Parental involvement and the academic achievement of Mexican American youths: what kinds of involvement in youths' education matter most?

Author:Altschul, Inna

Parental involvement in education is a key focus of current policies and programs aimed at improving the academic outcomes of students at risk for academic underachievement. This study examines six forms of parental involvement in education to determine which forms of involvement have the strongest relationships with youths' academic outcomes. Using nationally representative data (N = 1,609) from the National Education Longitudinal Survey, this study focuses specifically on Mexican American families and youths, a population at high risk for academic underperformance. Findings show that the positive effects of parental involvement among Mexican American parents occur through involvement in the home, whereas parental involvement in school organizations is not associated with youths' achievement. Parents' investment of financial resources in their children's education was found to have a somewhat higher impact on achievement than forms of involvement that require parents' investment of time. Findings also suggest that the impact of these forms of parental involvement occurs prior to high school.

KEY WORDS: academic achievement; Mexican American youths; parent involvement


Policy and program interventions aimed at improving children's academic outcomes often focus on increasing parental involvement. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (RL. 107-110) highlights parental involvement as a key factor in improving academic outcomes, particularly for children attending schools that serve high proportions of low-income children (Title 1 schools). Indeed, parental involvement appears to be an important factor in improving children's academic outcomes, and a sizeable body of work generally points to the positive effects of parents' naturally occurring involvement (for a recent review, see Pomerantz, Moorman, & Litwack, 2007). However, less is known about the effects of parental involvement on academic outcomes among children of color, particularly Latino children (Jeynes, 2003).

Effects of parental involvement in academics appear to differ among racial-ethnic groups (Desimone, 1999) and among different Latino nationality groups (Figueroa-Moseley, Ramey, Keltner, & Lanzi, 2006). In addition, different types of parental involvement have distinct relationships with academic outcomes (Domina, 2005; Jeynes, 2003; Pomerantz et al., 2007). Consequently, to understand the role of parental involvement and its potential utility for intervention in promoting academic achievement among children of color, and particularly Latino children, more studies that carefully examine the role of multiple forms of involvement with diverse samples are needed.

Of critical importance are studies focused on Mexican American families, both those that have recently migrated and those that have resided in the United States for generations. Mexican Americans are by far the largest and fastest growing population of Latinos in the United States, accounting for 65% of U.S. Latinos and 9.7% of the entire U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Among Latino groups, Mexican Americans are at gravest risk for living in poverty, in part because of lower rates of high school completion and college attendance within this group (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). The likelihood of high school dropout is two to four times higher for Mexican American students than for Cuban and South American youths, even after controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status (Driscoll, 1999; Landale, Oropesa, & Llanes, 1998). Indicators of academic achievement, such as grades and performance on standardized tests, are, on average, lower among Mexican American children than among children from other immigrant and native-born groups (Ferguson, 2001; Kao & Thompson, 2003; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Thus, interventions to address the academic disparities faced by Mexican American children and youths are much needed.

This study examined the role of parental involvement in the academic achievement of Mexican American youths using a nationally representative sample from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey. Following Garcia Coil et al.'s (1996) critique of dominant approaches to studying processes among minority populations, this study focused on intragroup variability among Mexican Americans, and, thus, it highlights beneficial parenting processes related to youths' academic outcomes in this population.


Parental involvement in academics is a broad construct that encompasses a range of parenting behaviors from discussing school-related matters with children to being active in parent-teacher organizations (Pomerantz et al., 2007). Differing definitions of parental involvement play an important role in the debate about whether Mexican American parents are involved in their children's academics. Assertions that Latino and Mexican American parents--particularly those who have low incomes or are recent immigrants--are uninvolved and uninterested in their children's education can be seen in both scholarly writing (for a review and critique of such writing, see Valencia & Black, 2002) and in the opinions of teachers (Quiocho & Daoud, 2006; Valdes, 1996). Yet multiple empirical studies have shown that Mexican American parents care deeply about their children's education, have high expectations for academic success, and engage in a range of activities in relation to their children's education (for example, Chrispeels & Rivero, 2001; Lopez, 2001; Martinez, DeGarmo, & Eddy, 2004; Quicho & Daoud, 2006).This disjuncture is, in part, reflective of the differing definitions of parental involvement used by both scholars and educators. Key distinctions that should be addressed when considering the parental involvement of Mexican American parents are those between school-based and home-based involvement and between parental investment of time and investment of money in their children's education.

Studies of parental involvement in academics often distinguish between home-based and school-based involvement (for example, Domina, 2005; Pomerantz et al., 2007; Sheldon & Epstein, 2005). School-based involvement includes activities such as attendance at parent-teacher conferences, attendance at school meetings or events, and involvement in school-based parent organizations. Home-based involvement includes assisting children with homework, discussing school-related matters with children, and engaging with children in intellectual activities (Pomerantz et al., 2007). In collecting information about parent and family involvement in education, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has focused overwhelmingly on school-based involvement (Herrold & O'Donnell, 2008; Vaden-Kiernan & McManus, 2005), echoing the priorities set by No Child Left Behind (EL. 107-110) to get parents involved at school. Yet for parents who experience economic, social, cultural, and linguistic barriers to engaging with schools, such involvement may be much more challenging, if not altogether impossible (for example, when language translation is not available). Language and cultural barriers between English-speaking teachers and Spanish-speaking parents are significant barriers to parental involvement at school (Reese, 2002; Romo & Falbo, 1996; Stanton-Salazar, 2001 ;Valdes, 1996). In addition, economic circumstances of Mexican American families are a frequently cited barrier to parental participation in that parents must direct most of their energies toward providing basic needs, leaving little time for involvement at school (Lopez, 2001; Romo & Falbo, 1996; Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Tapia, 2000).

Barriers to school-based parental involvement for Mexican American parents do not, however, preclude home-based parental involvement in education that may also further children's educational success. For example, Romo and Falbo (1996) documented that many low-income, second-generation Latino parents experienced profound marginalization in U.S. schools as children and are hesitant to engage with the schools as parents; nevertheless, these parents are invested in their children doing well in school and regularly communicate this to their children. Examining parental involvement in education among recent immigrants from Mexico, Lopez (2001) argued that parents are deeply invested in their children's education and operationalize this investment by involving children in life lessons, including early introduction to hard labor, that demonstrate the value of education. This form of parental involvement, focused on motivating children to succeed in education, has been documented in a number of studies with Mexican American families in which parents have reported telling their children to do well in school so that they do not end up working in low-wage, manual jobs like their parents (Lopez, 2001; Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Valdes, 1996). In this way, parents attempt to socialize their children to achieve in school, without directly engaging with the U.S. educational system. Such forms of parental involvement are not visible to the schools, and teachers often label these parents as uninvolved. In examining parental involvement in education among Mexican American families, it is therefore critical to examine the contributions of both school-based and home-based involvement in education, as parents may be more likely to be involved in their children's education outside of school.

A second important distinction in types of parental involvement, especially among low-income families, is that between the investment of time and the investment of money in children's education. Although parents' investment of time and money may have different effects on youths' achievement, no known studies to date have explicitly examined this distinction with Mexican American or Latino samples. The choices parents make to invest in their children are circumscribed by the availability of resources...

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