Parents, Schools & Conservative Ideology

By Christine Bowditch

In the past few years, educators and politicians have advocated increased parental involvement in schools. As part of these discussions, a few commentators have examined the sometimes illusory power granted to parents in contemporary school reforms and have called for true parent “empowerment.”1

A focus on “empowerment,” however, often leaves another dimension of the parental involvement movement largely unexamined: the call for the increased supervision of homework, participation in extracurricular educational activities, and support for school disciplinary practices.2 My concern is that this version of parental involvement offers ideological support for the broad-based conservative attack on single-parent and dual-earner families.

Commentators acknowledge that the Right has long blamed low-income and minority families for their children’s educational problems. Few critics have explained, however, how the current rhetoric of parental involvement has generalized this blame across economic boundaries and has, perhaps as a consequence, made these attacks palatable — even to many liberals and progressives. The “danger” (as opposed to the promise) of an emphasis on parents, to use Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s phrase, comes from the ideological support it offers various schemes to limit public school funding, but the emphasis on parents also creates a dangerous conceptual link between school failure and changes in family structure.3

This linkage is quite explicit in the conservative press. The Wall Street Journal reported: “Since 1965, the divorce rate, the ratio of children living in single-parent families and the proportion of married mothers of young children working outside the home have all doubled.” The article went on to quote Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, as saying, “This family revolution is the greatest cause of the decline in student achievement during the last 20 years.”4 A subsequent Wall Street Journal article reiterated: “Part of the argument for formalized forms of parental school support is that not enough of it is occurring naturally. More divorces and births outside of marriage have driven the number of single-parent families to 25% of all households with children, up from 20% just 10 years ago. Meanwhile, the percentage of mothers who work, about 60%, has never been higher.”5 The message is clear: women who have ventured outside the patriarchal household are the cause of our nation’s educational failures.

‘Nontraditional’ Families

The women of these “nontraditional” families create problems for schools because the education of children depends on the institutional interdependence of the family and the school. Schools make heavy demands on the organization of family life and the practices of mothers, which, given recent changes in family structure, may no longer be reasonable. Alison Griffith and Dorothy Smith have shown that the organization of schooling and the work of teachers depend on the daily activity of mothers to ensure attendance, to supervise homework, and, most significantly, to monitor and repair educational problems as they arise.6 If we look more closely at the division of labor between teachers and families, we can see that teachers have been charged primarily, either implicitly or explicitly, ed tasks of presenting information and covering material; families, which most often means mothers, have been assigned the tasks of motivating students and providing the time, space, and extracurricular attention or assistance to ensure that learning takes place.7 Thus, an urban high school teacher can ask: “How are we supposed to do anything with these kids when we have them for five hours a day?

We don’t know what they’re doing when they’re not here. And how can we be responsible for what they learn? In some families education is valued.”8 When a family “values” education, it engages in practices that, when carried out effectively, to quote Griffith and Smith, “[disappear] into the child and [appear] as [the child’s] competent performance in the school setting.”9

Single, employed, or low-income mothers are all at a significant disadvantage when held to these expectations for mothering.

For a mother’s work to “disappear into the child,” the mother must successfully coordinate the tasks and scheduling demands of her children’s school attendance and homework with the other demands placed on families — the wage earner(s)’s participation in the labor market, the provision of child care, and the management of household tasks — so that the expectations of the school are met without apparent conflict.10 This is most easily done when one parent, working outside the home, earns a “family wage” while another parent, most commonly the mother, is at home to supervise children and manage household affairs. The successful coordination of tasks is facilitated further when financial and social resources allow other adults — coaches, baby-sitters, extended family members — to address some of the needs for supervision, coordination, and support. 11 When single parents or mothers in two-parent families are drawn into the labor market or are otherwise absent from the home, or when the daily activities of a family’s survival or its struggle with illness, violence, or social disruption divert the time and attention of mothers from the homework that supports the work of teachers, then the child’s classroom performance suffers and the family is chastised for not “valuing” education or being sufficiently “involved.” The rhetoric of parental involvement, at least in many of its manifestations, assumes, legitimates, and seeks to enforce a particular normative model of the family — a model, as educators and commentators point out with distress, that has become decreasingly representative of American families across socioeconomic classes.

Rather than challenge the expectations that schools have for families, advocates for reform through parental involvement typically focus on finding ways to help (or coerce) single-parent or dual-earner families to function “as if” they conformed to the preferred structure. This help seems to run the gamut from the kinds of outreach programs and support groups Joyce Epstein reported, to the accommodations some schools now make in scheduling parent conferences or after-school activities, to the homework “hotlines” that allow parents to check what work teachers have assigned, to the fines and penalties for “uninvolved” parents recommended by such public figures as Virginia’s Secretary of Education.12 Approaches differ and those differences generate controversy, but the goal of involvement is accepted without much critical reflection.

‘Family-Blaming’ Ideology

While it is perhaps easy to see that explicitly punitive measures taken against parents serve the family-blaming ideology of the Right, it may be less obvious — but equally important — to see that liberal or progressive programs can serve the same ideological ends. Here [Joyce Epstein’s] Baltimore [family-school partnership] program can serve as an example. The families in our urban centers are certainly in dire need of assistance and Epstein’s program offers a humane response to that need. The overt goals of that program are not controversial. Everyone prefers home situations that encourage learning. But that assistance endorses the ideological position of the Right when it aims to teach families their “basic obligations” to provide the appropriate home environment for learning.13 Once we make a supportive home life an obligation, educators — and the public more generally — can blame families for their inadequacies and then retreat from the responsibility to teach the children of those families. We see this sequence of “blame and retreat” used most frequently (and most self-righteously) against low-income and minority families, but working mothers in the suburbs, whether single or married, are facing similar pressures and penalties when they resolve role conflicts in favor of employment. Those mothers who do involve themselves in schools or in educational activities must often do so by limiting their involvement in the labor market.

The tensions created by the poor fit between nontraditional families and traditional schools need not be resolved by forcing families into a more traditional model. Instead, we can change the work of teaching and the services offered by schools in ways that respond to the increased number of single-parent and dual-earner families. This change would require a restructuring of schools, such as is happening in Philadelphia, that goes beyond shared decision making with parents. 14 I support efforts to empower parents and to bring them into the decision-making process, but such programs will not necessarily make the work of teachers less dependent on the extracurricular work of mothers. Indeed, my concern is that the very parents who commit themselves to such efforts would be the ones most likely to believe that parents must be involved in schools. New, nontraditional schools should not exclude parents, but neither should they organize their work around the presumption of parental involvement. Schools need to make teachers responsible for motivating students (and give them the professional authority they need to do it) and they need to make classroom instruction rather than homework the linchpin for learning.


  1. Michelle Fine, “[Ap]parent Involvement: Reflections on Parents, Power, and Urban Public Schools,” Teachers College Record 94 (Summer 1993): 682-710.
  2. Lee May, “Study to Urge More Parental Involvement in Education, Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1986, p. 8; reports on William Bennett’s advocacy of these types of parental involvement.
  3. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, “Parents — A New Keyword in Education,” Teachers College Record 94 (Summer 1993): 677; and Amy Stuart Wells, “A Response,” Teachers College Record 94 (Summer 1993): 727-29.
  4. xKenneth H. Bacon, “Many Educators View Involved Parents as Key to Children’s Success in School,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 1990, p. B1.
  5. Gary Putka, “Some Schools Give Parents Crucial Roles in Educating Children,” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1991, p. 1.
  6. Alison Griffith and Dorothy Smith, “What Did You Do in School Today?: Mothering, Schooling, and Social Class,” in Perspectives in Social Problems, ed. G. Miller and J. Holstein (Greenwich Conn.: JAI Press, 1990).
  7. Christine Bowditch, “School Work and Home Work: The Ideology of Parental Involvement” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of Eastern Sociological Society, Boston, Mass., 1993).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Griffith and Smith, “What Did You Do in School Today?” p. 19.
  10. Ibid.; and Annette Lareau, Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (New York: Falmer Press, 1989).
  11. Griffith and Smith, “What Did You Do in School Today”; and Annette Lareau, “Beyond the Walls of Home: Social Class, Parents, and Children’s Organizational Lives” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Pittsburgh, 1992).
  12. Joyce Epstein, “A Response,” Teachers College Record 94 (Summer 1993): 710-17; and see Barbara L. Jackson and Bruce S. Cooper, “Involving Parents in Improving Urban Schools,” NAASP Bulletin, April 15, 1992, pp. 30-38; Carolyn Wanat, “Meeting the Needs of Single-Parent Children: School and Parent Views Differ,” NAASP Bulletin, April 1992, pp. 43-48; Marylou Tousignant, “Homework Hotline Rings a Bell,” Washington Post, April 11, 1991, p. VAP 3; and John F. Harris, “Parent-School Contracts Pushed in Va. Proposal: Aim Is to Raise Involvement in Education,” Washington Post, April 18, 1992, p. B1.
  13. Epstein, “A Response,” p. 710.
  14. Ann Bradley, “Reforming Philadelphia’s High Schools from Within,” Education Week, November 18, 1992, pp. 1, 17-19.

Christine Bowditch is a sociologist at Colby College, Waterville, Maine. This article is reprinted with permission from The Forum section of the Winter 1993 issue of Teachers College Record, copyright by Teachers College, Columbia University. It was written in response to an article by Michelle Fine, “[Ap]parent Involvement: Reflections on Parents, Power, and Urban Public Schools,” in the Summer 1993 Teachers College Record.