A case study of parental involvement in a conversion from transitional to dual language instruction
Pena, Robert A
This case study examines the socio-political context ofa K-8 public elementary school. In particular, the interchanges that occurred between the school and the parents involved in developing a dual language school program are examined. Findings indicate that school personnel and parents were routinely involved in planning and developing a move to dual language at first, and that these individuals opted for philosophies, practices, and procedures geared toward making dual language students appear normal. As the program developed, parent satisfaction and involvement declined. Teachers, administrators, and staff generally seemed good-natured and easy going, but “distant,” according to parents. The practitioners addressed the demands and objectives of the intended change but interacted with the parents in such a way as to appear detached and removed. The parents suggested that school personnel were taking steps to address school issues, and that while they acknowledged the needs and interests of parents, the teachers and administrators appeared to be involved but not in such a way as to support family values.
The underachievement of Mexican-American students has been studied for decades. Valdez (1996) and Delgado-Gaitan (1992, 1991) indicate that underachievement was originally attributed to biological and cultural factors that presumably rendered Mexican-American students cognitively and socially inferior to their White peers. Contemporary researchers suggest that socioeconomic barriers contribute to underachievement (see for example Achor & Morales, 1989; Delgado-Gaitan & Segura, 1989; Cromwell & Ruiz, 1982; Pena, 1997). Others propose that stereotypes regarding family structure and parental mediation negatively affect achievement (LeVine, 1983; Pena, 1997), and that school personnel do not acknowledge that differences in the dominant school culture and the culture at home contribute to the underachievement of Mexican-American students in schools (Reyes & Capper, 1991 ).
To address underachievement, contemporary researchers also describe the need to increase parental involvement in schools (Cummins, 1993; Delgado-Gaitan, 1992; Cummins, 1986). Brofenbrenner ( 1978) and Chavkin and Williams (1993) suggest that involvement is necessary for enabling parents to advocate for their children. Delgado-Gaitan (1991) suggests that parental involvement reduces “resentment, apathy, and the eventual alienation” (p. 21) that occurs when parents are isolated from schools. Cummins (1986) and Epstein (1988) propose that increases in community participation and the availability of academic and cultural resources are attributable to parental involvement, and that increased involvement leads to language minority students experiencing academic and social gains in school.
Two assumptions guided this investigation of how the involvement of 18 Mexican-American parents in a transitional to dual language conversion effort was affected by the context of the school. First, the school context was assumed to be constituted of discourse and action. This meant that understanding the dynamic interrelationships among the institutional, situational, and societal levels required examining what different individuals said, believed, and did during the conversion from transitional to dual language instruction (Freeman, 1996; Bamgbose, 1989; Christian, 1988; Weinstein, 1986). The school context was defined then as including those dynamic interrelationships among institutional, situational, and societal levels that influenced each other and the involvement of the parents and other participants in the developing of dual language at Aztec Elementary School (Freeman, 1996).
Second, I viewed the dual language reform as a social and political endeavor that was dynamic and mainly change oriented. I tried not to assume a priori that planning activities and documentation characterized how individuals thought and behaved at Aztec. I assumed, instead, that planning and implementing the conversion to dual language witnessed different individuals experiencing unique and competing interpretations regarding how and by whom the program was to be carried out.
The data for this case study was collected over a 21-month period. During this time, I attended each of the 17 planning sessions that lasted on average about two hours each. I compiled field notes while observing these sessions and audiotapes through in-depth interviews with 45 participants. Parents, teachers, and administrators who attended planning sessions on at least nine occasions and were most often involved in school and dual language activities were interviewed. I also collected announcements and other documentation discussing the move from transitional to dual language instruction.
In all, 18 parents representing 14 families were interviewed in their homes. Five were single parent mothers. Each family had a minimum of one child enrolled in Aztec and three families used Spanish as their primary language at home. On average, the 14 families lived in the Aztec community for nearly five years, having moved to the district from Mexico and different states in the Southwest. Eleven families had parents who worked in nearby hotels, restaurants, and as laborers with a yearly income of approximately $15,800. Four families received public assistance, and each of the 14 families lived in low-income housing.
Fourteen teachers regularly attended the planning sessions and were interviewed, although only six teachers and two teachers-on-assignment actually taught in the dual language program. Three teachers and both teachers-on-assignment were Hispanic and fluent in Spanish and three teachers were Anglo and spoke only English. The six remaining teachers (three Hispanic and three Anglo), attended the planning sessions as they had volunteered to do so, were qualified, and hopeful of teaching dual language in the near future.
The remaining interviewees included the director of the program and the principal of Aztec, both of whom were fluent in Spanish and English. The three superintendents visited the school and planning sessions on only five occasions but were nonetheless interviewed as their names were frequently raised during interviews with the other participants. In addition, these individuals were interviewed as their responsibilities included signing purchase orders and providing resources and other forms of support and counsel to participants during the conversion to dual language. Aztec’s superintendent, the superintendent in charge of personnel, and the district’s chief finance officer could not communicate in Spanish.
My observations, interviews, and document collection activities were guided by protocols that were developed and informed by Gordon’s (1979) typology of parental involvement. Part one of this typology includes a parent impact focus designed for examining how involvement affects the roles, relationships, and commitments that family members experience in school and at their homes. Part two describes a school impact focus for collecting data that describes how the school might be made more responsive to parents. The parents’ participation in planning, instructional delivery, parent-teacher conferences, ad-hoc committees, and Aztec’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) were classified as examples of school impact activities in this study. Part three of this typology describes a community impact focus, which allows for collecting data relevant to how the parents, teachers, administrators, and school were affected by the parents’ involvement in the conversion to dual language effort. I also met with the coordinator of the school’s family center to learn about how often it was visited by parents and about the nature of the services provided there.
Bauch ( 1994) recommends a third set of categories for examining parental involvement that was ultimately combined with Gordon’s typology to strengthen my data collection protocols. Bauch’s categories describe parents as teachers of their own children, decision-makers, school volunteers, para-professionals, teacher colleagues, and adult learners. These frameworks were combined as they were described in previous research as effective for examining parental involvement (Bauch,1994), and as they were shown to be effective for assessing how parents and different individuals are transformed through their association with schools (Gordon, 1970; Gordon and Breivogel, 1976).
Making Meaning of the Data
My treatment of the data involved developing a profile of the school and district. The treatment called for identifying the status and examining the relationship that each individual had with one another, the conversion to dual language, and the school. In addition, how each interviewee defined the conversion process, its goals, objectives, and related challenges was noted. I also examined participants’ beliefs about whom the conversion from transitional to dual language instruction was intended for. Then, after color coding the data according to these criteria, I organized and compared different findings to understand how the layers of authority were constituted at Aztec, how decisions were made, and if and how the political interests of the different participants were represented. For this study, it was especially important to examine what the goals and conversion activities implied for the involvement of the parents.
Next, I found that, after comparing each of the interviewee’s responses and studying them across different groups, specific concepts and themes started to emerge and then reemerge. I made note of these concepts and themes on the transcripts and field notes I compiled and developed classifications under which these concepts and themes fit. Then, I examined the classifications I developed to understand why other data did not belong. This led me to refine and change some classifications and to abandon others.
Finally, I took the classification schemes and analyzed them further to understand each of them and to understand how these schemes related to each other. This allowed me to draw conclusions regarding what the perspectives and behaviors of participants implied for parental involvement, and it provided the opportunity to have parents, teachers, and administrators assess the validity and reliability of the conclusions that were drawn. Moreover, studying and involving 12 of the 45 participants in examining these schemes provided the opportunity to communicate, using the participants’ words, how and why they made meaning of the move to dual language as they did.
The findings below are taken from the data I collected. They start by describing the school and district. Then, assertions that uncover the bases upon which the parents became less involved in developing the dual language program are given. These assertions are labeled ideological differences and organizational needs versus family values and they house significant related themes. To establish their validity and to understand the logic of the description, assertions, and themes, excerpts taken from the data are included.
Aztec Elementary and the School District Community: A Profile
Aztec Elementary School is nestled in an impoverished urban community in an east central region of a state in the Southwest. This school employed 66 certified staff and 35 support personnel from 1995 through 1997. It is a K-8 public school that served 1,250 students when this research was started in 1996.
The majority of students in Aztec were described by school personnel as being “at-risk.” Ninety-four percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch, 82% were classified as “ethnic minorities,” 57.4% were identified Limited English Proficient (LEP), and 18% of the students were classified as newly arrived immigrants according to an end of year school district report. Table 1 provides information on enrollment trends and the diversity of the school’s student population from 1990 to 1995.
Along with a decline in the percentages of White and Asian students and a rapid and enormous increase in the percentage of Hispanic students, the school itself experienced a 58.2% increase in its overall student population from 1990 to 1995. Analyses of findings in this end of year report also indicated that the percentage of LEP students served in the Aztec School district increased overall from 21.6% in 1993 to 57.4% in 1995.
The predominant Hispanic community in the Aztec School District is of Mexican origin. Administrators in Central Office reported during school board meetings in 1996 that the use of the Spanish language was “routine at home,” and that the Mexican culture had “a growing influence” in the schools, district, and surrounding community. These administrators indicated that the majority of students’ families used Spanish and English at home, and that many Aztec families used “only Spanish” or “only English” at home. Also, most of the Mexican-American families in the district were “not registered to vote” and “don’t vote or generally participate in school activities” according to district office administrators.
The superintendent explained that the district has a “weak tax base to fund the education program” and that “additional votes, money, and parental involvement are needed to improve the education services provided.” During our initial meeting, she explained that the amount of money allocated for educating each student in the district remained the same from 1993 to 1996 at $2,900 per pupil. This amount compared with an average per pupil expenditure of $4,196 for the state over this same three-year period. For this reason the district has filed a suit with the federal court regarding unfair school funding practices.
Regarding staffing issues, the assistant superintendent in charge of personnel explained that “from 1993 to 1996 the district made a ton of efforts to increase the numbers of bilingual endorsed personnel by recruiting Spanish speaking instructional support staff and teachers who did not have essential training in bilingual education practices but who were able to speak Spanish.” Figure 1 indicates that while Aztec increased its percentages of staff who were able to communicate with LEP students using their native Spanish language from 1992 to 1997, this increase remained unable to keep up with increases in the percentages of LEP students whose population continued to swell from 1992 to 1995.
Conversion to dual language was initiated when Aztec teachers and administrators realized that the existing monolingual program “did not serve the Mexican students well.” One teacher stated that “as the limited proficient and low income population of students increased, a parallel decrease in all academic areas became apparent with transitioning them to English only.” Further, not only did the negative aspects of the existing English only program encourage change, but the positive attributes of dual language persuaded the teachers and administrators to pursue a different approach.
The superintendent asserted that “students with bilingual and biliterate skills have a far greater potential to succeed and [to] gain upward mobility in the workforce than do monolingual individuals.” In conjunction with this statement, school board members decided to “accept federal funding” for developing “alternative programs of instruction for all students in the district.” This prompted the school and community, and especially the parents, to aid in the construction of a dual language program, thus, increasing their direct involvement with Aztec. “The funding,” the superintendent said, “forced us to make an honest attempt to examine our methods of instruction and the instructional program in particular, and it forced us to work to get the parents more involved than they were in the past.” The primary objective of dual language instruction was to “increase student test scores by developing the oral and written language skills of students in both Spanish and English.” This objective was to be achieved by “developing the students’ primary language skills” and by capitalizing on “functional communication between teachers and students.”
Dual Language Program Operation
Prior to holding their initial planning meeting, Aztec teachers and administrators visited existing dual language programs in Texas and southern California, deciding that those teachers who were to be involved in providing dual language instruction in Aztec “would do more than teach.” They would “introduce characteristics of both the Mexican and U.S. cultures to Aztec students.” Their visits to these programs also convinced them that the dual language program at Aztec needed to be implemented with a reciprocal instructional stance, or “50/50 model,” in mind. Students whose primary language was Spanish or English would receive instruction in one language for half of the day, and the second language during the other half. More specifically, one group of students was taught English, science, social studies, and mathematics in Spanish, while the other was being instructed in the same content areas by a teacher whose primary language was English during the first part of the day. In the afternoon, the two groups of S 1 and E 1 students exchanged settings and teachers so that they could be reintroduced to the same concepts but in a second language. This allowed for students whose primary languages were either Spanish or English to be grouped together in the same classroom setting while being exposed to a particular language and culture. The teachers hoped that students, through this approach, would (1) view the classroom as representative of their language and culture, (2) acquire dual language proficiency without the necessity for us to translate from one language to the other, and (3) have greater access to opportunities for academic success.
In order to allow students to experience academic gains, “thematic units” and “collaborative group work involving teachers from the same grade level” were utilized. Thematic units allowed for teachers to have “sufficient autonomy” over what and how they would teach, while remaining consistent with curriculum requirements. The “collaborative peer coaching model” was selected by the planning team members as it was deemed “effective in the past for stimulating cooperation and planning,” and “for increasing the integration of math manipulatives and computer technology in the classrooms.”
Parents were encouraged to participate in free literacy and adult education training programs, and to join Aztec’s Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) in order to participate in and supervise the decision-making process. Also, because of the large migrant population in the surrounding community, parents recommended a family center where “new families could learn about available programs and how to get food, clothes, housing, where to go to church, and how to get financial support when they first arrive to the United States.”
Regarding teacher development, a formal agreement between the school district and a nearby state college was developed so that Aztec teachers and staff could complete courses and obtain their bilingual endorsement with no monetary burden to them and the school district. This agreement was also described in the proposal and supported by funding taken from the Title VII grant award. In many ways, the process of converting from transitional to dual language instruction at Aztec Elementary School was similar to other conversion efforts described in dual language research as it utilized thematic units and team-teaching and emphasized cultural awareness, language acquisition, and academic achievement.
Ideological Differences Related to Defining Equal Educational Opportunity
An assessment of the context surrounding the move to dual language suggested that while numerous factors affected its development, specific issues influenced the thinking and actions of the planners more than others. Each of the participants argued strongly, for example, for ensuring that the change emphasized equal educational opportunities for all Aztec students. The participants explained that in accordance with the “Civil Rights Act,” “the Bilingual Education Act,” and “the dual language grant,” “Aztec is required to involve parents” and “to provide all of our LEP students with a means to become competent in English.” Moreover, the participants agreed that any program changes supported by the grant should result in the students and parents “getting along with the school and each other better,” and with the Mexican students and parents, in particular, “becoming more like our traditional families, the families who experienced success here in Aztec in the very recent past.”
A difference in perception emerged when I examined how the participants perceived equal opportunity and the addressing of the Bilingual Education grant. Twenty-four of the 45 participants asserted that for equal opportunity to occur, LEP students required treatment that was “different” and “preferential” to that provided to the Anglo students at Aztec. These individuals were “excited” and “very serious” about “changing the social order,” “improv(ing) the status,” and “improving how the Mexicans are treated in general compared to the Whites.”
They insisted that “Aztec, and not just here, but in other schools in the district and state, recognizes that transitioning into English only just doesn’t work and penalizes the LEP students unfairly.” These parents, teachers, and administrators said that
“…to improve test scores so they’re at the state average, then we need to do something special, we need to stop denying that we have Mexican students, that many many more are on the way, and we need to stop dealing with the Mexican students, their families and probably their culture from the bottom of the deck.”
Those who favored making slight modifications to the transitional approach argued against demonstrating preferential treatment to MexicanAmerican students and families. They said that “for equal opportunity to be provided to all, all Aztec students should be treated the same.” They said that “while we can all admit that we can and will do better, and the grant will definitely help with that, it’s important to understand that it takes time, that we have already made great strides here at Aztec, and that dismantling things to benefit one group of students is simply unrealistic, unfair, and probably setting dual language students up for failure at some point in the future.”
These individuals, who included a slightly smaller group of parents, teachers, and administrators from both Mexican and Anglo backgrounds, explained that “we didn’t know dual language was so exclusive and severe,” “we only need to make some minor adjustments in some areas,” and “dual language is controversial and gives a false sense of security to the students about who they are.” They added that “there are many other factors to be aware of when we talk about equal opportunity and school reform,” and “our teachers, administrators, and parents worked very hard and we had a great deal of success for years and years under the transitional model.”
“It’s only recently and practically overnight,” one teacher commented, “that 90% of our students came from poor environments where the parents are busy all day and there’s only one [parent] at home.” Another teacher added, “we all know that society is such that the poorer minority students generally have a harder time making it.” A third teacher commented, “we just can’t compromise what we’re doing that’s right and cave in to the dual language pressure just for the sake of change.”
Other supporters of the transitional approach said that “their poor health and newness to the United States, in many cases, requires that we keep doing what we’re doing only better to prepare [the Mexican-American students] to assimilate faster for their sake and the sake of everyone else.” They cited “getting them naturalized,” and “get[ting] them up to speed to play their part in becoming normal contributing members of society” as their preferences for utilizing the funds obtained and for meeting the needs of Aztec students. One teacher commented that “at least transitional didn’t separate and draw unwelcome attention to our minority students at so early an age.” Another added that “[transitional] didn’t divide and stigmatize the teachers and administrators and even the parents and students in the district the way the [dual language] reform does.”
One administrator said, “dual language is un-American.” “The sooner people learn that,” he added, “the sooner we can get on with the business of educating ESL students to learn English and fit-in.” A second administrator explained that “by its nature, dual language draws attention to itself and scores just can’t get better if you’re always picking at them.” A special education teacher commented while on bus duty that “[special education] students will never find their way.” She suggested that “dual language is just too confusing” and “it’s only gonna lead to those students who need the most attention not getting the opportunity they deserve.”
The Nature of the Dual Language and Transitional Debate
As discussions became more and more heated, educators on both sides of the debate increasingly attached their confidence and sense of identity and loyalty to the dual language or transitional modes of instruction. Some recalled being angered by accusations that, as a consequence of their support for the transitional approach, they contributed to the underachievement and alienation of Mexican-American students and families at Aztec. Advocates of the transitional program defended both the program and themselves explaining that “transitional had problems, but our teaching methods have worked for as long as I’ve been here under this method.” One teacher said, “It’s not like we suddenly hopped off the boat and became stupid and incompetent teachers.”
Similarly, advocates of dual language commented, “when they said we didn’t give them credit for making conditions at Aztec better for Hispanics over the years, we knew it was the same old same old and that the lines were being drawn.” Charges that they “ignored the achievement of Hispanic students who completed their schooling under the transitional approach,” that “our resistance and unwillingness to be completely supportive of transitional contributed more than the program itself to explaining why our students weren’t making it,” and that “our laziness and lack of caring explained why some Hispanic students, as they called them, underachieved and why the transitional program was failing” also contributed to polarizing teachers and administrators and to their “pushing for control over how dual language was to be developed” and “how the money was to be spent.”
Broken Kids and Families: How Parents Survive School Change
While many of the participants were aware that dual language was to be grounded upon a language-as-resource philosophy that was intended to benefit language minority and language majority students alike, each of the 45 parents, teachers, and administrators nonetheless perceived that the LEP students and families at Aztec were considered a “problem for the district.” During the planning and implementation stages and within the sociopolitical context of the school, the reform’s development was consistently defined by its supporters in relation to the healing properties of dual language and transitional instruction. Moreover, these individuals were confident about the philosophies and methods of the two programs and skeptical about the potential contributions that the parents could make while planning and throughout the program’s development.
Aztec parents and educators routinely identified “helping students by improving the school” as “important,” “the key,” “our purpose for doing dual language,” and “our best hope” for achieving “conformity,” “normalcy,” and “increasing tests,” and ” giving [the students and parents] a sense of belonging.” Members of both groups, including the parents, added that LEP students and families were unable to “figure the ways” and “understand the complexities” of Aztec and their surrounding contexts, and that “passivity,” “withdrawal,”and “obedience”were strategies that the parents turned to “for building non-threatening,” “agreeable,” and “peaceful relationships” with teachers and school administrators.
Teachers and administrators, in particular, preferred parents who “appreciated” their efforts to boost the achievement, socialization, and mobility of LEP students into the mainstream, and they favored parents who held “non-confrontational” and “realistic expectations for their child.” Similarly, analyses indicated that parents learned it was important “not to be overly critical,” to “not threaten,” to “help on the outside of the classroom with the discipline and homework without getting too close to the teaching in the classes” and “to get what you want from the teachers and the school.”
In terms of their likes and dislikes, the parents as a group preferred teachers and administrators who “were prepared” and “kept them busy helping in school,” and “the teachers who give [the students] homework that keeps [them] working and where I can see him busy inside the house.” The parents nominated teachers and administrators who acknowledged their dedication to parenting, the responsibility of their children to form “serious” and “mature relationships,” and teachers who understood that their children “care about the family at home” as “the best teachers” and “the one’s who know and care the most about the school and what we need in our lives.”
Teachers and administrators who suggested that the students were “immature,” “lazy,” and prone to “emotion,” were, in contrast, judged to be uncaring, less competent, and untrustworthy by parents. The parents admitted that they “don’t understand,” “were very very uncomfortable,” and “did not want to attend the [planning] meetings when the experts [teachers] were there and the fighting for the two programs was happening.” They explained that “the teachers’ language is over your head a lot of times so it’s hard to know what they’re saying or maybe what you’re supposed to do.” The parents also believed that how they behaved during planning sessions held direct implications for both dual language, “and if your baby was going to be treated well by the teachers in the school.”
One parent explained that “even though we all know that the money [grant] says we have to be made more involved, it seemed real soon to all [of the parents] that even though most of the teachers and the principals cared, we could only be involved in ways that the school wanted us to be and that nobody was going to show us the money.” A second parent stated:
“…right away you could see that making dual language work was the main thing they cared about, and that getting the parents in-to-it only counted so far as what the parents could do for making dual language and the school took better on the paper and on the outside.”
A third parent explained:
“It wasn’t about who we are and what we need and what needs to happen so our children and the community can learn and do better and so we can participate like partners like husband and wife. It was about making promises then changing and then making deals and then doing the paper work, and joining the PTO, and the teachers answering to some higher god or way of doing things even though there didn’t seem to be anybody that you could talk to to get the explanations and to get what you want for your child without getting in the teachers’ way.” A fourth parent commented:
“It was like it was the law or something coming down. .. We can fix-up the computer lab and computer equipment and get everybody studying and talking together on the computer line or on the telephone line, but we can’t have the family center the way we want, or loan out the new computers or even the old computer things and the books the school doesn’t even use anymore, and we can’t let the families learn how to see them and touch them in their houses or where they,live.”
This parent explained that “you saw, I bet you, that a lot of us don’t even have a telephone or don’t even know what being on line is about so how are we supposed to talk to each other or get involved and learn how to make things work or do whatever you do?” “It’s like the school doesn’t even know we’re out there,” another parent explained, “and that they don’t even know that learning can happen in other places outside of the school.”
A fifth parent explained that “it’s like they’re in charge of the teaching and how our children are supposed to learn and be raised, and we’re in charge to keep-up our end and make sure the kids do what the teachers and the school thinks is right without thinking about what’s happening with our lives.” (S)he added that “they’re trying to help us by getting us organized I think so we can shout about what’s happening in dual language on the outside of the school while keeping our mouths shut up about what’s happening about dual language on the inside of the school.”
Schools Needs versus Family Values
School needs describe characteristics of the effort to convert from transitional to dual language instruction that emphasized improved outcomes, management, and generalizability. They were most often associated with student achievement and independence and with the pursuit of upward mobility for students by Aztec teachers and administrators. Family values emphasized learning, nurturing, and practical social relationships. The parents expected that the reform would result in changes that were more caring and personally relevant to them. They anticipated that these changes would help them to overcome obstacles that they encountered in their daily lives.
Many parents expected that their children would acquire specific knowledge and improved interpersonal skills through their involvement in the conversion activities. They believed that this knowledge and skill would enable their children to provide needed social insight, guidance, and other forms of support to the family and community. Moreover, the parents believed their involvement in dual language planning would result in their children experiencing pleasant and more agreeable relationships with Aztec teachers and administrators. The parents explained that they thought their children would “learn to translate society” and thereby function to help the family develop a more comfortable fit among their experiences, values, and knowledge, and the experiences, values, and knowledge they sensed they might need to survive in mainstream society. The parents also anticipated that their involvement would result in an increase in their own knowledge and opportunities for “getting work,” “finding a doctor,” and “learning about the church and the American ways.”
An A Priori and Separate Sense of School Change: Roles and Responsibilities
Additional study of the assumptions made by the different participants revealed that, in addition to possessing different expectations for parental involvement, the teachers and administrators held an a priori sense of school change and how the parents were actually to be involved. According to the parents interviewed, the teachers and administrators “had some definite ideas before we got started” and “some definite know how about making changes and getting the parents involved in the PTO even before we got things moving.”
The teachers and administrators stressed “hav[ing] experience” and “know-how,” and making conversion activities “as objective and as common sensible as possible,” according to one parent. “They said that the planning should turn out in the school doing things that were possible and easy to do,” another parent explained. A third parent said that “the teachers and the principal said it was important to be objective and to treat everybody the same in dual language as much as possible,” and that “these things should have to happen and for all of the parents to remember these things if they wanted dual language to work.”
An examination of how they were to participate indicated that the parents were expected to advocate for the dual language program and student achievement while acting on the periphery. The parents were recruited to “speak up to the board,” “get the PTO going,” “help the teachers get what they need as far as backing them up,” “signing the homework,” and “making sure the kids are prepared and that they stay out of trouble,” according to the teachers. “Go to the library, read, don’t watch too much TV,” “avoid drugs,” and “have a quiet place to do the homework at home” were specific recommendations provided by teachers and administrators that the parents indicated they were advised to follow. In addition, the teachers and administrators in this case study seemed to value their autonomy to a great extent, and they wanted to ensure that the parents “enjoyed a pleasant experience without getting overworked and discouraged” and “without their involvement in the program and things getting in the way of how we teach.”
A consideration of the effects of this logic and the reality of this approach to language conversion indicated that dual language eventually took on a meaning that seemed more and more external and alienating to the parents with every planning session and the more the program was developed. Parents intimated that the program “really wasn’t a part of us right at the start,” and “it was getting heavy and more heavy on our minds with every talk and stupid meeting we had.” They suggested that it imposed itself on their consciousness from without and that “dual language was in your dreams” and “doesn’t even seem human and a part of who you are anymore.”
The parents added that the move to dual language did not seem to be the product of their and the teachers’ and administrators’ understandings. They suggested that the teachers and administrators seemed overly concerned with “keeping things working” and “how to make the bumps . . . the problems with the changes they were making go away.” One parent explained that “dual language started to look more and more like a wrench or a tool or a shiny steel thing.” Another said, “it was a sort of part of the school machine that looked less like the teachers and people it was supposed to help.” A third parent commented:
When you watched how things were being done…the books to use, the teaching, the classrooms, the schedule and how the curriculum was going to carry over from Spanish to English and then back again, it seemed like [the teachers and administrators] became full of the program, like they were the program itself. It was like watching a seamstress standing in front of the dual language doll and their lives and even their breathing and heartbeat depended on it. Measuring and cutting and reaching for the pieces and how they stitch together, the teachers’ spirit went into the dress the more and more we met, and the spirit inside the dress told them where to cut and how to cut, and how the thing was supposed to look when they were done no matter what the parents said. It was like dual language was telling the teachers what to do and like they was answering to the dual language master and you couldn’t even recognize the teacher or dual language anymore. Cutting here and stitching there, picking up pieces ofthe program like she was doing what she was told…like the teachers wasn’t the maker of dual language, but like they were smaller than dual language, like they was weak and the dual language slave. That’s what turned me off and the other parents off and we knew it wasn’t going to be real. We could see what was going on, that achievement and dual language was the only thing, but the teacher and the master had a thing that was all their own and the teachers didn’t hear us and they didn’t even know. Discontinuities in how the parents, teachers, and administrators perceived
their roles and responsibilities also became apparent while analyzing how the planning sessions and the interactions between parents and educators were actually conducted. The teachers and administrators admitted that they, like the parents, preferred one-on-one interactions, but that school norms and a shortage of time required that the educators “respond to the students and parents as a group most of the time” and “usually in the same way,” and that the teachers “help the parents stay on track.”
The parents indicated that while they, too, approved of one-on-one contact, these types of interactions with teachers and administrators were usually symbolic of “trouble” and “accusations” and that they preferred to “not have any confrontation with the school that could lead to fighting and hurting the children.” “The teachers banding together,” “meetings in public places,” “politeness,” and the emphasis placed upon “tests,” “rules,” and “talking when it’s your turn,” while viewed by the participants as sensible for conducting the meetings, were additional issues identified by the parents as “good for protecting the teachers from having to make real changes” while simultaneously preventing the parents from airing their private concerns.
Different Perceptions on Child-Rearing Practices
Differences in how they perceived their child-rearing and childdevelopment responsibilities were other areas where discontinuities between the educators and parents emerged. The teachers and administrators emphasized “building independence,” “higher achievement,” improved “socialization skills,” “cultural awareness,” and “upward mobility” for Aztec students. They suggested that “the parents sometimes get in the way of our attempts to increase test scores” and “to encourage the students to trust us” and to form trusting relationships “between the students and their peers.” One administrator explained that “our efforts to teach the students they need to learn to trust each other and other adults from outside of their families seems to fall on deaf ears at home.”
The parents indicated that while they valued learning and a better life for their children, they “talk about high grades,” “awards,” “getting in contests,” “learning just to keep learning,” “doing good in school just like learning how to be safe,” “to be smart and protected at home,” and “to learn new things and stay away from those people who you don’t know.” The parents said they wanted to “have my children learn the new ways and our ways too and to pass them on to their own children.” They said that they “don’t think the schools should tell [the students] that to be happy they have to leave where they live or they shouldn’t be proud of their parents and families or who they are.”
In addition, the parents intimated that while they understood that many of the teachers and administrators cared and wanted the best for the children, they nonetheless perceived their interactions with the teachers and school as a negative appraisal of who they were and what their child rearing practices were. One parent commented that “when you listen to what [the teachers and administrators] say, pretty soon you start to think like you’re a victim and like the way you bring up your kids is to blame for the problems in the school and why the school has to change.”Another parent said that
you sometimes learn to feet embarrassed and to keep your ideas shut up inside to yourself because of the way you say things and the way they think you look and the way the teachers might think about your child in school.” A third parent commented that “it seems like ifyou’re not on their wavelength or whatever you call it, you don’t have something to give them.” (S)he added “that’s when the parents and teachers stop looking to each other and the quiet gets bigger until you almost don’t having anything to say together anymore and you don’t hardly remember why you’re there.
The False Promise of Conversion and Dual Language Planning: A Summary
Discussions of school change suggest that educators are beginning to see that traditional autocratic and hierarchical modes of schooling are slowly yielding to another model. Theorists suggest that this model should attempt to enhance the personal growth of educators and to improve the quality and care that schools provide. They stress a combination of teamwork and community, personal involvement in decision-making, and ethical and caring behavior (Elmore,1996,1993; Newmann,1993; Noddings,1992; Weis & Fine, 1993).
The dual language conversion studied at Aztec Elementary School possessed many ofthe elements of this emerging and seemingly transformative approach. Central office administrators provided school personnel with the freedom to decide the conversion’s direction. The dual language grant contributed to the training of teachers and staff. The planning and hard work of the teachers and administrators focused on improving the quality of instruction and on involving parents in caring for the education of Aztec students. Having this level of commitment, and many other elements that appeared to be necessary for realizing success, it is enormously curious and disappointing that the process of converting to dual language at Aztec nonetheless resulted in the disillusionment and alienation of the parents. Opposing Ideologies and the Meaning of Dual
Language and School Reform
Delgado-Gaitan ( 1990) and others assert that Mexican-American parents care deeply about their children’s education. Nothing was found in this study to contradict that assertion or to suggest that the parents did not care about the dual language program. Indeed, suggesting that parents do not care is to classify them as so ignorant and helpless as not to be trusted with making their own lives, let alone the schooling and lives of their children. A student of politics might add that to make such an assertion is to present oneself as a member of the elite by pointing to evidence of a mediocrity. Instead, what an analysis of parental involvement revealed in this study was the existence of opposing ideological principles regarding the purposes, procedures, and possibly the divine meaning of school change.
The sets of ideological principles accounted for in this research suggest that the educators and parents harbored valid and compelling ideals that ran parallel and were not representative of an ideological split. The teachers and administrators believed that salvation would come for Aztec students with some measure of change. They believed that this salvation would add up to enhanced student achievement. Upward mobility and an increased sense of personal and cultural awareness, to say nothing about the desires of the parents, were other evangels that were associated with the move to dual language and that the teachers and administrators desired to bring to Aztec students.
The parents, on the other hand, believed that dual language would save them and their children, while serving a more practical and seemingly no less ideal purpose. Their real and pressing need to come to terms with the challenges of their socio-political state meant that the parents desired to live first through their involvement in developing the dual language program while making plans to ready their children and families to live well through schooling.
This fundamental difference in expectations was not only fueled by a shared belief about the importance and vast potential of the’ dual language instruction, but was justified by a personal sense that the participants’ ideological views represented a way of understanding and planning for change that was born of some form of natural order. In this case study, the direction of school change was guided by the appeal of the educators and parents to their sense of a natural law and by their images of fairness and social justice. Members of both groups carried strong and almost religious beliefs about their capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and about their freedom to choose from them to attain the good.
In addition, the move from transitional to dual language instruction took on a heightened significance and autonomy, and involvement for the educators and parents, respectively, were objectified as the product of some sort of predetermined decree. To suggest that the teachers were nervous about their teaching and school change, and that they kept parental involvement on the periphery to conceal their insecurity, represents just one explanation that a review of the findings provides. Another explanation suggests that the teachers and administrators simply wanted to preserve what they considered to be their natural right to decide. The educators’ and parents’ desires for changes that offered “preferential treatment” for some and treatment that was the “same” for other Mexican-American students was consistent and symbolic of the leveling of the students before the participants’ concepts of right and wrong and before their natural sense regarding how equal opportunity was to be achieved.
In addition, the data suggest that the coexistence of the educators’ and parents’ ideologies was not such that either was deduced from the other. I found that in their eagerness for coherent and comprehensive action, the ideals and aspirations of the participants were shaped by the value that they placed in their own code and what they understood about the ideological code of the other. The teachers and administrators who prized academic achievement and social mobility used the divine nature of their beliefs to fence off the aspirations of the parents. At the same time, these educators used their divine right to preserve and protect the school and the students’ souls when they perceived that the parents’ desires and actions might ravage what they knew was best and right for the school, language conversion, and students.
Convinced that their needs were not being addressed, the parents followed a similar approach, clinging tightly to their beliefs when they perceived they were being handled by educators who seemed insensitive, paternalistic, exploitive, and untrustworthy. Growing unresponsive and apathetic and dropping out of dual language planning all seem uncomplimentary at first, suggesting that the parents lost interest and did not care about the schooling of their children. In actuality, the parents withholding their activity was symbolic of their desire to protect their own status, the status of their children in society, their core values, and the core values of their children.
In this study of involvement in dual language planning, the parents perceived academic achievement, social mobility, and cultural awareness with mistrust, as though these school values were adversarial-to the values that they cherished for keeping their children and families safe and intact. In addition, the teachers and administrators using charts and tables as evidence of student achievement did not balance with the parents’ definition of learning. The educators’ interactions with the parents and the move to change seemed detached and abstract while based upon some obscure definition of right and wrong. The parents’ choice to be obedient, to withdraw, and to be silent suggests that they learned these strategies in light of their mistrust and to obtain social acceptance and knowledge for their children, families and themselves. Aztec happened to be the place where their ideological perspectives became evident, the conversion to dual language the ground over which they traveled and were fermented.
Explicitly stated, the ideologies of the educators and parents constituted what they perceived to be their natural rights and the proper approach for developing dual language, ensuring a balanced social order, and finding a logical fit for the different participants. The reform at Aztec promised to accommodate the values of the educators and parents early on, and to provide an orderly approach for obtaining what appeared to be divine and socially and politically right for the educators and parents included in this study. Declines in parental involvement were due to increases in their dissatisfaction and frustration, and to the parents’ desire to preserve and protect their values and ways of knowing. The following discussion suggests that the teachers’ and administrators’ experience, knowledge, and skills also contributed to their values and ideologies taking primacy in the move to dual language.
Dual Language Practice
That the educators and parents believed their democratic aspirations to be essential and good is not to be denied. It follows, then, that their ideologies were not only symbolic of their values and expectations, but that they influenced the participants’ practice and personal development in general. I now turn from a consideration of ideology to a brief and related discussion of the behaviors and pressures experienced by the educators and parents. This discussion is illustrative of the nature of the participants’ ideologies. In particular, it reveals how the educators’ and parents’ interactions with the conversion to dual language shaped their ideologies and muted their aspirations for democracy as well.
At first, conditions at Aztec and the participants’ knowledge, experience, and aspirations were shown to have influenced them to meet and develop the objectives and procedures for developing the dual language program. The enormous and constant pressure to obtain “increased test scores,” “bilingualism and biliteracy,” “social acceptance,” and the need to respond to the conditions detailed in the dual language grant, were only a few of the numerous demands that drove the participants to take practical steps to alter the school to achieve their ideals.
Eventually, these and other pressures influenced the participants to use the good of dual language practice to defend and define the good of the conversion overall. The influence of dual language research, the proclamation from Central Office that bilingual students do better, the use of student test scores to prove the superiority of one instructional approach over another, and the obtaining of dual language funding, for instance, all reveal how success was used as evidence of both the importance and achieving of the participants’ aspirations, and how success was equated with the obtaining of their ideal ends.
That the policies and procedures of the planning sessions and the implementation of dual language were transformed into “steel things” and “garments” stands as proof of how they were prized by the teachers and administrators as material objects and evidence of a work in progress. The schedules, curriculum, and staff development activities were justified by these same participants as necessary and defined as good in accordance with their consumption and levels of waste. The teachers and administrators, too, accepted with enthusiasm (and perhaps some naivete) the role toward which the change moved them from thinkers about ethics and states-persons, to dual language technicians and bureaucrats, “cutting and measuring” and judging their success “without curiosity,” and as one parent commented, “acting as though they were told without thinking about the parents.”
Reflecting further, it not only holds that the practices of the educators were informed by their aspirations, prior knowledge, and experience with school change, but that the suitability and effectiveness of their behaviors were assessed in terms of their instrumentalism and efficiency. Quite naturally perhaps, their ideologies and expectations informed them at the onset about what was and what was not ethical and proper. Later, their ideals gave way beneath the pressures described earlier and under pressures to both justify their existence and to level any obstacles to student achievement as quickly as they emerged. Covaleski (1994) suggests that schools are organizations, and that as changes “diffuse through the system they tend to become less reforms as they are modified to conform to the systemic demands for excellence” (p. 2). In this case study the aspirations and ideals of the teachers and administrators were hardened, with pressure and time, and forced to conform to internal and external demands for excellence and accountability.
School and organizational leaders have occasionally been charged with being opportunists who respond to organizational imperatives while losing sight of idealism and ethics. When school change is confined to the determination of specific ends, as in this case, it seems that practicality becomes the primary standard for choosing appropriate means. Therein, the teachers’ and administrators’ practice became an unending sequence of choices and determinations about the exact procedures to follow and about the likelihood of their methods yielding success. Moreover, the confusion of their ideals with success in practice was done with little real regard for their own moral wishes, the moral wishes of the different participants, and with little concern for the involvement of the parents in the conversion from a transitional to a dual language approach.
This lust for success, for certainty in their ways of knowing, for what Bernstein (1983) calls “the Cartesian Anxiety,” not only transformed the teachers and administrators by pulling them away from their ethics and morals, but it alarmed the parents who were unable to account for this transformation. Moreover, seeing and not being able to account for this change contributed to the parents’ retreat to protect their ideals. Finally, this capturing of the educators’ spirit and actions alienated the parents and influenced them to grow silent and pessimistic about the potential for dual language development to allow them to live first while making plans to ready their children and families to experience democracy through schooling.
Some Notes On Realizing Dual Language and Greater Parental Involvement
Fullan (1991) suggests that the purpose of change is to help schools accomplish their goals more effectively by replacing some structures, programs, and/or practices with better ones. In addition, Fullan indicates that research over the past 30 years has consistently shown that the closer the parent is to the education of the child, the greater the impact on child development and educational achievement. What Fullan and others might tend to agree with is that what occurs in schools is due to multiple causes and effects interacting in complex and nonlinear ways, all of which are rooted in an unlimited and tangled array of social, philosophic, historic, ideologic, and cultural possibilities. One key to change, as suggested in this case, comes from understanding that change requires more than applying unexamined principles. A second comes from understanding that the variable that makes school change work is probably in the interest, the level of seeking, and the caring and responsiveness of the individuals involved.
Third, it seems important to understand that the key variable in realizing change is not in the presence or absence of the relative quality and force of a movement like dual language instruction. A program to improve schooling only grows in stature as people respond to one another and care. If the needs and messages of participants in change are ignored or spurned, results taken from this study suggest that the talent that could have been applied, shrinks and goes away.
A fourth key comes from understanding that change involves weighing conflicting beliefs and acting not on behalf of the values that are preponderant, but in the interest of securing social justice and participation for all. Contempt for the democratic way of muddling through change undermines precisely what change should be designed to do. In conversion, the straight line may be the shortest route to amoral and antidemocratic practice. To move directly to predetermined objectives, in other words, is to risk participation, parental involvement, and, as suggested in this case, to bypass moral principles.
A fifth key to realizing dual language and greater parental involvement comes from understanding that the challenge is not in addressing how to carry out change, but in addressing how to reconcile conflicting ideals without threatening to frustrate the desires of one or the other participants. That there are conflicts among the expectations and responsibilities of participants experiencing change is evidenced in this research. These are the conflicts that make change realistically problematic. Hence, it seems important to remember that when ideals give way to procedures for obtaining particular ends like increased student achievement, practicality often becomes the standard for developing approaches to realize change. This is especially grievous when judgments passed on the usefulness of methodology are confused with the individual’s or school’s ideals and used to assess the overall effectiveness of change for educators, family members, and others concerned about improving schools.
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Robert A, Pena
Arizona State University
Robert A. Pena, is currently an Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. His research interests include urban education, students at-risk, leadership, ethics, and the study of poverty.
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