The Graduate School

Research And Opinion

Vol. 11, No. 1
February 1997


by William Velez, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Toni Griego Jones, University of Arizona


This project grew out of our interest in the relationship between educational attainment and parental involvement. Rejecting the notion that minority parents are passive actors in their children's educational careers, we set out to confirm that parents, specifically Latino parents, have a powerful effect on academic achievement (Clark, 1983). In trying to discover what impact parents have on the academic achievement of Latino high school students, we focused on parents' interactions with the school as well as on their relationships with their own children relative to school. These two perspectives emphasize what may be termed "social" capital, in that they focus on how parents' relationships contribute to the academic achievement of students (Coleman, 1988). We set out to determine what kinds of relationships facilitate academic performance, as defined by grades in Science, Math, and English. Our expectations were that successful parents "sponsor" their child's academic achievement by(1)establishing and enforcing particular rules for "appropriate" behavior inside and outside the home, (2) maintaining regular verbal interaction with the child around school issues, personal behavior, and plans for the future, (3) engaging the child in recreational activities with parents both inside and outside the home, conveying warmth or emotional nurturing, and (4) maintaining contacts with the school (Baker and Stevenson, 1986; Clark, 1983; and Henderson, 1987).

Sample and Methodology

We began our study in several phases to look at parent/student/school interaction from students' perspectives and from parents' perspectives. First, we administered a survey to tenth grade students at Metro High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in December, 1993. Then, during the spring 1994 semester we interviewed 20 sets of parents.Our target for the student survey consisted of ten classrooms designated as tenth grade homerooms with significant numbers of Latino students. A total of 110 students completed the survey, out of which 79 respondents were identified as Latinos. Of these, only 76 surveys were complete, and they form the basis for the results presented below. We were hoping for a larger sample, but we had access only to first period homerooms which traditionally have a high absentee rate.

The ethnic composition of respondents is broken down as follows: 56% Puerto Rican and 44% Mexican American. The instrument had been translated into Spanish, and two out of every five respondents (40%) chose to answer the survey in Spanish. Given the small number of respondents, most of the survey-related findings are illustrated by bivariate correlations between grades and other variables in the model (Pearson correlation coefficients), and only when they achieve a significance level of at least .05 or less.

The second phase of our study called for personal interviews with parents of students at Metro High School to find out about their relationships with their children and with the school. Initially we hoped to interview the parents of students who completed the survey administered in the fall but it was not possible to match parents with the students, as the school's policy did not allow us to ask for home or personal information. Instead we solicited volunteers from lists provided by teachers and from a consortium of Latino families and school personnel who were engaged in efforts to improve schools. This group of respondents then, was probably more "active" than a larger, random sample would be.

We were able to interview twenty families at their homes during the months of May and June, 1994, collecting over 25 hours of audiotaped interviews. The ethnic composition of the families interviewed was as follows: nine were Mexican-American; nine were Puerto Rican; one family had one parent of Mexican origin and another of Puerto Rican ancestry; and one family was from El Salvador. All of the parents interviewed had been born outside of the United States mainland.

A semi-structured interview protocol for parents was developed in two parts, asking questions about 1) parents' relationships with school and 2) their relationships with their own children. Briefly, the first set of questions sought information about parent contacts with schools, the reasons for contacts, and results of contacts. Parents gave information about their own expectations of school and school personnel as well as their perceptions of the school's expectations for their children; about perceptions of responsibilities toward school; and about any influence they felt they had in decisions about their children's education. In the second part of the interviews, parents described activities they engaged in with their children, and talked about language usage in the home, supervision and discipline, and how they counsel their children relative to school. They explained their expectations for higher schooling and careers for their children. Tapes were transcribed and entered into the Ethnograph computer program.


Student Survey

In order to explore parents' influence on academic achievement, we had to determine how our sample of students was doing academically. Since we did not have access to official student records, we used several other ways of ascertaining academic achievement. Students gave self-reports on how well they were doing in several core subjects -- English, Mathematics, and Science. They also responded to questions about how well they could speak, read, and write English and Spanish.

Language and immigrant status. To better understand academic achievement for Latino students in an American high school, we felt we had to look at their language preference, their relative proficiency in English and Spanish, and how long the students had been studying in this country (where student completed seventh grade).

In order to compare how proficiency in English related to grades, a variable for English proficiency was created out of the indicators measuring students' perceptions of their ability to read, write, speak, and understand English. To further explore the impact of immigrant status and language proficiency we created an index out of the variables for English Proficiency, recency of arrival, and survey language (whether the student chose to answer the survey using an English version of the instrument). We constructed the index so that ascending scores reflected increasing assimilation, with the highest possible score attained by students who described themselves as highly proficient in English, completed the seventh grade on the mainland, and answered the survey in English.

The findings suggest assimilation is associated with lower school performance. More assimilated students reported lower grades in Science (r=-.30), and Math (r=-.26) than their less assimilated counterparts. Students who had been in this country longer and who had higher English proficiency reported lower academic performance than did their immigrant counterparts. Interestingly, our parental interviews suggested to us that migration might be experienced differently by Mexican and Puerto Rican parents, so we conducted further analyses on the effects of assimilation by looking at these two groups separately. The results show the negative impact of assimilation on grades occurred only within the Mexican-origin sub-sample. For example, 56% of Mexican recent arrivals reported getting very good grades (mostly As or As and Bs) in Science compared to 25% of their native-born counterparts (r=.45). The corresponding numbers in the Puerto Rican sample are 0 and 6 (r=-.04).

English Proficiency: "With regard to English, how well do you do the following: speak, read, write, and understand?"

Coded: very well or pretty well    = 1
       not very well or not at all = 0

Language use = language in which the survey was answered

Coded: Spanish = 0
       English = 1

Seventh grade = where student completed seventh grade

Coded: outside US mainland = 0
       United States       = 1

Assimilation Index = variable composed of the following unweighted indicators: English proficiency, language use, and where student finished seventh grade

               Correlations with grades
               English   Math      Science
Assimilation             NS          -.26*         -.30*

*p<.05  **p<.01   ***p<.001
Alpha value = .91

We offer several possible explanations for these findings related to lower academic achievement for those students who are more assimilated. Perhaps students who are recent arrivals may be in different academic programs, possibly bilingual or English as a Second Language programs, from those who are more assimilated. The native language instruction they receive in the bilingual program might have a positive effect on their academic performance. By contrast, more assimilated students are more likely to experience "second generation discrimination" to the extent that their presence in regular or "mainstream" programs denies them access to a full understanding of the curriculum. One can also argue that recently arrived students are more motivated to do well in their studies than are those who have been here longer. This last explanation fits the "socialization for failure" hypotheses espoused by other researchers (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, 1995) where native-born Latinos have been so alienated by schools they have acquired habits and attitudes antagonistic to school goals. More recently, Portes (1995) developed the concept of "segmented assimilation" to describe some of the adaptation strategies pursued by second generation children. One assimilation strategy involves taking on values and norms of the inner city "underclass" leading to academic failure. Still another explanation may lie in findings from the parent interviews. Parents, particularly those from Mexico, felt that schools there were more demanding and rigorous than schools in the United States. It is possible that the most recent arrivals have a better academic background and that the longer they stay in the United States, the more that background is eroded, as they are not building on that background. Another explanation for more recent arrivals having higher achievement may be found in the self-report aspect of this study. Recent arrivals may have an unrealistic notion of what "doing well" means in American high schools and of how they compare to mainstream students, and so they may overrate their achievement.

Time on task. Another variable related to school achievement studied in the survey was time spent on homework. In general terms, students who spent more time doing homework reported getting better grades. To explore the impact of academic effort in these subjects, we created an index for time on homework out of the variables measuring student reports of time spent on English, Math, and Science homework per week. The time on homework index shows a positive and significant relationship to grades in English (r=.28); Math (r=.48); and Science (r=.24). These results suggest academic effort pays off, since students doing more homework reported getting better grades. The survey results also raise the question of how much is demanded of students and how challenged they are by the school. For example, only 27% of the respondents reported spending an hour or more per week on science homework. Coincidentally, many of the parents we interviewed were dismayed at the low amount of schoolwork that was brought home. Is this because teachers are not assigning homework or because students just don't do it? Our data do not allow us to answer this question.

"About how much time do you spend on homework each week?"

Coded:  Less than 1 hour = 0
        1 or more hours  = 1

Time on Homework Index = a variable composed of the following unweighted indicators: Mathematics, Science, and English homework

           Correlations with grades

                      English      Math       Science
Time homework         .28*         .48***      .24*

* p<.05   ** p<.01   *** p<.001
Alpha value = .72      

Another important time variable related to academic achievement was time spent on task in school. This was analyzed by looking at truancy. Truancy was highly related to academic performance. We had two measures for truancy: times late for school in the last month; and whether students skipped classes. Tardiness was negatively related to performance in English (r=-.27) and Math (r=-.26). Finally, students who skipped classes earned lower grades in English (r=-.28) and Math (r=-.31) than those who never cut classes. For example, of those students who reported never skipping a class, three out of every ten (29.5%) got mostly As or As and Bs, while none of the students who skipped classes reported such high performance. Combined with the results on disciplinary problems discussed below, our findings suggest that the way students behave in school, including compliance with attendance rules, is significantly connected to their academic performance.

"How many times were you tardy for school over the last 4 weeks?

Coded:  Never           = 0
        1 or more times = 1

"How often do you cut or skip classes other than physical education?"

Coded:  Never                = 0
        At least once a week = 1

           Correlations with grades

                       English   Math  Science
Tardy                  -.27*         -.26*      NS
Skip classes           -.28*         -.31**     NS

* p<.05   ** p<.01   *** p<.001

Oppositional behaviors. To evaluate the relationship between grades and oppositional behaviors we looked at the variables for times sent to the office for disciplinary problems, and the number of times parents were asked to come to the school. The results suggest oppositional behaviors are related to lowered school performance. Students who had been sent to the office at least once during the past year got lower grades in English (r=-.26) and Math (r=-.24) than students who stayed out of trouble. Students whose parents were called to school at least once had lower grades in Math (r=-.29) and Science (r=-.35) than those students whose parents were never summoned to school.

"How many times in the last twelve months has each of the following things happened to you?"

     Sent to the office for disciplinary problems
     Parents called to school

Coded:  Yes   = 1
        Never = 0

           Correlations with grades

                      English   Math     Science
Sent                  -.26*     -.24*    NS
Called                NS        -.29*    -.35**

* p<.05  ** p<.01   *** p<.001 

Educational expectations. Educational expectations were related to school performance. Students whose plans for the future included attendance at postsecondary institutions reported higher grades than those who had less ambitious plans. Educational expectations are positively and significantly related to grades in English (r=.38), Math (r=.44), and Science (r=.32).


Aspirations: "As things stand now, how far in school do you think you will get?"

Coded from: "less than high school graduation" = 1
        to: "graduate/professional school"     = 5

           Correlations with grades

                     English   Math     Science
Aspirations          .38**     .44***   .32*

* p<.05   ** p<.01   *** p<.001

Student perceptions of parent involvement. Because we were interested in the connection between parent involvement and students' academic achievement, we asked the students questions about how they thought their parents were involved in schools. Student reports suggested a very low level of parental participation in school activities and committees. For example, only 11% of our respondents reported that their parents belonged to any school committee. This corresponds to parent reports of participation, with only two parents (out of twenty) stating they were part of any school committee.

According to information from student surveys, direct involvement of parents, by supervising the child at home, appears to be related to academic performance. After asking the students if there were rules at home for a number of behaviors, including TV viewing, bedtime, and school grades, we asked about any punishments associated with breaking parental rules. The findings suggest students whose parents enforced rules at home obtained better grades in Science (r=.31) and Math (r=.32) than respondents whose parents did not enforce rules at home.


"Are there punishments associated with breaking rules in your home?"

Coded:  Never            = 1
        Some of the time = 2
        All of the time  = 3

           Correlations with grades

                     English   Math     Science
Punishment            NS       .32**    .31**

* p<.05   ** p<.01   *** p<.001

All of the results from the student surveys are consistent with research findings and current literature on academic achievement of Latino students as it relates to a variety of factors, including the variables given above--language, recency of arrival, time on task, truancy, oppositional behaviors, parental involvement and expectations. The only variable that we studied that is not frequently found in educational literature was Latino parent interactions around educational issues and topics with their children. Findings from parent interviews and how they relate to student perceptions are given below.

Parent Interviews

Questions for the parent interviews were divided into two parts: 1) questions about relationships with schools and 2) questions about relationships with children. All interviews were audiotaped and conducted in respondents' homes over a two month period in spring of 1994. In fourteen of the twenty interviews, both parents were present, in five only the mother was interviewed, and one interview was with the father only. In nine cases, one or more children were present and actively participated, contributing their perspectives and giving examples to illustrate or support parents' statements. All but three interviews were conducted totally in Spanish, and Spanish was also used intermittently in those that were done primarily in English. Interviews yielded over twenty-five hours of information, and the following summary reflects the themes that emerged most consistently from that data.

Relationships with schools. Data from part one of the interviews generally paralleled what is known about all parents' relationships with schools. For example, for all parents, Latino or any other group, relationships at the high school level are more "distant" than at the elementary level. As in other studies, parents of high school students in this study reported that they have less personal contact with school staff than they did when their children were in elementary school; they received information about school events and news mostly through mail; and they visited the school primarily for parent/teacher conferences or when they received a summons from a teacher or the principal. Usually these "summoned" visits revolved around a problem, i.e., suspensions, negative behavior, or illness. The rate of parent participation on committees for this group of Latino parents was about the same as that reported by participants in the student survey for their parents: only two parents were actively involved on school committees. Still, a surprising number said they visited their children's school on a regular basis just to see what the teachers were doing or how their children were doing.

Parents generally expressed satisfaction with the schools although they did not really know much of what happens in school or what their children did. Understandings of their own children's academic achievement were most often expressed in general comments of doing well or not, as opposed to discussion of specific grades. According to parents in this study, a significant number of their children were doing well or were average in their grades. About half the families in our sample experienced mixed success with their children, that is, some of the children in the family were doing well in school while others were not. This perception is at odds with statistics on academic achievement of Latino students as a whole in the Milwaukee Public Schools, especially at Metro High School and its feeder schools where these children attended. The grade point average for Latino students in Milwaukee was 1.5 in the 1994-95 school year and the drop-out rate for Latino students starting ninth grade was 42%. These Milwaukee achievement measures reflect national statistics as Latino students have lower graduation rates than non-Hispanic whites and African American students (National Center For Education Statistics, 1995). Further, graduation rates for Latino students continue to decline even as they are going up for other groups (Romo & Falbo, 1996).

There was also a perception among a number of Mexican parents that their children were underachieving, even though they might be "doing well." As mentioned above, these parents thought schools in the United States were not as demanding as in their home country. To illustrate, we offer these words from one of the Mexican parents:

Schools in Mexico are superior to schools here... studying in Mexico is hard. My daughter used to cry when she had a test in Mexico. She would spend all night studying. Here it is easy, tests are easy to pass.

Other Mexican parents complained that their children were not learning world history and geography, subjects they claimed are covered in Mexico beginning in elementary school. Still others thought the school day is too short and there are far more vacation days in the United States than in Mexico. If this is the case, the more rigorous schooling and solid academic background acquired in Mexico may help account for the results presented above related to negative effects of assimilation on the academic performance of Mexican-origin children.

By contrast, Puerto Rican parents, when comparing school systems, either saw no differences or perceived Puerto Rican schools to be less demanding than Milwaukee public schools. We noticed, however, that some Puerto Rican parents perceived Puerto Rican teachers as more "warm" and caring than Metro High School teachers. For example, in referring to teachers in Puerto Rico, one mother said "there is this attitude, let us say, maternal, more emotional." Also referring to Puerto Rican teachers, a father commented that a "teacher's attitude over there is more positive...they are more concerned about their students...." However, parents did not directly criticize Milwaukee teachers. Instead, they tended to attribute the "colder" demeanor of Metro High teachers to cultural differences.

When asked about their satisfaction with specific areas of schooling such as communications with parents, curriculum, and instructional strategies, the parents in our sample did not criticize any part of the schools in a direct manner except in two areas, the assignment of homework and the lack of communication with parents. The lack of effective communication with parents especially was a sore point with many parents. They said that administrators did not return calls, that teachers and administrators in the high school did not facilitate communication with parents, and some felt intimidated because they did not speak English well. A few worried about or misunderstood the pedagogical methods used to teach math or English. For example, one parent commented that the bilingual program "does not help the student to strive to learn English." In this high school, however, the English as a Second Language program was responsible for teaching English. The bilingual classrooms were charged with teaching content areas such as math or science bilingually.

All of the above is consistent with surveys of parents in general about education--they do not know a great deal about what exactly happens in schools, they are critical of education in general, but are not particularly critical of their own children's schools.

Relationships with children. Data from the second set of questions about Latino parents' interactions with their children produced more unique information as there are relatively few data sources that describe Latino parents' interactions with their children relative to education. Much of the education and sociology literature assumes that minority parents do not engage in meaningful activities with their adolescent children. Interviews in this study, however, produced data that indicate Latino parents have a high level of interaction and engagement with their children. Every family reported activities that they did together, from going to church, to playing soccer, to going out for dinner. In addition, parents talked with their children about events and issues in their lives, discussed education and expectations, and all reported some type of supervision and monitoring of homework. A typical statement was, "I have to see that they do their homework; I have to see to it that they are disciplined and behave themselves." Many described rules and consequences for getting homework done, including where the students worked, the time allotted, and rewards for completion.

All the parents in our sample expressed high aspirations related to their children's education. They expected that their children would graduate from high school and most expressed a strong desire for higher education. Specifically, they expected schools to teach their children English and job related skills well enough so they could find meaningful employment in this country. When parents identified specific jobs they hoped for, they included careers requiring a university education, such as medicine, architecture and teaching. Parents made these expectations known to their children directly by telling them how important they thought high school graduation was, and indirectly by their questioning about school and homework, exhorting them to attend school faithfully. Parent statements consistently indicated a high degree of hope for their children's education, and all of our respondents exhibited a strong faith in the value of schooling, regardless of how well they rated individual teachers or schools.

Every parent expressed interest and caring about their children's schooling and wanted to support them. For example, we found instances of parents advocating at school when they thought their children were not being treated fairly. In one case, a mother contacted the principal and teachers about her child's grade when she thought the criteria for grading had been changed after a paper had been turned in. Another parent insisted on the school's providing disability support for her daughter who had been injured in school and she fought to have the school's insurance policy cover medical costs associated with the accident. A number of parents asked for information in Spanish so they could understand school communications and make sure they were attending to what the school asked for. Only a few parents engaged in traditional activism advocating for a "cause" such as school reform, but all parents indicated a willingness to advocate, or gave examples of personally advocating for the needs of their own children when necessary.

Although very few parents directly helped their children with schoolwork, we found many instances where an older sibling would provide assistance. Perhaps this was due to the fact that parents interviewed only had minimal formal education themselves, and thus felt they could give little or no direct assistance with homework. The parents' role was primarily one of making sure that students spent time on homework. Parental sanctioning of the importance of education was most clearly visible in their close oversight of their children's schoolwork through constant monitoring of children's diligence in doing homework and preparing class assignments.

Parents in our study who reported academically successful students showed an intrusive parenting style, that is, they closely monitored not only homework, but also other aspects of their children's lives. This monitoring behavior included knowing what children did during their leisure time and who their friends were, as well as establishing strictly enforced curfew times. Communication between parents and children was frequent, with parents reporting a high degree of trust and camaraderie between themselves and their children. In the interviews where children were present, the children volunteered information about family outings or discussions that confirmed the active participation of both adolescents and parents in a wide variety of activities. Family outings were frequent and included leisure activities such as soccer, fishing, dances, attending movie theaters, and shopping.

Another important aspect of interaction between parents and children was the importance placed on cultural bonds within the family. The majority of the parents we interviewed displayed an intense desire to transmit the home culture to their children. For example, they invariably supported the maintenance of Spanish and consistently spoke Spanish at home. This did not, however, negate their desire that their children learn English. Most parents taught their children songs and dances from their respective countries. During family gatherings and at church events, Latin American music was played. A number of parents made the connection between language and identity as the following excerpt illustrates:

I think they need to have chances to have identity as to who they are and a history of themselves. I think that language is important to me and to my husband. . . to be able to be bilingual is also introducing them to the possibility of other languages, other cultures, other worlds.

Many of the parents with children in bilingual programs expected language and cultural maintenance to be emphasized in its curriculum. In fact, many respondents told us that cultural maintenance was one of the main motivations behind their efforts to enroll their children in the bilingual program. Mexican parents also suggested that residence in the barrio surrounding Metro High was in itself conducive to preserving traditions and values.

Summary and Discussion

This study's findings suggest grades in Science are positively related to: time spent on homework; having parents who enforce rules at home; and educational expectations. Grades in Science were negatively related to the following indicators: increasing assimilation and disciplinary problems.

Our results indicate that academic performance in English is positively related to time spent on homework and educational expectations. Grades in English are negatively related to the following variables: tardiness and skipping classes.

Academic performance in Math was positively related to: having parents who enforce rules at home; time spent on homework (index); and educational expectations. Grades in Math are negatively related to the following indicators: increasing assimilation; disciplinary problems; and skipping classes.

Findings from this study are important because research indicates parent/child interaction lays a firm foundation for academic achievement--the stronger the relationships, especially as they relate to educational issues, the higher the academic achievement. It is clear that Latino parents and children in this group had strong, supporting relationships that should translate into academic success for their children, assuming adequate instruction on the part of the school. Because the parents interviewed here were not the parents of the students who completed the survey, direct comparisons between the academic achievement of the student sample and parents' descriptions of interactions with the school and their children cannot be made. However, if each group is typical or even has characteristics of Latino parents and students as a whole, findings suggest that schools are failing to take advantage of the close relationships between children and parents in Latino families in order to promote academic achievement. Contrary to the notion that Latino parents don't care or support education, results from the parent and student interviews suggest that they do in fact foster their children's education through a traditional focus on home and family.

Schools need to establish closer links to Latino parents, acknowledging the strong commitment Latino parents have to their children's academic achievement. These parent/school ties have to be developed with a sensitivity to the parenting style prevalent in Latino homes. Schools and parents need to work together to overcome the language and cultural barriers that stand in the way of their partnership for promoting students' academic and social achievement.


Baker, D.P., and Stevenson, D.L. 1986. "Mothers' strategies for children's school achievement: Managing the transition to high school." Sociology of Education 59:156-166.

Coleman, J.S. 1988. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94:S95-120.

Clark, R.M. 1983. Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henderson, A. (Ed.). 1987. The Evidence Continues to Grow: Parent Involvement Improved Student Achievement. Columbia, MD: National Committee for Citizens in Education.

National Center For Education Statistics 1995. The Condition of Education 1995. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, NCES 95-273.

Portes, A. 1995. "Children of Immigrants: Segmented Assimilation and its Determinants." In Portes, A. (Ed.), The Economic Sociology of Immigration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, pp. 248-280.

Romo, H. and Falbo, T. 1996. Latino High School Graduation: Defying the Odds. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Suarez-Orozco, C. and Suarez-Orozco, M. 1995. "Migration: Generational Discontinuities and the Making of Latino Identities." In Romannucci-Ross, L. and George De Vos (EDS.), Ethnic Identity: Creation, Conflict, and Accommodation. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, pp. 321- 348.


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