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Cool People You Should Know: Annette Lareau

Cool people you should know returns after a brief hiatus.

Annette Lareau is a sociologist who teaches at the University of Maryland. Lareau is an ethnographer, and in my opinion, one of the best ethnographers in the country. She has written two spectacular books, Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education and Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. You can read Chapter 1 of Unequal Childhoods here), so let me talk about Home Advantage.

We often hear that poor parents don’t "value" education. In Home Advantage, Lareau argues that teachers often misunderstand the meaning of and reasons behind poor parents’ lower involvement. According to the teachers in her study, parents who were involved wanted educational success for their children more than those who weren’t. But Lareau finds no evidence to suggest that working class parents value education less; rather, working and middle class parents may value education equally yet understand the range of possible actions that can flow forth from that value quite differently.

In Home Advantage, Lareau explored the mismatch between teachers’ and parents’ understanding of involvement, and found that poor parents did comply with their half of the educational bargain, as they understood it. Poor parents saw teachers as professionals, deferred to their judgment, and believed it was the role of the school to educate their children. But teachers’ definitions of what parents' role should be differed, and many interpreted their failure to fill this role as an issue of values.

On the other hand, middle-class parents saw themselves on equal or even superior footing with teachers. They walked in and out of classrooms with ease and entitlement, asked for their children to be included in programs, and in general, adroitly tried to shape the school experience of their children. Lareau argued that schools use particular linguistic structures, authority patterns, and types of curricula. That children from middle/upper class families enter school familiar with these patterns gives their kids a “home advantage.”

I'm sure you're thinking, "Isn't that obvious?" It seems so, until you listen to the current discussion on parental involvement. So much of that conversation assumes either a) if schools just give parents formal opportunities to be involved, everything else will follow, b) that a "good" school can get parents involved, or c) that poor parents just need to "care" more. Lareau's book makes clear that the parental involvement issue is much more complex, and is a must read if you want to better understand these challenges.
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