How Discrimination Shapes Parent-Teacher Communication

A new study suggests race and immigrant status are determining factors in whether or not an educator will reach out to a student’s family.

A classroom full of students listens to a teacher in front of a chalkboard. Two students' hands are raised.
Charles Platiau / Reuters

Growing up in Columbia, Maryland, Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng was a self-described troublemaker in grade school. He even got sent to the principal’s office once for in-class misbehavior. But none of his teachers ever called his parents about his school misconduct. In fact, throughout his K-12 schooling, Cherng can’t recall once when a school staffer reached out to his parents. Meanwhile, even though it was customary in high school for the counselor to personally congratulate parents of students who gained early admission to college, his name was left off the call list. And when he complained to his chemistry teacher about the oversight, his comment was met with: “It's not that big of a surprise that you got accepted [to MIT].”

Now a sociologist and an assistant professor of education at New York University’s Steinhardt school, Cherng’s latest study parallels his childhood experience by exploring an under-researched topic in parent-involvement literature: the role that students’ race and country of birth play in a teacher’s likelihood of contacting their parents or guardians. Relying on a sample of about 10,000 predominantly public high-school sophomores, their parents, and teachers from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002—a nationwide sampling conducted by the U.S. Department of Education—Cherng’s statistical analysis found sharp contrasts in how math and English teachers communicate with parents from different racial, ethnic, and immigrant backgrounds, reflecting many existing stereotypes of black, Latino, and Asian American students.

“One would think if a kid is struggling [or] a kid isn’t doing their homework that the teacher would reach out to parents [whether they’re] white kids, foreign-born Asian American kids, or third-generation Latino kids, [yet] this wasn’t the case,” Cherng said, noting that the racial and ethnic dynamics between teachers, students, and parents revealed in the 2002 data collection haven’t changed dramatically in the past decade and “may have gotten slightly worse.” (While the students were followed over the course of the decade, the Education Department only conducted the teacher survey in 2002.)

When teachers were questioned about their parent communications in three key areas—homework completion, disruptive behavior in class, and student accomplishments—a youngster’s race, ethnicity, and immigrant status appeared to be the deciding factors. After controlling for students’ classroom conduct and academic work, perceptions of parents’ English proficiency, family socioeconomic status, and other variables, distinct racial and immigration patterns emerged.

Among all students with reported behavioral problems, teachers were much more likely to reach out to black and Latino parents—even those who didn’t come from immigrant families—than they were white ones. Thirty-three percent of math teachers contacted parents of third-generation black and Latino youth about disruptive behavior, which was 10 percentage points higher than for parents of third-generation white youth—“consistent with the stereotype that teachers are in some ways hypersensitive to … bad behavior among certain racial and ethnic groups of students,” Cherng said. The teacher’s subject matter also made a huge difference in predicting the likelihood of contacting parents over disruptive behavior, he noted: Math teachers more frequently contacted parents of color than did English teachers. Cherng attributed this to the “very implicit, really deep bias” that certain kids “get math” and certain kids don’t.   

By contrast, compared to black and Latino parents, teachers were less likely to contact immigrant Asian parents about academic and behavioral struggles. Only 5 percent of math teachers and 9 percent of English teachers communicated with parents of first- and second-generation Asian students about misbehavior. And less than 5 percent of English teachers contacted parents of first-generation Asian students who rarely do homework, which was 10 points less than the frequency of contact with the parents of their third-generation white counterparts.

This seemingly reinforces the trope that Asian American students are all hard-working and well-behaved—commonly known as the “model minority” myth. “When you have an Asian American student who is not high-achieving, who doesn't do their homework, and is disruptive in class, the rates of that teacher reaching out to those parents are actually quite low, much lower than for third-generation white parents,” Cherng explained, calling it part of the false narrative that Asian Americans are always compliant.

Overall, the most frequent form of teacher-parent contact involved communication about student accomplishments. Though, yet again, discrepancies existed across racial and ethnic groups: Teachers were less likely to contact immigrant Latino and Asian parents with news of their children’s academic successes.  Twenty-six percent of English teachers contacted parents of second-generation Asian students about their children’s school triumphs, for example, while 46 percent contacted the parents of third-generation white youngsters. Additionally, teachers were less likely to reach out to parents they perceived as uninvolved or uninterested in such news, which Cherng said is often linked to teachers’ assumptions about immigrant or native-born parents of color as apathetic toward their children’s education. A second analysis also factored in teacher characteristics: Female math teachers were more likely to contact parents than male teachers were, and black teachers were less likely to call parents about classroom disruptions.

The role of parent involvement as a critical component of student learning is a concept that is widely endorsed by research and enshrined in federal education policy. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 stipulated that the participation of parents in “regular, two-way, and meaningful communication” with schools was a vital part of boosting academic achievement. And its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, specifically calls for federal funds to be used for parent and family engagement, emphasizing stronger school partnerships with parents and family members.

Still, despite widespread recognition that communication from school to home is valuable, most research to date has centered on parents reaching out to educators. With the NYU study, the focus is on the reverse: communication patterns that originate with children’s teachers. Matthew Lynde Chesnut, a social-studies teacher at Kennedy High School, in San Antonio, Texas, confessed surprise at how much the findings “relate to my own shortcomings as a teacher” at a school with a 98 percent Latino student body. He admitted a tendency to underreport students falling behind to parents, acknowledging that because he teaches seniors “I take for granted that parents still want to be involved in their kids' education and still want that feedback for good or for ill.” He also pointed to typical barriers that can keep even the best-intentioned teachers from routinely communicating good news, such as playing phone tag with working parents or having an unreliable phone number.

What he found most familiar, however, was the data on parent communication about disruptive students. During his time as a first-year teacher, Chesnut was more likely to contact parents if their child was disobedient than if their child was performing well, which he said was more a function of his inexperience at building strong relationships with students and having classroom routines in place. Currently in his seventh year at Kennedy High, he believes he would have benefited from greater cultural proficiency. “As a white teacher, [I] was subconsciously looking at my students as more likely to be troublemakers because they were Latino … I didn't consciously check myself to think about how my actions created the conditions for those behaviors.”

Betina Hsieh, an assistant professor of teacher education at California State University in Long Beach, said education schools should help teacher candidates “understand these troubling disparities and … racial stereotypes” to promote better communication between parents and teachers in general. “A lot of [my students] are young, and the great majority are white … It often doesn’t occur to them to contact parents on a proactive basis, and many of them are intimidated to talk to parents,” she said. Toss race and ethnicity into the equation, and “it heightens [their] concerns that they’ll ‘get it wrong’ … so some of them don’t even want to try at all.”

When she teaches about communicating with parents, Hsieh uses her own positive experiences working with black and Latino parents in urban settings, as well as her own perspectives as a parent of Asian descent whose children have received disparate treatment from teachers. She watched her adopted black daughter get labeled as “disruptive” and “defiant” by her 10th-grade math teacher; also, her biological son “never once received … outstanding achievement, behavior, or recognition awards” despite being top of his class in almost every subject last year.

“Although I was aware of this type of discrimination [intellectually], experiencing it firsthand literally left me shaking with frustration and anger,” Hsieh said. As a systemic issue, starting in teacher education is critical, she said, but the work is also in “pushing teachers to consider their roles in upholding systems that can be unjust to various communities of color—disproportionately Latino and black students.”

Cherng, the study’s author, echoes this viewpoint. Earlier in his career, as an eighth-grade math teacher in San Francisco, he wrestled with the same assumptions that surfaced in his study. His message to teachers is simple and direct: “If we're raised in the U.S., we all [subscribe] to these stereotypes to a certain extent, [and] that's really dangerous because I think it completely overlaps with racial and ethnic [academic] gaps. We must talk about [these biases] … because ultimately we’re all in this together to support our kids.”