Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Power of Parents

    A Critical Perspective of Bicultural Parent Involvement in Public Schools

    by Edward M. Olivos

    New York: Peter Lang, 2006. 133 pp. $29.95.

    In The Power of Parents: A Critical Perspective of Bicultural Parent Involvement in Public Schools, Edward M. Olivos contributes to the growing body of literature on parent involvement. He presents a treatise on the underlying macro- and microlevel causes for the strained or ambivalent relationship between bicultural parents and public schools, arguing that the subordinate position of parents in schools reflects the subordination of marginalized communities within larger society. In his view, capitalism and racism contribute to the challenges bicultural communities face. The country’s economic system guarantees that bicultural parents are overworked and underpaid, leaving them little time to volunteer at schools or meet with teachers. Furthermore, their low professional standing affords them little esteem in the eyes of administrators and teachers.

    Throughout the book, Olivos provides readers important insights into factors that may be contributing to the poor relationships between parents and schools. Even though their work and personal lives may preempt a sustained involvement in schools, Olivos does not present parents as passively accepting school agendas. Rather, their estrangement from schools is, for better or worse, a sign of resistance toward educators who do not value their genuine input and offer only empty opportunities to engage in school life. According to Olivos, tensions in culture, power, and knowledge manifest themselves in the interactions between parents and educators.

    Among the book’s strengths are its discussion of other scholars’ work, its accessibility, and the presentation of a paradigm for parent involvement. Olivos summarizes the works of several intellectuals, including Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, to provide a theoretical basis for his analysis of parent involvement. Olivos refers to Gramsci’s work on hegemony to discuss why school administrators’ dominance allows them to make decisions that are not in the interest of students while at the same time ignoring parents’ concerns. In the case of Foucault, Olivos cites the French intellectual’s examination of the relationship between power and knowledge as an explanation for why school leaders may undervalue parents’ perspectives.

    Olivos’s book is part of Peter Lang’s Counterpoints series, which is aimed at a broad audience, and does a fine job of incorporating the ideas of critical theorists in plain language. At the end of each chapter, the author presents questions that ask the reader—presumably students and teachers and administrators—to reflect on their beliefs about parent involvement. He also offers brief scenarios of parent involvement in schools to engage the reader with the more abstract concepts he discusses.

    Olivos clearly delineates four models of parent involvement, borrowing from the work of Concha Delgado-Gaitán and Sudia McCaleb. They fall on a continuum with conformity (i.e., schools telling parents what they can do at home to support teachers’ work) on one end and transformation (represented by a school’s cultural democracy) on the other. Olivos champions the latter model, known as the Transformative Education Context Model. In this model, parent involvement “is a political process in which parents from diverse backgrounds work to transform a system that engenders subordination and stratifies students.”

    While the book is highly accessible, it is not without its shortcomings. Although Olivos claims that the book “is about any member of society who has systemically and historically been placed at a disadvantage by virtue of their class, race, ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, or sexual orientation,” most of the examples Olivos uses involve Latino parents. The author seems to distill all minority groups’ experiences into one theoretical explanation. For example, Olivos states, “Bicultural parents must begin to understand their roles within the socioeconomic and historic context from which their subordination and their children’s academic failure arises if they are to effectively contribute to the transformation of the school system.” Such statements presume that communities with a culture distinct from mainstream American society have common experiences of failure and frustration. Based on his references to critical theory, Olivos’s universalist perspective is at times surprising. In addition to a few of the generalist claims, the book’s redundancy can detract from Olivos’s more compelling insights.

    Olivos is not naive; he knows that the massive social change necessary for a model of parent involvement that encourages true dialogue and cooperative decisionmaking will be hard to realize. However, it is refreshing that the author deviates from the usual literature on parent involvement—best practice guides and reports on research findings—to demonstrate that the state of parent involvement in many schools reflects the country’s larger social and political reality.

    — Z.K.
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    Book Notes