March 25, 2024

How the Moynihan Report Birthed Parental Engagement Policy in Schools

Alyssa Lyons author photoBy Alyssa Lyons

While parental engagement has become a popular buzzword in political circles in recent years, the language of “parental involvement” didn’t appear in U.S. federal educational policy until 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Not without coincidence, this was the same year that academic and social scientist Daniel Patrick Moynihan published the Moynihan Report: The Negro Family, the Case for National Action. An incendiary racist, classist, homophobic, and sexist document, the Moynihan Report claimed that racial inequalities in wealth and education between Blacks and whites were the result of a broken and fractured Black family structure where Black matriarchs managed the household. Moynihan further suggested that establishing a stable Black family structure was central in alleviating poverty and inequalities.

The Moynihan Report’s anti-Black characterization of the Black family as a “tangle of pathology” was not new at the time. Mother’s Pension Plans in the U.S. targeted poor and working-class Black families--specifically Black women-- by providing pension benefits only to families who lost their patriarch. In other words, eligibility was determined by whether that household was adhering to white cis-gender heterosexual patriarchal norms of the nuclear family. 

The Moynihan Report ideologically framed Black mothers and families as pathological and destabilized. This framing relationally positioned the white middle class heteronormative nuclear family as healthy, stable, and desirable, and white middle-class women as good mothers. Since the Moynihan Report identified the family as the source of racial inequalities, its solutions weren’t systemic but rather individual and suggested violent and anti-Black corrective action to address the inequalities: assimilate poor and working-class Black families into white middle class heteronormative norms as a course of rehabilitation to make unhealthy Black families healthier. 

The Moynihan Report shaped educational policy in two profound ways. First, the report centered the family as the institution primarily responsible for both perpetuating and alleviating racial inequalities. Later, this logic provided the foundation for the influential Equality of Educational Opportunity Report (better known as the Coleman Report) that would attribute racial disparities in education to family background and peer composition.

These reports provided the fertile ground for modern parental and familial engagement policies where the attention and responsibility for educational inequality was shifted away from systemic and institutional oppression and placed on the backs of BIPOC and poor and working-class families and parents. Parental engagement became about praising families and parents for children’s academic success—and blaming them for perceived academic failures.

Second, the report implied that healthy, and subsequently ideal, families and parents were ones that adhered to patriarchal, white, middle-class, and straight norms. This kind of thinking established a model for ideal parental engagement that influenced educators, schools, and policymakers alike. If parents were to be considered engaged (and subsequently as “good parents”) by schools, then they would have to be proximate or assimilate into white patriarchal middle-class cis het norms of what the family should be.

This parental and familial expectation of responsibility became more apparent with the emergence of parent and family involvement provisions in federal educational policies like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965). While some of the parental and family engagement provisions specifically referenced academic activities like monitoring homework completion, others had a more moralistic tone that included things like monitoring television consumption.

The parental involvement provisions of the ESEA disproportionately targeted low-income Black and Brown families through Title I with funding reserved for schools where 40% of the population is designated as low-income. In addition to public schools, private and charter schools are also eligible for these funds as long as their student population meets eligibility criteria.

In New York State, if schools want a piece of the Title I funding pie, their definition of parental engagement must align with both NYSED and federal educational policy to ensure their eligibility. Federal educational policy targets poor and working class BIPOC families by drafting and reauthorizing educational policy framed by the Moynihan Report. Because of historical and contemporary inequalities, BIPOC students, families, and schools are disproportionately economically dispossessed and eligible for Title I funds.

The persistent assumption undergirding parental and family engagement provisions within federal educational policy is that poor and working class and/or BIPOC families need state-sanctioned support and guidance on behaviors and practices if their children are to perform well academically, and that this support is needed because these families are broken, pathological, and unhealthy thereby contributing to educational inequalities. The Moynihan Report is not only responsible for providing a blueprint for the operationalization of parental engagement provisions in education policy—it provides guidelines on what it means and looks like to be a parent and family in relation to schools. 

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