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Involving Latino and Latina Parents in Their Children’s Mathematics Education Brief


This piece focuses on linking research and practice in the area of Latino parental involvement in mathematics education as a way to help address the “Latino education crisis” (Gándara 2010). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 2010a), Latino enrollment in public schools has doubled from 11 percent (4.5 million) in 1988 to 22 percent (10.4 million) in 2008, and it continues to increase. Yet, as Gándara writes, “Latinos are the least educated of all major ethnic groups” (p. 24). Among 16- to 24-year-olds, Latinos have a high dropout rate of 21.4 percent in 2007, followed by 19.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska, 8.4 percent of black students, 6.1 percent of Asian and Pacific islanders, and 5.3 percent of white students. The dropout rate is particularly high (34%) among foreign-born Latinos (Aud, Fox, and KewalRamani 2010). Another aspect of concern is parental level of education: more than 40 percent of Latino children ages 6 to 18 in the U.S. schools have a parent with less than a high school education, compared to about 6 percent of white children (NCES 2007). Latino students are more likely to live in households where English is not spoken very well. In 2008, 75 percent of children who did not speak English very well spoke Spanish (Aud, Fox, and KewalRamani 2010).

In mathematics, Latino students underperform white students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores reported for 2009, show that on a 500-point scale, the fourth-grade median for Hispanics was 229, compared to 249 for whites, whereas among eighth graders, the median scores were 268 and 294 for Hispanics and white students, respectively (NCES 2010b). The same source reveals that the NAEP scores for twelfth-grade exhibit the same trend. In the 300-point scale, the median score for white students was 162 points, whereas that of Hispanics was 138. Perhaps one can perceive a more contrasting scenario when one considers that for grades 4 and 8, respectively, 29 and 43 percent of Hispanics scored below basic level against 9 and 17 percent of the same grade level of white students (Aud, Fox, and KewalRamani 2010).  

Ample evidence exists that indicates a positive relationship between parental involvement and children’s achievement in school (Aspiazu, Bauer, and Spillett 1998; Epstein 2001; Henderson 1988; Henderson et al. 2002). This research brief focuses on the involving Latino and Latina parents in their children’s mathematics education. With this in mind, we first want to highlight some research findings from studies centered specifically on Latino and Latina parents’ education in general. We believe that these findings are important for teachers and school personnel to consider when working with Latino and Latina parents, independently of the content area. Then we turn to findings specific to Latino and Latina parents and mathematics education.

Studies with Latino and Latina parents (De Gaetano 2007; Ramirez 2003; Rodríguez-Brown 2010; Valdés 1996; Zarate 2007) show a mismatch between parents’ and teachers’ views about parental involvement and children’s education and about one another’s roles in children’s education. As Rodríguez-Brown writes (2010, p. 352), “it is not that Latino parents do not want to support their children’s learning.… [They] believe that it is disrespectful to usurp the teachers’ role.” A need exists for a better understanding about expectations and roles to address what seems like a disconnect between home and school. Scholars who work with Latino communities point to the need for schools to develop an understanding of the sociocultural context of their students and families. Parental involvement must be defined in ways that reflect and build on the community’s cultural and linguistic backgrounds (De Gaetano 2007; Delgado-Gaitan 2004; Gándara 2010; Valdés 1996).

We want to highlight several terms that appear in the literature on Latino and Latina parents and that seem essential to understanding their approaches to their children’s education (Durand 2010; Rodríguez-Brown 2010). As Rodríguez-Brown writes (2010, p. 358), “several cultural concepts familia, confianza, respeto, and a dichotomy between the meanings of educar and enseñar have impacted Latino parents’ beliefs as they describe their role in their children’s education.” Familia and familismo underscore the centrality of family, including extended family. Respeto (respect) appeared in the earlier quote on parents as not wanting to be disrespectful to teachers. Valdés (1996) has written extensively on the idea of respect. Confianza (trust) (González, Moll, and Amanti 2005) has to do with establishing trust with the families, which involves developing relationships. We will come back to this concept later in this brief. Understand educación is important because it does not translate as education: the Spanish term encompasses moral and ethical values and social behaviors. Latino and Latina parents see their role as contributing actively to the educación of their children, whereas they may see teaching (enseñar) as pertaining to teachers and schools (Valdés 1996; Zarate 2007). In her study with six Mexican-American families, Delgado-Gaitan (1992) writes, “Notwithstanding the high value placed on academics, the concept of an educated person was much broader than merely being able to complete a school program. A child that was ‘buen educado’ (well educated) not only attended school, but also was respectful and cooperative with those around him or her. It was this behavior that was the measure of a person’s educational achievement. Parents tried to socialize their children to this concept of education but often met resistance from children’s peers as well as school personnel” (p. 512). Reese et al. (1995) present a detailed analysis of the concept of educación and raise an important question, “Do the values of immigrant Latino families put children at a disadvantage in American schools, or are they complementary and supportive in ways that are not always recognized and acknowledged?” (p. 60). We want to emphasize the possible need for schools to redefine their notion of parental involvement by reaching out to Latino families and learning from them about their aspirations, expectations, and forms of involvement in their children’s education and educación. In so doing, schools can address the second part of the question raised by Reese et al. (1995) by recognizing and acknowledging Latino families’ values. One last term that we want to mention is consejos (advice), because it relates closely to educación (Valdés 1996; Valencia and Black 2002). As Valdés explains, “The majority of the teaching in the 10 families was carried out by means of ‘consejos’ (spontaneous homilies designed to influence behaviors and attitudes). Consejos were important because mothers considered la educación de los hijos (the moral education of their children) to be their primary responsibility” (p. 125).

These different research studies underscore the need for forms of parental involvement with Latino and Latina parents that move away from a deficit perspective that portrays parents as lacking the resources to support their children’s learning. Valencia and Black (2002) provide a compelling analysis of the myth that Mexican Americans do not value education and attribute this myth to one more case of deficit thinking. They write, “To attribute the persistent and pervasive achievement gap between Mexican American students and their white peers to a value orientation of Mexican American indifference to the importance of education is baseless, irresponsible, and racist” (p. 92). These authors give evidence to debunk this myth underscoring that Latino and Latina parents care immensely about their children’s education. What these authors and others call for is the need to understand what Latino and Latina parents do at home to help with their children’s education and to focus on the knowledge, strengths, and resources that exist in their communities (González, Moll, and Amanti 2005). Delgado-Gaitan (2004), who has written extensively about involving Latino and Latina parents in schools, notes, “Both elementary and secondary educators need to remember that regardless of culture, educational attainment, and socioeconomic standing, all families have strengths, and educators can tap that potential to maximize student achievement” (p. 16).

 We next turn our attention to mathematics education and offer specific, research-based suggestions that schools can use to promote a culturally responsive Latino parent involvement. Research on parental involvement in mathematics education in general is not a large field. A few researchers have looked into issues related to parental engagement in mathematics education in low-income, linguistically, racially, and ethnically diverse communities (Abreu and Cline, 2005; Civil and Andrade 2003; Civil and Menéndez 2011; Civil and Planas 2010; Civil and Quintos 2009; Ginsburg 2006; Jackson and Remillard 2005). These studies are based on a nondeficit view of parents and tend to highlight the values, knowledge, and experiences that parents have about mathematics teaching and learning. At this brief’s preparation, the most extensive work on Latino and Latina parents and mathematics is that of Civil and colleagues. That thus will be the main source of reference for what follows. This work draws on data from several studies over the past fifteen years. These studies involved Latino and Latina parents of children in the grades K–12 range, although the mathematics activities tended to focus on content from grades 3–9. We will also bring in some results from other researchers, including studies with immigrant parents across the world (e.g., the work of Abreu and colleagues in the United Kingdom).

 Research with immigrant parents in different countries (Abreu and Cline 2005; Abreu, Cline, and Shamsi 2002; Civil 2008; Civil and Menéndez 2011; Civil and Planas 2010; Civil, Planas, and Quintos 2005) points to some commonalities in immigrant parents’ perceptions about mathematics teaching and learning in the receiving country:

  • Lack of emphasis on basic skills (e.g., teaching and learning multiplication facts)
  • Lower level than in their country of origin
  • Less demanding schools (e.g., in discipline and homework)

These issues (basic skills, level, strictness) are complex and call for further exploration. In particular, they underscore schools’ need to establish a deeper, more meaningful communication with parents. Parents tend to bring with them different ways to do mathematics that schools often do not acknowledge, and vice versa. Parents do not always see the point of some schools’ approaches to teaching mathematics. Although this may be true with all parents (e.g., in the instance of “reform versus traditional” mathematics), the situation seems more complex when those parents involved are immigrants or low-income members of groups whose voices schools do not traditionally hear. As Quintos, Bratton, and Civil (2005) write: “The knowledge that working class and minoritized parents possess is not given the same value as that which middle class parents possess…. Alternative approaches are often not treated equally…. In this context, the parents’ or home method is not given the same value as the teacher’s or textbook method. Historical relations of power at the schools can not only be reproduced but also exacerbated through mathematics education” (pp. 1184, 1189).

Latino and Latina parents, particularly those who attended school in a country other than the United States, often bring up two themes when talking about their children’s mathematics education. One is that they learned different approaches to doing arithmetic (the division algorithm is a typical example, Civil and Planas 2010). Some Latino and Latina parents express a concern with these different ways of doing mathematics: they feel a loss of connection with their children as the children have to choose between the home way and the school way (Civil and Planas 2010). Schools could use these different approaches to doing arithmetic to promote an exchange around mathematics teaching and learning. Teachers could invite children to ask their parents about these different approaches and have them share in class.

 The second theme is the potential barrier that the language of instruction (English) can create when parents are Spanish-dominant. Civil and Planas (2010) document the impact of an English-only instruction on parents’ ability to help their children with homework, underscoring the feeling of frustration among mothers who believe they have the mathematical knowledge but do not share the language to communicate with their children about academic subjects; they speak Spanish, whereas their children are learning mathematics in English. Schools need to be aware that many parents have the disposition and knowledge to help their children with mathematics, but that the language may be a barrier. Another aspect of this language issue is whether parents, particularly immigrant parents, understand how their children are placed in mathematics classes and what role the language factor may play in these decisions (Civil, in press; Civil and Menéndez 2011). As Valdés (2001) writes, “Students should not be allowed to fall behind in subject-matter areas (e.g., mathematics, science) while they are learning English” (p. 153).

 Successful efforts to involve Latino and Latina parents in mathematics are characterized by respect, dignity (De La Cruz, 1999), and confianza, (Civil and Bernier 2006; González, Moll, and Amanti 2005). Viewing parents as intellectual resources (Civil and Andrade 2003) is essential to establishing an authentic dialogue between Latino and Latina parents and schools. This means that schools are genuinely interested in parents’ views and understandings of mathematics and that they want to explore ways for the school’s mathematics instruction to reflect parents’ knowledge and experiences. How can this happen? We offer several approaches below. All of them are grounded on the premise of respeto towards parents’ knowledge and experiences. One important aspect of this respect is the use of language(s)—English and Spanish, in this instance—according to parents’ preferences.

  • Learning from parents’ and families’ experiences and knowledge (their funds of knowledge) through ethnographic home visits (González, Moll, and Amanti 2005; for specific applications in mathematics, see Civil 2002, 2007). An important aspect is that teachers go in as learners. As Amanti (2005), a teacher-researcher in the Funds of Knowledge for Teaching project, writes, “What I do advocate, …, is that teachers become acquainted with their students through an ethnographic, not just a teacher, lens in order to get beyond a superficial and stereotypical familiarity with them…. This process gives students and their families a sense that their experiences are academically valid” (p. 138). This process, invites parents and community members to come to the school to talk about their areas of expertise (e.g., construction, medicinal herbs, candy-making) with an eye on connections with the school curriculum. It is a strong example of involving Latino and Latina parents as intellectual resources in their children’s learning at school.
  • Offering workshops and short courses in mathematics for parents and their children. Several examples exist in this domain with a focus on Latino and Latina parents; we highlight the Family Math program (Stenmark, Thompson, and Cossey 1986), the Children’s Math World Family Connection (De La Cruz 1999), Math and Parent Partnerships in the Southwest (MAPPS) (Civil and Bernier 2006; Civil and Quintos 2009) and CEMELA (Center for the Mathematics Education of Latinos/as)2. These workshops and courses often give parents hands-on experience with what and how their children learn in school, hence allowing a dialogue about different algorithms, memorization and reasoning, calculator use, basic skills teaching, and so on. Project MAPPS has an extensive research component that highlights a model for parental involvement in mathematics based on four intertwined components—parents as parents, parents as learners, parents as teachers, and parents as leaders (Civil, Bratton, and Quintos 2005). In particular, we want to stress the power of involving parents as cofacilitators of mathematics workshops for other parents in the community. As one mother commented, “The point is to be part of the school and part of the community, just like a student. For me, the main part was parental involvement to use other parents to teach parents, I want to be part of that” (Civil and Bernier 2006, 328). CEMELA’s research pays special attention to the experiences of immigrant Latino and Latina parents (Civil and Menéndez, 2011). It also pays special attention to addressing the English-Spanish issue by having parents and children come together to the mathematics courses, particularly in contexts that have severely restricted bilingual education.
  • Creating spaces for parents to discuss issues related to teaching and learning mathematics. Having regular meetings with the parents (e.g., short courses) allows for the development of rapport and confianza. This is a key to engaging with the parents on conversations around mathematics education. Using a prompt such as “how can all children in the district be successful in mathematics?” or quotes from other parents, or using a problem that has led to different approaches, can promote a rich discussion in which parents, researchers, and school personnel can share their points of view, hence promoting the learning from and about one another’s perspectives (Civil and Menéndez 2011; Quintos, Bratton, and Civil 2005). This is where topics such as homework (quantity and kind), taking responsibility for one’s learning, discipline, different approaches to solving problems, and language issues emerge.
  • Conducting classroom visits with parents. In this approach, a small group of parents and one or two facilitators (researchers, school-community liaison, school administrator) visit a mathematics classroom and then debrief their observations, with or without the teacher. Classroom visits allow us to explore several topics including beliefs, content issues, interactions, pedagogical approaches, and level by having a concrete and common experience to refer to as a starting point (Civil and Quintos 2009).

These approaches respond to the need for parental involvement programs to be based on sound knowledge about the families and the community (Valdés 1996). They contrast with the prevalent, school-centered responses to the need for parental involvement. The latter often do not take into account the family’s perspective or give little or no consideration to the barriers that prevent parents from getting involved in the terms that schools expect them to do it, for example via curricular instruments or teachers’ actions (Schnee and Bose 2010).

 This brief’s recommendations provide opportunities for parents and school personnel to engage in conversations centered on mathematics teaching and learning. They are all grounded on lessons learned from efforts to engage Latino and Latina parents in schools. They represent examples of culturally and linguistically responsive approaches to parental engagement in mathematics education. Implementing such recommendations may vary depending on each school’s resources, willingness, and characteristics. For example, home visits can take a toll on teachers if the school does not set aside with the time and means to do them, yet the investment on the home visits may have a long-lasting, positive effect. As the Funds of Knowledge work shows (González, Moll, and Amanti 2005) visiting the family of just one student affects the teacher’s relationships with all her students. Parents’ classroom visits require coordination and a little extra time to engage the visitors in meaningful conversations with teachers. Mathematics workshops require time to prepare and implement, but the ramifications of creating this space to developing rapport with and trust from parents, can prove extremely beneficial to other forms of their participation, as long as parents’ voices and perspectives are taken into account. A lack of bilingual personnel to facilitate the communication with parents can be a roadblock. Schools can tap on the wealth of resources of the parents themselves; for example, bilingual parents may be given leadership roles and opportunities to contribute as they wish. Granted the existence of limitations, what is at stake is quality education for the fastest-growing, large segment of the U.S. population This is too important not to commit the available resources and look for creative ways to expand those resources using the knowledge, language, and cultural values of the population whose needs are to be satisfied.


 By Marta Civil–University of Arizona and José María Menéndez – Radford University
Series Editor: Sarah DeLeeuw  



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The development of this brief was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0946875

Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).


[1] 1. Although we are using the terms Latino and Latina, we acknowledge that these terms are too broad, because they encompass many different groups as well as recent immigrants and U.S.-born Latinos and Latinas. Most of the research reviewed is, in fact, with people of Mexican origin.

[2] MAPPS and CEMELA were funded by the National Science Foundation under grants ESI-9901275 and  ESI-0424983. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agency.

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