Notes from Home Advantage by Annette Lareau

Although Annette Lareau’s book Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education was originally written in 1989, I found it interesting to revisit given current decision-making about my children’s school. This book faces the importance of social class in how American families approach school. It studied schools where social classes did not seem mixed; they were even located in separate towns/cities. This somewhat limits how useful the educational policy recommendations in the back might be to my own context, however there were still many useful points.

1. Middle class parents do not set out simply to display their cultural resources. They are trying to pass these resources on to their children. They know that children will not automatically attain the same social status as their parents unless they do well in school.

2. Working class parents also believe that their children won’t necessarily attain the same social status as themselves, and recognize that doing well in school will help children succeed in later life as well. This means of course that both groups care a great deal about how well their children do in school, but…

3. Working class parents have fewer resources to bring to bear to understand their children’s school experience and less confidence to shape it. They see the teachers as professionals and trust them to have the children’s best interests in mind. They use extrinsic markers like grades, stickers and comments on papers to track how their kids are doing in school. Since teachers almost always try to be positive the parents do not always recognize when a child is falling behind. Middle class parents are more interested in what their child knows and understands than necessarily in the grade mark.

4. Middle class parents differ in the conditions under and the extent to which they activate their cultural resources to shape their children’s school experience. Being equally or more educated than teachers they evaluate teachers’ performance. They may obtain supplemental experiences (tutoring, lessons, etc.) if they feel their child isn’t getting all they need at school and/or they may be more likely to make requests of the school (for special programs, specific teachers, etc…). Middle class parents were most likely to activate their resources for a low-achieving child.

6. Only certain kinds of family involvement are desired by schools. Mainly: nurturing the child at home and sending them to school fed and groomed; reading to them; reviewing papers and homework; reinforcing behavior standards; and respecting the teacher. Families differ in their ability to do these things. Also middle class parents were more likely than working class families to not back up the teacher’s discipline and to criticize the school or teacher for their educational program. Working class parents’ criticisms were typically not about the academic program. But getting deeply involved in a child’s inner life and school career can cause stress for the child and even exacerbate sibling rivalry or even marital tensions for some middle class families. By leaving schooling to the school, Lareau says working class families protected themselves from this particular kind of stress.

7. Teachers tried to be fair, but it seems that their expectations and even perceptions of children were colored by the involvement of their parents. I recall reading this as advice in Sara Lawrence Lightfoot’s book, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers can Learn from Each Other. She said get involved, go to all conferences, PTA nights, etc–it will help the teacher see your family/child in a better light.

8. Lareau suggests that parent involvement “pays off” more in a school where it is rarer. In a school where most of the parents are busily involved, the parents end up competing for what then become scarce resources.

9. Lareau also looks at the parents’ networks, suggesting that the middle class parents were more likely to form relationships with one another whereas working class parents socialized more with their kin groups. Whether among their friends or relatives, middle class parents were more likely to know (or be) change agents like principals, teachers, media, lawyers, judges, etc and thus informally learned how to meet criteria. She suggests teachers might invite an involved working class parent to bring a relative or friend with her the next time she volunteers as an example of how to leverage existing networks into a sort of mentoring system to expand parental involvement among the working class.

10. While this research added to knowledge of an intra-institutional relationship (home to school), it would be interesting in my context to see how a mix of middle and working class families in one school can work well. What are the advantages and disadvantages? Even if a family is working for a particular child, does this improve the environment for all children? I know many middle class parents who consciously strive to upgrade their child’s school environment with all students in mind (but then again see #8…).

Overall, an interesting book worth thinking about even 21 years later.