A recent study carried out by New York University has found that teachers communicate with parents based on their racial and immigrant backgrounds, not just their child’s academic performance. Commenting on the findings, Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at New York University said:

“The patterns of communication we saw are consistent with stereotypes that teachers may subscribe to different racial and ethnic groups.”

One of the key factors for academic success is communication between parents and teachers. Prior work has established that immigrant parents and parents of colour often communicate less with schools than native-born white parents. However, in most studies, the focus has been on parents contacting schools and not the reverse. It also remains unclear how schools and teachers perceive certain barriers, such as lack of English language skills, as obstacles to communicating with parents.

This study, reported by Futurity, sought to better understand patterns of communication between classroom teachers and the parents of immigrant students and students of colour, and whether these patterns are influenced by characteristics of students, teachers, and parents.

The study analyzed a nationally representative sample of US high school students from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002. The study asked teachers whether they communicated with a student’s parents about several topics: a student’s failure to complete homework, disruptive behaviour in school, and accomplishments. To find out whether subject matter of teachers shapes interactions between teachers and students, Cherng analyzed responses from both English and math teachers.

The study finds that differences persist in terms of teachers contacting parents from different racial/ethnic and immigrant backgrounds, even after considering teachers’ own perceptions of students’ academic work and behavioural issues and parents’ English ability,

Math teachers contacted a higher proportion of parents of third-generation Latino and black students over disruptive classroom behaviour than of parents of third-generation white students. For example, parents of black students were more than twice as likely as parents of white students to be contacted by math teachers over negative behaviour, reflecting stereotypes of black and Latino students as disruptive youth.

In addition, Cherng found that both math and English teachers contacted fewer immigrant Asian-American parents (meaning parents of first- and second-generation Asian-American students) regarding homework and behavioural issues. These patterns persisted even when Asian-American youth were struggling.

Sharing achievements was the most common form of teacher-parent communication. The research found that teachers were less likely to contact immigrant parents and parents of colour with news of achievements, when they perceived parents not to be involved in their children’s schooling.

Teachers were less likely to contact immigrant Latino and Asian parents with news of their children’s achievements: only 30 percent of math teachers contacted parents of first-generation Latino and second-generation Asian-American students with news of achievements, compared to nearly half of teachers contacting parents of third-generation white parents. Cherng added:

“These findings support the notion that Asian-American students are perceived by teachers to be ‘model minorities’—the image that all Asian-American students excel academically and are in less need of attention or intervention.”

Cherng concludes that these patterns of communication align with existing racial stereotypes. Among his recommendations, he said that education policy needed to be aware of the disparities in teacher-parent communication, and suggested incorporating more diversity training in teacher preparation programs.