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Race, Immigrant Status Affect Parent-Teacher Communication, Study Finds

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A child’s race, ethnicity, and immigrant status could determine whether a teacher reaches out to that student’s parents, a new study out of New York University has found.

According to the study, “Parental involvement is a key ingredient in the educational success of students and an integral component of involvement is teacher-parent communication.” But in looking at nationally representative data of high school sophomores and the patterns of math and English teachers from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, sociologist Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng discovered disparities in teachers’ communication with parents of their minority students, even after considering teachers’ own perceptions of students’ work and behavior, parents’ ability to speak English and other factors.

According to his findings, published in Teachers College Record, teachers were less likely to contact Asian immigrant parents about academic and behavioral concerns, even if their children were struggling. Third-generation black and Latino parents were more likely to be contacted about their child’s disruptive classroom behavior than third-generation white parents. Asian and Latino immigrants parents were less likely to hear news of their children’s accomplishments.

Cherng told The Atlantic, “One would think if a kid is struggling [or] a kid isn’t doing their homework that the teacher would reach out to parents [whether they’re] white kids, foreign-born Asian American kids, or third-generation Latino kids, [yet] this wasn’t the case.”

Though the data he measured are now 14 years old, the racial and ethnic dynamics between parents, students and their teachers haven’t changed dramatically and “may have gotten slightly worse,” he noted.

Cherng’s findings ring true with his own experiences as a student growing up in Maryland. While he was a “troublemaker” in school, none of his teachers ever called his parents about his misconduct, he said. And when high school counselors personally congratulated his classmates’ parents on early admission to college, his parents did not receive a call when he was accepted into MIT. One teacher explained: “It’s not that big of a surprise that you got accepted.”

Cherng addresses the “model minority” stereotype — the idea that Asian students are academically gifted — he experienced, as well as other stereotypes that could be affecting teacher-parent communication patterns. For example, research has shown that teachers have lower expectations for black and Latino students and may believe that these students are not as invested in their education than their white and Asian peers.

At the conclusion of his study, Cherng writes, ”Education policy should be cognizant that racial/ethnic and immigrant disparities exist in teacher–parent contact and encourage more training in teacher preparation programs and professional development coursework for teachers and school administrators. Moreover, existing programs and interventions on multicultural/ diversity training should be evaluated for their impact on teacher perceptions and behavior.”

Education Week talked to Ann Nutter Coffman of the National Education Association, about Cherng’s suggestions. She said the diversity training that he recommends is provided inconsistently across teacher-prep programs.

“You don’t need to come from a disadvantaged background or be a person of color to be a successful teacher,” Coffman said. “But it’s just a matter of making sure that teachers are trained in cultural competence and to understand what that means in how to help kids. Getting that training is super important; it’s just not always given the prominence it should.”