Latino Home-School Project Background
For 16 years, we listened and talked with a sample of immigrant youth and their parents from Mexico and Central America who now live in the greater Los Angeles area.
We asked them about connections between home and school for immigrant Latino families. We’ve learned about goals they have for their children and what they do to support learning at home. Parents have described the ways they try to overcome barriers to their children’s school success.
Our research methods include survey questionnaires, standardized test scores, and teacher ratings of student performance. In addition to home and classroom observations, we’ve conducted open-ended interviews and wide-ranging conversations with randomly selected case study families, and interviews with selected teachers.
Of the cohort of 121 children when the study began in 1989, 91 lived in Lawson, an unincorporated area of approximately 1.2 square miles in metropolitan Los Angeles. School enrollment in the Lawson District is over 90% Latino. A second group (N=30) included immigrant Spanish-speaking families residing in a racially mixed neighborhood approximately 25 miles south of Lawson (Sandy Beach); these children attend school in a large urban district.
The great majority (84%) of the parents in both communities came to the United States from Mexico; the rest are from Central America. Over half of the Mexican-origin parents in our sample are from the central Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan, and Zacatecas. When the study began, mothers in the sample averaged 9.6 years (range = 1-24) in the United States; fathers averaged 11.7 (range = 1-27). The average number of years of formal schooling for both mothers and fathers is 7 (range = 0-16 years).
Parents’ occupations cluster in the skilled and unskilled occupations within each census category: Service (30%; e.g., cooks, waiters, maids, janitors, bartenders, bus boys, parking attendants, child care and cafeteria workers, teacher’s assistants); Repair (23%; mechanics, electricians, carpenters, welders); and Laborer (34%; construction, assembly, packing, machine operation, and loading). Only 3% of the fathers reported being unemployed in 1989. The percentage of unemployed rose during the economic recession of the early 1990’s, dropping again in the mid-90’s. Approximately 43% of the mothers worked outside the home when the study began, with somewhat more currently employed outside of the home.
Parents’ Education Beliefs and Practices
On the surface, the Spanish educación appears to be a direct translation of the English word "education." Although they are clearly related etymologically, the Spanish term refers to beliefs and practices that are not generally referents of its English cognate. Whereas in English, someone who is "well-educated" is considered schooled, knowledgeable, and literate, in Spanish, "bien educado" has a different set of associations--respectful, dutiful, well-mannered. A well-educated person, in the English sense, might also be bien educado--but not necessarily; conversely, someone who is bien educado might have little formal schooling.
We found in earlier interviews (see Reese, Balzano et al., in press) that many parents did not spontaneously distinguish between education as schooling (academics) and education--oreducación--as upbringing (morals and comportment). One mother, for example, when asked what she would like for her son's future occupation, replied:
Me gustaría que estudiara, y sobre todo que fuera recto, que tuviera buenas costumbres, que llegara a ser una persona de respeto y que también fuera respetuoso con las personas. (I'd like him to study, and above all to be upright, to have good behavior, to become (literally: to arrive at being) a person of respect and to be respectful of others too.) (Case #91)
This interconnectedness of formal study and moral rectitude was so common in the conversational interviews that we added a direct question to our more structured interview protocol, in which we attempted to have parents distinguish between and assign priority to academic and moral aspects of education/educación. Even extended attempts to get parents to distinguish academics and morals and to speculate on which was more important to child's schooling success were unsuccessful in many cases. Twenty-eight per cent (28%) insisted academics and morals could not be separated, perceiving each as part of a larger whole leading to becoming a good person. One father's comments were typicalParents are more satisfied with their children’s school performance when teachers make efforts to involve the family in the child’s learning, and the children do better than those whose teachers are not reported to make such efforts. Many immigrant parents view U.S. schools as less stringent than Mexican schools. They expect homework and try to assist with homework to the extent that their level of schooling and English language proficiency permit. They are disappointed when they believe their child is not being held to a high academic and moral standard.
What levels of formal schooling do immigrant Latino parents hope and expect for their children? Do parents’ expectations influence children’s school achievement, or are parents’ expectations a reflection of children’s school performance? Do aspirations or expectations diminish the longer parents are in the U.S. or if they experience discrimination? We address these questions in a longitudinal study (kindergarten to sixth grade) of 81 Latino children and their immigrant parents. We employ a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods based on teacher ratings of children; scores on tests of academic achievement; and parent interviews where parents reported expectations and aspirations for their children’s future educational attainment, perceptions of children’s school interest and achievement, number of years living in the U.S., and perceptions of discrimination. Our primary findings are that (1) parents’ educational aspirations are high and invariant throughout the elementary years, regardless of children’s academic performance; expectations, however, fluctuate; (2) children’s school performance influences parents’ expectations, but expectations do not influence performance; and (3) immigrant Latino parents attribute high instrumental value to formal schooling, and neither years in the U.S. nor perceived discrimination diminish this belief. Our findings suggest educators should rethink their beliefs that Latino children’s achievement is compromised by parents’ low educational aspirations and expectations.
The parents’ views of literacy change over time in response in response to American schools and teachers. When their children entered kindergarten, only 25% of the parents reported reading aloud to their children on occasion. Many parents believed reading aloud to younger children would be a waste of time because the children would not be able to comprehend. However, as the children entered school and teachers either required home reading as part of homework assignments or provided incentives for joining book clubs, more parents began reading aloud with their children. By the middle of 1st grade, over 90% reported reading at least occasionally with their children. In some homes, parents also reported changing their ideas about reading as they observed their children to benefit from such reading sessions. The response of the parents in our random sample suggest that teachers can have a powerful impact on parents simply by encouraging them to provide children with reading materials and opportunities, including reading to and with their children.
Parents are often not aware of how well their child is actually doing in school. Some do not fully understand the report cards they are provided and many rely on homework or observations of the child’s interest and engagement in homework tasks to make judgments about academic progress. For example, parents express doubts about the meaning of such terms as “satisfactory.” On the whole, parents of lower achievers tend to rate their children’s performance much higher than the teachers. They interpret their child is doing well if he always wants to go to school or he always does his homework.
Teachers can make a difference in student achievement. In our Latino Home-School study, we observed first hand the effects of teachers’ sending regular homework, requiring reading aloud as part of daily homework, and contacting parents to involve them in the learning process. Teachers who did these things were highly praised by parents, and the students of teachers had higher standardized reading scores in both Spanish and English. In a related project in one of the participating elementary schools, project investigators worked with teachers and administrators on setting grade level expectations and working together to establish locally meaningful indicators of achievement. Grade-level meetings were used by teachers to study and implement better lessons based on the expectations and indicators. This process, which took place over a period of several years, resulted in marked gains in the reading and writing proficiency of students similar to those in our longitudinal sample.
Parents in our sample view learning to read as a “bottom-up” process, beginning with the learning letter sounds and syllables and blending these to form words. They see this as a process facilitated by rote drill and best learned in school or in a formal setting. Their model of literacy development and how it is taught shapes how they work with their children on homework. Parents were observed using story books and school worksheets to practice reading in essentially the same way—they focused on surface features of the text and on decoding. When they read with their children for other purposes—for entertainment or to share Bible stories with a moral—they discussed the meaning of the text in ways that were not observed with school reading materials.
Children’s Literacy Development and School Achievement
Students’ performance among children in the sample varied substantially from kindergarten through 7th grade. By grade 7, teacher ratings of performance ranged from 1 to 7 (on a 7-point scale), and standardized test percentile scores in English reading ranged from 1 to 91 and in mathematics from 1 to 95.
Thirty-six percent of the children had average 7th grade reading scores (36th to 64th %tile); 11% had scores above the 65th %tile, and 33% were below the 17th %tile on nationally standardized tests of English reading achievement. In middle school, 16% of the students were enrolled in gifted, honors, or accelerated programs of instruction. Less than 5 per cent were placed in special education at any time during elementary or middle school.
Early literacy development in Spanish is a powerful predictor of English reading performance through middle school. Children who enter kindergarten with some familiarity with Spanish text and experiences with reading in Spanish learn to read more efficiently in the early grades, in both Spanish and English. This early advantage increases over the years. We tested children in Spanish on individual tests of concepts about print and letter and word recognition at the beginning and end of kindergarten. Kindergarten Spanish literacy scores were not only correlated with reading performance on both Spanish and English standardized tests in grade one, but the correlations increased each year to .47 by the end of grade 7 when all the children were tested only in English reading. Early literacy development, whether in Spanish or English, provides an initial and lasting advantage. This finding supports a policy of providing rich, balanced early reading instruction that includes not only phonemic awareness and decoding skills, but frequent, well organized lessons focused on meaning and comprehension of text.
Some exposure to English prior to entering school is associated with earlier transition from Spanish reading to English later on in elementary school, and in turn is associated with higher end-of-middle school English reading performance. Students whose parents had lived longer in the U.S. had somewhat higher scores on oral English (on the Bilingual Syntax Measure) than those whose parents had been less time in the country. Those students with higher BSM scores in English tended to be those who were transitioned to English reading earlier (in grade 2 or 3) and who were more proficient readers in middle school. Children who attended preschool in the U.S. (some were Spanish language schools, some were not) had higher 7th grade English reading scores.
Long Term Outcomes: Who Goes to College?
In our sample recruited when they entered kindergarten, there were gender differences in educational trajectories to college. Academic achievement, parental factors, and language acquisition were the most significant predictors of Latinos’ college enrollment, but not Latinas. Surprisingly, teacher-rated classroom performance, beginning in kindergarten, and college counseling contact in high school predicted enrollment plans for Latinas.
Girls in our sample who eventually went to college described their early relationships with school agents in affective terms but became strategic in shaping instrumental relationships in high school. Non-college girls’ relationship with schools agents did not count on instrumental benefits in high school and they continued to seek affective relationships from teachers in high school. This different approach to relationships with school agents indicates that social networks with school agents develop over time and students’ trust in school agents needs to be established early on.
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