March 18, 2024

Let’s Talk Parental Engagement in Schools: Parental Engagement as a Social Construct

Alyssa Lyons author photoBy Alyssa Lyons

What does it mean to be an engaged parent in schools?

As both a sociologist and the mother of an eleven-year-old in the New York City public school system, I’ve often wrestled with this question. Whenever I attend school-based events, principals, teachers, and staff tell me, along with other parents, that being engaged in the school and in my child’s education is instrumental to their academic success. 

And it isn’t just educators and social science researchers singing the praises of parental engagement. Politicians and policymakers suggest that parental engagement can function as either a buffer or mitigator in addressing educational inequality on both a state and federal level.  In March 2022, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona implored schools to reconsider their relationship with parents and families, suggesting “parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers.”

But I’ve remained curious about what exactly constitutes parental engagement—and why. Is parental engagement helping your kids do their homework? Is it volunteering for the bake sale? Or is parental engagement advocating for your child’s school to meaningfully and critically include BIPOC, queer, and women and femmes in the curriculum—an act that might step on the toes of some educators and administers?

My own research on parental engagement in NYC schools has treated parental engagement not as a determinant of academic success, but rather as a social construct that is elastic, mutable, and dynamic. Talking extensively with both parents and teachers, I have found that parental engagement is a stretchy concept often constructed in ways that are circumscribed by race, class, gender, and sexuality. Parental engagement often functions to meet the needs of those in power while being positioned by educators as a predictor of children’s academic success.

In 2011, a Black mother in Ohio named Kelley Williams-Bolar served nine days in jail, was put on three years’ probation, and had to complete 80 hours of community service because she used her father’s address instead of her own in an attempt to get her children into a better school district than the one they were zoned for. Only one year after the Williams-Bolar case, an unhoused Black mother in Connecticut by the name of Tanya McDowell was sentenced to five years in prison for doing the same thing. In both of these cases, two Black mothers tried to gain access to better educational resources for their children within the confines of structurally inequitable zoning policies. Isn’t this what engaged parents do—fight for their children to have the supports they need to thrive? 

What happened to both Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell often happens to Black, Brown, and/or economically dispossessed mothers who are parentally engaged in ways the state deems undesirable. In 2023, it was reported that in 24 states in the U.S., “parents risk criminal prosecution — and jail time — if they use a false address to get their children into a better school.” And these findings sit at the nexus of race, class, and gender as it is mostly mothers who the kind of work that parental engagement demands—caregiving.  A 2021 bellwether report “shows how district boundaries separate families by race and class, with low-income and minority parents often unable to attend a better school in a nearby district even when the district is within walking distance of their home.” 

Black and Brown, queer, poor, or disabled parents often not conceived of as good parents by policymakers, educators, and schools unless their parental engagement is assimilationist or at least conforms. And if it doesn’t—then it’s sanctioned and punished—like in the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell. 

When parental engagement is deployed in ways that are institutionally resistive, defiant, or in ways that challenge what schools and educators deem appropriate, it’s at best rendered invisible and at worst criminalized. This is especially true when the acts are committed by parents or families on the margins. Black parents, poor parents, queer parents, and parents with disabilities are often punished, or sanctioned, for doing parental engagement “wrong.” 

Even when cis-gendered heterosexual white middle-class parents are engaged in less-than-ideal ways, they typically don’t suffer the same consequences because they are imagined within the (white) state to be good parents by default and thereby fit into dominant ideas of what it means to be an engaged parent.

For instance, when wealthy white parents were implicated in a college admissions bribery scandal in which they paid off college officials to garner acceptances for their children in 2020, many of those parents were let off with a proverbial slap on the wrist. Felicity Huffman only served 11 of her 14-day jail sentence and was sentenced to 250 hours of community service on supervised release for one year.

More recently, parental engagement has been weaponized at the local level by conservative parent groups like Moms for Liberty who aim to ban books in schools that discuss topics like race, gender, and sexuality on the grounds that parents should determine what students learn in schools. Race, gender, and social class profoundly influence societal, school and educator-based perceptions of what constitutes ideal parental engagement—and it’s time we deconstruct the implications of this phenomenon.


Very informative article. Thank you.

That's amazing! They're exactly what I was looking for! I thank you all for sharing these wonderful and satisfying experiences with me! Now let's go with family and friends.

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