …

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