'Home-work': Difference and (em)power(ment) in parent involvement discourse

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Sari Knopp Biklen


Empowerment, Difference, Parent involvement, Work, Teachers, Community organizing

Subject Categories

Education | Family, Life Course, and Society | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


While parent involvement in schools is heralded as a rite of democratic participation and a panacea for educational ills, the discourses that surround it reveal otherwise. These discourses demonstrate how often so-called "involvement" works against collaboration among parents and between parents and teachers, squelches the vitality of parent activism, glosses over tensions and differences among school stakeholders, and contradicts the popular concept of empowerment through parent voice. Through interviews and participant observation, this project highlights the talk of parents and schoolworkers around a high school in upstate New York. Critical questions and understandings of how power plays out in a discourse of parent involvement unfold through concepts of work, difference, and empowerment .

First, parent involvement is viewed as a work process taken up by individual parents and schoolworkers while intersecting with institutional policies and practices. A concept of work makes visible how power (re)produces "parent involvement" as a category through which to manage, control, and deflect the impact parents can have on schools. Second, a concept of difference examines the positioning (including othering ) of parents in a zero-sum game for education and the glossing over of power relations that structure their experiences, which provide hints for how parents become isolated from one another and from their children's educators in the formidable task of educational change. Third, people's talk reveals tensions in what it means to so-called empower parents through institutionally driven practices to "involve" public school stakeholders in processes of change. Meanwhile, the dialectic found in interrupted dialogues and in rifts between "visions" and "voices" among educators and parents indicate paths toward what is implied by the notion of "empowerment."

If parent involvement is to become a part of the effort to fundamentally change how our schools operate, I argue that it must be grounded in effective community organizing strategies and engaged in praxis . Only when reflection and practice inform one another in an ongoing process will educators, parents, students, and other school stakeholders be enabled to investigate together how they will become effective advocates for educational change.


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