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Jessica Calarco on Parents and the Power of Privilege in Schools

  • Jessica Calarco
  • February 25 2020
  • PC82-2020

Jessica Calarco
Jessica Calarco

We’ve all heard stories about the rise in helicopter parenting—parents who do their kids’ homework, drop off things at school for them that they’ve forgotten, and intervene to smooth the path for their children. It’s become so common that many schools now have rules against this kind of parental behavior. But our guest for this episode, sociologist Jessica Calarco of Indiana University, says that for many privileged parents and families, these rules just don’t seem to apply. She set out to find out why and tells us about it in this podcast episode.

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Chancellor: Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. We’ve all heard stories about the rise in helicopter parenting—parents who do their kids’ homework, drop off things at school for them that they’ve forgotten, and otherwise intervene in all sorts of ways to smooth the path for their children. It’s become so common that many schools now have rules against this kind of behavior. But our guest for this episode, Jessica Calarco, says that for many privileged parents and families, these rules just don’t seem to apply. So she set out to find out why. But first some introductions.

Calarco: I’m Jessica Calarco. I’m an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University and I mostly study inequalities in education and family life so I do mostly qualitative research involving things like interviews with parents and teachers and with kids and also observations in places like schools or in family environments and trying to understand the kinds of inequalities that come out of interactions between people and institutions. So between families and schools or between families and other institutions in society.

Chancellor: The paper we’re hearing about here came out of a larger study that Calarco published as a book called Negotiating Opportunities that focused more on kids and their interactions in the classroom—especially how privileged kids, affluent white kids are able to negotiate with teachers for advantages.

Calarco: And so this project, essentially one of the things that came out of that research I was doing, interviews with teachers and parents and students and observing in schools. And one of the things that I saw was how especially these very affluent white parents were—they liked the idea of certain rules that existed in school environment. Rules around homework, rules around attendance, rules around—it’s important to be at school and it’s important to do your homework—but they had really savvy ways of getting around those rules. And they had specific conditions where they felt like—I like these rules, I want my kids to learn to be responsible but I don’t want them to suffer—and so it was this really clear case of parents kind of pushing back against these rules and findings ways to exempt themselves from them. And so that’s kind of what this paper tries to get at. In many cases the school either turned a blind eye to their bad behavior—things like doing kids homework for them. Or the school kind of had this explicit policy where parents were not supposed to come back to school to either pick stuff up that their kids left behind or drop stuff off. But the affluent white parents, they didn’t want their kids to suffer in that way, they didn’t want them to have to miss recess, they didn’t want them to have to lose points on their assignments. And so they felt very comfortable and confident and they had the time and the resources to be able to come back to the school and so ok, I’ll either intervene and do this homework for you if you can’t do it, or I will come back and drop off the project that you left behind. And in those cases, the kids wouldn’t get in trouble. They wouldn’t face any consequences, they certainly weren’t learning the lessons they were supposed to learn from homework, but they also didn’t face any consequences in terms of having to stay in for recess or losing points or things along those lines. And so given what I was seeing in school and also similar patterns around things like who got excused versus unexcused absences or who was able to get into the particular teacher that they wanted in a given year, who was able to get around those types of rules. One of the things that I’m trying to do with this paper is to understand what are the conditions where schools feel pressure to grant those kinds of requests, to give privileged families the kinds of exemptions that they want, and what prevents people from marginalized groups from being able to get those same kinds of exemptions.

Chancellor: To study this, Calarco did a series of observations and interviews at an elementary school. Over the course of three years, she did formal interviews with 12 teachers, 25 parents, and 20 plus students, plus many more informal interviews and observations at the school.

Calarco: So I picked the school, which I call Maplewood, which is suburban public elementary school outside of a large east coast city because of its class diversity, because I wanted to be able to see middle and upper middle class kids interacting with kids from lower income backgrounds where it wasn’t just like a charter school environment, where all the parents were sort of explicitly applying to and enrolling and where they didn’t have a kind of mission to serve kids from different backgrounds, but that was just sort of the environment of the neighborhood that those kids were living in. And the school district had everything from mobile home neighborhoods in the same elementary school, mobile home neighborhoods to multimillion dollar homes. Kids all going to the same schools. It’s a pretty big geographic area, to be able to bus kids in from different neighborhoods. But it allowed me to understand in a really nuanced way, holding constant the teacher, holding constant the classroom, how do we see these class-based processes playing out within that particular setting? It’s a school where there’s a decent amount of class diversity. It’s much less ethnically and racially diverse. Most of the students are white students. There are small populations of low income and working class Latinx students and small populations of mostly middle and upper middle class Asian American students and a few black and mixed race students, but mostly white students on either end of the class spectrum. And so that was an interesting environment to try to look at these kinds of patterns but I was able to sort of tease apart and look at how class mattered among white students and how that played out differently when teachers weren’t always necessarily using race as a proxy for class within those kinds of contexts.

Chancellor: Professor Calarco says that to understand how privileged families seemed to be able to break the rules, we need to see that these families have to have a sort of entitlement to feel like they can do so.

Calarco: They have to want to do so. For the privileged families, it was this idea that I don’t want my kids to suffer, so feeling like, well, I like these rules, but I don’t want my kids to suffer. And the parents from the working class and low income parents didn’t have that same sense of entitlement to push back. They didn’t want their kids to suffer, but they didn’t feel like it was their place. And certainly they worried about being judged, they worried stigma, they worried about how the school would treat them if they tried to push back in that way. And then beyond just that entitlement, it was also about resources in the sense that privileged parents had flexible schedules, they had time after school to do their kids homework for them if they needed to, or spend two hours redoing their kid’s project because they didn’t do it well enough the first time, or to drive stuff back to school for them if they forgot things in the morning. And also to threaten things like legal action if the school behaved in ways they didn’t like. So it was kind of that coupling of entitlement and resources that kind of created the conditions where privileged families could push back in that way, that parents from marginalized groups just didn’t have access to that same kind of entitlement or resources.

Chancellor: And Calarco says that beyond that, there was also kind of a fear factor in the sense that the school didn’t want to upset families that they had come to depend on.

Calarco: Schools were deeply afraid of conflict with privileged families in that they didn’t want to risk loss of support, loss of legitimacy, and they especially didn’t want to risk efficiency in the sense that privileged families by virtue of their resources and their power in school were able to—so for example the school depended on privileged families for financial support, for logistical support. So things like, the teachers would tell me how they were constantly looking for parent volunteers for field trips and they almost had to cancel field trips multiple times because they didn’t have enough parent volunteers and so they were like, well I have to keep these parents happy because we need to have these field trips, we need to have enough people. Or things like—their whole arts budget was dependent on PTO funding and so thinking about how they were dependent on the kinds of parents who were able to spend the time and be in the schools.

Chancellor: Calarco says there was also a factor of teachers just not having the time or resources to deal with negotiating with privileged parents.

Calarco: So they would bombard teachers with dozens of emails and threaten things like legal action and threaten to get what they would call parent advocates, which were these non-lawyer lawyers involved. And teachers were afraid of this and the principal was afraid of this, but it also just wasted a huge amount of time, so once they sort of identified a parent as the kind of parent who they either depended on or the kind of parent who would make their life miserable with constant requests and with constant back and forth, they would just sort of be like, well, if that parent asks for something, it’s just far easier to give them what they want than to try to keep pushing back. And if their kid asks for something because they knew that it wasn’t just the parent, but if their kid came in and said I don’t have my homework, it was far easier to just say, ok don’t worry about it then to deal with the onslaught of emails they would get from that kids parent if they tried to keep them inside for recess.

Chancellor: And Calarco says she found even when they wanted to, parents from more marginalized groups just didn’t have the same power to create conflict.

Calarco: Even when they try to push back, when they were very frustrated with the school, working class parents would be shut down by the school, they would say, well, we’re not going to help you, they would be just flat out ignored in those kinds of circumstances because they didn’t have that same fear factor behind what they were pushing for and how that sort of ultimately resulted in conditions where affluent white kids were much less likely to be kept in for recess, the teachers rated them more highly in terms of homework completion, they ended up being seen more favorably by teachers in class and certainly the teachers would be more responsive to their needs in the classroom as well.

Chancellor: I asked Calarco how the teachers knew or made decisions about which students to be more lenient with, or which students’ parents it was easier to stay on the good side of.

Calarco: The teachers were really using parental involvement as a proxy for which parents did they need to cater to. They never talked in class terms, it wasn’t something they were particularly comfortable articulating. But they would talk very openly about the involved parents vs versus the not involved parents. And so they would use especially visible forms of parental involvement, things like how often they would email the teacher or how often they would show up conferences or how often they would volunteer in the school. Those were the parents that cared. And those were sort of the parents that were viewed as the invested parents, the parents that they knew and saw regularly around the school and they really used that as a way to determine which kids go the most support and which kids were sort of valued and privileged within the school.

Chancellor: I asked Professor Calarco to tell us more about the less privileged parents and how their situations and experiences looked different.

Calarco: They cared deeply about their kids. They didn’t want their kids to suffer in school. But at the same time they appreciated what homework could teach their kids in the sense that they wanted their kids to be respectful. They wanted their kids to be responsible, in part because of the way that we perceive low income families, working class families in this society and the way that we sort of assume irresponsibility on the part of less privileged people. And so I think they were fighting hard against those stereotypes. Sometimes in very racialized ways, especially among the white lower income families would use respectability politics kind of language to say oh, well I might not have a lot of money but my kids are respectful and my kids are responsible and so they really saw that as something. And they saw homework as helping with that. They saw homework as a way for their kids to learn that kind of responsibility and so they didn’t feel entitled even when their kids were struggling with homework, to be able to push back in that way. At the same time, certainly when their kids, when they saw their kids not getting their homework done, I have parents who talk to me in interviews who tell me, look, I really want my kid to get their homework done. I feel bad that he’s having to stay in for recess all the time. But I just don’t have the time and my household is just crazy, they would say. There was one mom who ran a home daycare. So she had kids in her house from 7:30 to 6:30 and sometimes later than that and she would say that I keep telling Shaun that he’s gotta get his homework done but then by the time all the kids go home then we’re making dinner and then we’re eating dinner and then he has to go help grandpa and then he’s falling asleep so then it’s 8:30 or 9:00 and we gotta get the homework done but then it’s just time for bed.

Chancellor: Calarco says that besides just not having the time or the flexibility in their schedules to intervene in the ways that some more affluent parents could, sometimes parents weren’t as confident in their own academic abilities.

Calarco: There were a lot of working class parents who talked to me about how, especially by 5th grade, they would say, I don’t know how to do this math. I don’t know how to do it the right way so I just have to let him go to school without the homework done and hope that the teacher will help him. But then they end up suffering consequences because of that. And so they don’t have the sense of entitlement to help because they worry about how they’ll be perceived. And they also have limited resources to be able to help their kids with homework at home. And they also didn’t have the same kind of resources to threaten conflict with the school in the sense that oftentimes they were the ones who were the beneficiaries of the volunteering or the volunteer funds—the school did a lot of outreach to lower income families. And so they didn’t feel like they were in a position to ask for much from the school in that sense because they in many cases getting a lot of benefits already. And they also didn’t have a lot of the social connections that a lot of privileged parents had in terms of connections to lawyers, connections to other families in the community that they could band together with to try to push back against things. And so because of that the school really wasn’t as afraid of them in the same way. And they would get frustrated. Especially parents who were—there was one mom whose son had an IEP for ADHD and the teacher was supposed to check his backpack every day and make sure that his homework was in there. The homework sometimes just wouldn’t come home and so she confronted the teacher about it and sort of said, well, what’s going on? And he’s like, well, Zach showed me the backpack and I assumed that it was in there but there’s other kids who need more help than Zach does. And so the mother was super frustrated but just didn’t feel like she had any leverage to be able to compel the school, even though technically that would be a violation of the IEP, she didn’t feel like she had the leverage to push back in that situation and say ‘no, this is a legal issue and you have to do this, you have to make sure it’s there.’ The more doors you got closed in her face, the more frustrated she got.

Chancellor: So, with all of these examples, I asked Calarco what this qualitative research—these interviews and observations at one school can teach us about larger processes happening in other places.

Calarco: Certainly with qualitative research, one of the nice things that it can do is highlight those processes and give us a sense of the way that things happen, where in quantitative data we might only be able to see the outcome. We might only be able to see the number of kids who get suspended or teachers’ ratings of kids’ homework. Or what their GPAs are. And so I think these qualitative data can help us to understand what’s actually going on in the ground. And even though we might not be able to say that it works exactly the same way in every school, we can sort of outline a process. We can trace how this happens, how this kind of privileging of privileged families happens from beginning to end. And then we can set that out there as a set of propositions and say, here’s a way this process can work, and then we can go out and look for more evidence and use that help us guide the way that we collect quantitative data and think about, can we then use quantitative data to kind of test these more generalizable propositions about how things might work in schools more generally and what kind of data would we need to collect to be able to systematically analyze what’s actually happening in schools.

Chancellor: Calarco says that some of the biggest implications here when it comes to education policy are around parental involvement research and the messages we send to parents.

Calarco: We tell especially parents from marginalized groups that if they were only more involved in schooling they could close achievement gaps. Their kids would do better in school. And I think one of the things this study does is highlight the real challenges that low income parents, parents from marginalized groups face in doing the kind of involvement that educators and policymakers want them to do, that there are real constraints on their time, on their resources, on how comfortable they feel in those kinds of settings, even with helping their kids with things like homework. And so we have to be mindful about when we put these proclamations out there and say you should just be more involved in homework. What are the limitations and what would it take to actually create an environment and a situation where parents are on equal footing to be able to do things like help with homework at home. At the same time, I think this study also raises questions about the actual value of parental involvement. Certainly there’s good quantitative research that links things like parental involvement, even parental involvement in help with homework, to things like kids’ school outcomes. But I would argue that these data kind of question the direct effect at least in those kinds of findings and suggests that, if anything, if parental involvement does matter, it matters in a more indirect way in terms of influencing how teachers perceive certain students. There’s this kind of robust quantitative finding that parents going to PTO meetings matters for kids achievement. It’s sort of like, how does that—what’s the mechanism there? What I think the mechanism is, at least as it suggests in this kind of research is that it’s about teachers’ perceptions of students. It’s about how teachers ultimately are more lenient with some kids than others, that they grade them more leniently, they rate them more highly, they give more resources and more support because they see those kids as the kinds of kids whose parents will make their lives difficult if they don’t give them that kind of treatment in school. And so thinking of kind of questioning our assumptions about, is it just parental involvement that is actually beneficial or is it about these structures that reward parents and kind of use parental involvement as a proxy for identifying kids who deserve more support in school.

Chancellor: I asked Professor Calarco, based on her research, what a better system would look like.

Calarco: I think what this research points to is the need to reduce the power of privilege in the sense that if we want to tackle these kinds of inequalities, we can’t just provide more resources to the people who are from marginalized groups in our society, that what we really need to do is address the gaps and sort of differences in resources and the differences in entitlement that exist because without sort of closing those gaps, privileged people always have considerably more power over institutions. And especially it means decoupling the resources of privileged people from the functioning of institutions in the sense that if schools and other organizations are dependent on privileged people for financial support, for logistical support, they’ll always have an interest in catering to those groups. And so if we mean things like decoupling school funding from property taxes, it would mean things like potentially eliminating PTOs and PTAs as funding mechanisms at least, and possibly for volunteer mechanisms as well or at least changing the way that we structure volunteering efforts in school or kind of making schools less dependent on that by making sure that they have sufficient public funding to have the kinds of programming that they need without having to rely on parents for that kind of support. Arguably, I would say that it could also look like getting rid of policies that are de facto used to punish students from marginalized groups. In an earlier iteration of this paper I kind of had a pretty strong screed against homework—saying that this is problematic, the way that we use homework is problematic in our society and that even if there are some academic benefits to it, it is primarily being used as a mechanism to punish kids from marginalized groups and so if that’s what it’s being used for, because their parents can’t really provide them with that same kind of support at home and if middle and upper middle class white kids are doing well on homework because they’re getting that kind of support, a) are they really learning anything from it and b) are the grades that they’re getting because we know that teachers use homework to factor into especially when they’re assigning grades, if we know that, then is that really reflecting the student’s effort and also how is that being used to feed into things like the school to prison pipeline in the sense of kids being identified as problems from an early age because they’re not coming in with their homework done, getting kept in for recess, being seen as sort of these difficult kids or kids whose parents aren’t involved enough or don’t care enough and how that’s being used to sort of sort kids and track kids into these different sets of opportunities.

Chancellor: Thanks to Jessica Calarco for sharing her work with us. You can follow her on twitter at @JessicaCalarco or learn more about her research at jessicacalarco.com. This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that Office, any other agency of the Federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. To catch new episodes of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, you can subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, or Google Play Podcasts. You can also find all of our past episodes on the Institute for Research on Poverty website. Our theme music for this episode is “Staring Straight” by Maarten De Boer. Thanks for listening. 


Education & Training, Family & Partnering, Inequality & Mobility, Inequality & Mobility General, K-12 Education, Parenting