Distributed April 27, 2001
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Study finds barriers to immigrants’ involvement in children’s education

A study of 308 Dominican, Cambodian and Portuguese parents found a low level of parental involvement in their children’s education due to several factors, including discomfort with the English language, cultural conceptions of the role of teachers and parents, and lack of familiarity with the system.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Immigrant parents’ lack of participation in their children’s education should not be interpreted as a lack of interest, according to a new Brown University study.

Parents’ discomfort with speaking the English language, lack of familiarity with the educational system, and cultural conceptions of the roles of teachers and parents are often barriers to their involvement, said Cynthia Garcia Coll, the study’s author. Garcia Coll is professor of education, psychology and pediatrics at Brown and is the Mittleman Family Director of the Center for the Study of Human Development.

“It’s not that parents don’t care,” said Garcia Coll, who presented the findings this month at the National Society for Research in Child Development. “It is not a matter of having the right values, it is a matter of having the right tools and understanding that you have an important role in your children’s education.”

The study included 308 Dominican, Cambodian and Portuguese parents from Providence and East Providence, whose children were between the ages of 6 and 12. The findings confirmed anecdotal complaints about parent’s lack of interest in their children’s education typically heard in urban school districts, said Garcia Coll.

Immigrant parents overall reported a relatively low level of involvement in a range of educational participation, including conferences with teachers, setting rules about when to be home after school, and establishing a place in the house for homework.

In all instances, Cambodian parents reported less involvement in their children’s education than Dominican and Portuguese parents, who reported similar levels of overall involvement. Cambodians also reported the fewest educational resources in the home among the three immigrant groups, including computers and a designated area for homework.

Pre-immigration experiences with literacy and formal schooling, as well as aspects of the receiving communities, all influenced the differences between ethnic groups, Garcia Coll said.

The Portuguese have been part of the immigration wave to this part of the country since the 1800s and have a well-established community. The Dominicans, although a more recent migration, have been welcomed by a well-established Latino community that eased their entry and adaptation to this culture. In comparison, the Cambodian community is less well established economically and politically, and no one else speaks their language.

Portuguese parents in the study, perhaps reflecting their longer presence in the United States, were the most comfortable in their overall use of English. They tended to speak English to their children, while Dominicans and Cambodians tended to use their native language.

Cambodians reported the lowest level of maternal education – five years, compared to 10 years for Portuguese and 11 years for Dominicans. Cambodian parents who were more educated and more comfortable with English tended to be more engaged in their children’s schooling than their less-educated counterparts.

Programs that help adults improve their English language skills and increase their overall education level – and therefore improve their familiarity with the U.S. educational system – may improve parental involvement in their children’s schooling, according to Garcia Coll.

However, cultural factors must be taken into account, Garcia Coll said. In Cambodia, parents believe that they should never question or interfere with teachers; to do so would be disrespectful. Asking Cambodians to take an active role is “asking them to do something that is completely out of their life experiences,” said Garcia Coll.

In all the ethnic groups, low levels of involvement were not related to the parent’s perception about the importance of education. A majority of the parents reported high aspirations for their children’s future and recognized the importance of education in meeting those aspirations.

The study was supported by MacArthur Foundation Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood and by the Mittleman Family Directorship at the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown. It is part of a larger research project to assess children’s ethnic and racial identity as well as their engagement in schools in the context of classrooms and families.

Garcia Coll collaborated with several other researchers in the Center for the Study of Human Development, including Benjamin Bailey, John Modell, Dais Akiba, Lisa DiMartino and Rebecca Silver and undergraduate students Cindy Chin, Natalia Palacios and Sheila Rodriguez.