Parent Involvement and Low Wage Workers

Early in my work as a teacher educator, we were talking in class one day about reasons that parents may not be involved in ways that their children’s teachers expect.  Among other things we talked about were work schedules that can complicate the lives of parents — especially low-income parents who have little leverage for negotiating working conditions of hours.   A young man grew quite agitated and insisted that when he was a parent, he would put his children first and take time off of work to attend conferences and volunteer in his children’s classrooms.

A non-traditional aged woman in class who hadn’t said much to that point turned to him and said “I manage a McDonald’s.   And if you worked in my store and asked for time off like that, I’d fire you and hire someone who wouldn’t complicate my scheduling”.   She wasn’t explaining her personal values — that was clear.  She was explaining corporate policy.

There’s a taken-for-granted assumption in many schools now that parents are available to take direction from teachers about how they should spend evenings and weekends on homework or other school activities.  There’s another taken-for-granted assumption among many of my students that “parent involvement” means “parent volunteers”.  In their internships, it’s common for students to hear  teachers describe parents who don’t consistently sign reading logs, come in to volunteer, are hard to reach, or  who don’t regularly contact teachers with questions or gestures of supports as “uninvolved” or “not conveying their support of education”.

When such things come up in class, I ask them what they actually know about these parents’ lives, and we often find that we know what the parents don’t do, but little about their actual day-to-day lives.

And we then talk about data like this  and like this on the limited control that growing numbers of lower-income workers have over their hours or schedules as employers change shifts with little notice, require night work,  or refuse to move workers from part to full-time work so that parents are piecing together several jobs to make ends meet.  That conversation with the McDonald’s manager in class that day was over twenty years ago.  Working conditions have only deteriorated since then.

Where I teach, most of the students work, so many have personal experiences with the instability of part-time work.

Yet the rhetoric in schools about “parent involvement” as classroom volunteering, and the moralistic judgment of parents who don’t comply with teachers’ expectations about their roles in supervising homework (in spite of little evidence that most homework is valuable) continues.

So we keep teaching, and we keep sharing the growing data that many parents simply aren’t positioned to do the things that schools expect of them because of the demands of their employers.

Update: A more extensive scholarly look at work, schedules, and inequality is the Russell Sage Foundation’s Unequal Time

Control over one’s time is a critical resource for managing that unpredictability, keeping a job, and raising a family. But the ability to control one’s time, much like one’s income, is determined to a significant degree by both gender and class. In

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