ERIC Identifier: ED335174
Publication Date: 1991-05-00
Author: Chavkin, Nancy Feyl
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Family Lives and Parental Involvement in Migrant Students'
Education. ERIC Digest.
Migrant family lives revolve around working and moving on. Families
move from one job to another to better their financial situation. This
Digest describes the lives of migrant families, migrant students' education,
and migrant parents' involvement in their children's education. The discussion
should be of particular interest to teachers and administrators who work
with migrant students.
PROFILE OF THE MIGRANT FAMILY
Because no single federal office has responsibility for data collection
on migrant demographics--and because researchers disagree on how to define
"migrant family"--population estimates of migrant farmworkers vary from
317,000 to 1.5 million (Shotland, 1989). Moreover, the diverse nature of
migrant families' lifestyles makes it difficult to characterize the migrant
What we do know is that families tend to migrate along well-established
geographic routes. Shotland (1989) discusses the three distinct streams:
the East Coast Stream, the Mid-continent Stream, and the West Coast Stream.
The East Coast Stream consists of American Blacks, Mexican Americans
and Mexican nationals, Anglos, Jamaican and Haitian Blacks, and Puerto
Ricans. This route includes the states along the eastern seaboard and the
southern part of the United States.
The Mid-continent Stream primarily consists of Mexican Americans and
Mexican nationals, with small numbers of American Indians. The route begins
in south Texas and moves north through the midwestern and western states.
The Western Stream starts in California and moves up through Oregon
and Washington. Although composed mostly of Mexican Americans and Mexican
nationals, it has, in recent years, also included Southeast Asians.
Income studies (Shotland, 1989) show that in 1986 the average annual
income for migrant farmworkers was remarkably low--less than $6500. Work
for the migrant family is usually seasonal and inconsistent. Most workers
are not covered by employee benefit programs. In addition to residency
problems, language barriers, and lack of contact with community services,
most migrant families receive few social, economic, or health benefits.
Though very poor, migrant families benefit little from available human
The living and working conditions of migrant families are a serious
national health problem. Shotland (1989) reports that there is risk of
injury from farm machinery and equipment, poor sanitation, chronic and
acute exposure to toxic pesticides, and harsh and dangerous physical work.
In fact, farm labor is now more dangerous than mining. Many families lack
toilets and clean drinking water in substandard living quarters, which
are usually run-down farmhouses, barrack-like structures, or small shacks.
STUDIES ABOUT MIGRANT FAMILIES
Robert Coles' classic study of migrant families still accurately captures
the essence of life for a migrant family (Coles, 1971). He reports that
the family is always stooping and picking, always doing what has to be
done. Poverty, hunger, and uncertainty fill their lives; there is always
the next place to go. Children learn early that each new day brings backbreaking
toil for their parents (and often for them, as well) and that after one
field is picked, it means a trip to another one, often in a new county
or a new state. The video documentary, New Harvest, Old Shame--with its
rich portrayal of the daily lives of migrant families--reveals that life
has not changed much for migrant families (Corporation for Public Broadcasting,
Diaz, Trotter, and Rivera (1989) conducted an ethnographic study of
migrants in ten states. Their report was the result of more than 3,000
hours of participant observation, semistructured interviews, and life histories.
They recorded two patterns of migration, intrastate and interstate migration.
The major reason for migration was always economic. Families based decisions
about when and where to move on knowledge about the length of seasons,
timing of crops, changing agricultural conditions, rates of pay, and available
housing. Migrants talked of isolation and constant adjustment to new surroundings.
As one said, "It's hard to have to always leave and say goodbye all the
time" (p. 48). Stresses on migrant families are enormous. Child abuse reports
reveal a dark side of migrant family life--child maltreatment. The level
of maltreatment among migrant families is much higher than it is among
the general population (Lawless, 1986). The risk of maltreatment, however,
varies with migrant status, family structure, and age. For example, intrastate
migrant families have a higher incidence of reported maltreatment than
interstate migrant families. Younger children and children from single-parent
families have a higher probability of being maltreated.
The findings for single-parent families and younger children are consistent
with research about families that are not migrants. Researchers, however,
disagree about the reasons for the different rates of maltreatment among
interstate migrants and intrastate migrants. Some believe the lower incidence
among interstate migrants results from the fact that these families travel
with their support systems, whereas intrastate migrants do not. Their support
systems help them cope with the stresses of migration. Other researchers
suggest that, on the contrary, interstate migration simply reduces the
likelihood that maltreatment will be detected and reported.
MIGRANT STUDENTS' EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES
The report of the Interstate Migrant Education Council (1987) details
the special problems migrant students face. In addition to the problems
associated with mobility, these students are often handicapped by limited
English fluency, poverty, lack of academic skills, and--to help support
the family--the need to work or care for younger children. Migrant students,
in short, are at great risk of dropping out of school.
In fact, they have the lowest graduation rate of any population group
in the public schools. The comparative rate at which they are able to complete
postsecondary education is even lower. Five times as many migrant students
are enrolled in the second grade as in the twelfth grade, and migrant educators
place the dropout rate for migrant students anywhere from 50 to 90 percent
The Center for Educational Planning (1989) in Santa Clara, California,
reports that not only do migrant students have high-risk characteristics
such as low socioeconomic status, high levels of mobility, and low levels
of English language skills, but that they also face economic, cultural,
and social discrimination. Baca and Harris (1988) point out that migrant
students are more likely to be affected by handicapping conditions because
of poverty and multiple health problems. They report a higher incidence
of birth injuries, mental retardation, accidents, poor pre- and postnatal
care, and anemia among migrant students than among the general population.
PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT IN MIGRANT STUDENTS' EDUCATION
Even after differences in student ability and socioeconomic status are
taken into account, the evidence that parent involvement in education increases
student achievement is clear (Henderson, 1987). In one study of high-achieving
and low-achieving migrant students (Center for Educational Planning, 1989),
parents of high achievers could list the ways the school helped their children.
These parents held positive attitudes about the school. Parents of low
achievers, on the other hand, were more negative and could not list anything
the school was doing on behalf of their children. Even though no migrant
parents in this study helped their children with homework, parents of high
achievers reported that they spent time communicating with their children
and giving them educational experiences. No parents of low achievers reported
these two activities.
Parents who are barely surviving economically find that their children's
school attendance is a hardship. Children could improve the family's income
by working in the fields if they did not have to go to school. This is
a fact of migrant family life related to extreme poverty.
In addition, many migrant families believe it is the school's responsibility
to educate their children; for these families, parent participation in
education is a radically new cultural concept (Simich-Dudgeon, 1986). These
parents want the best for their children, but they believe that their involvement
may be counterproductive. They believe that the schools might construe
their personal involvement as interference. In fact, successful students
sometimes report that someone other than their parents inspires them to
complete school (for example, Diaz et al., 1989).
Herrington (1988) discusses the importance of having teachers who will
reach out to parents and find ways to contact them. He notes that many
migrant families have strengths of resiliency, resourcefulness, and responsiveness
that educators need to recognize, make use of, and reinforce.
Clearly, migrant students are vulnerable to undereducation and dropping
out of school. With our nation's current economic picture, migrant family
lives are not going to change substantially; families will still need to
move to find better economic situations. What educators do, however, could
have a profound effect on migrant students' education.
Understanding migrant family lives and communicating with parents is
a first step. Knowledge about the culture and values of migrant families
can help educators facilitate migrant students' learning.
Baca, L., & Harris, K. (1988). Teaching migrant exceptional children.
Teaching Exceptional Children, 20, 32-35.
Center for Educational Planning. (1989). Migrant Education Dropout Prevention
Project (Final Report). Santa Clara, CA: Santa Clara County Office of Education.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 321 951)
Coles, R. (1971). Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers (Volume II of
Children of Crisis). Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (1990). New Harvest, Old Shame
[videotape cassette]. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video. (Order from: PBS, 1320
Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314)
Diaz, J., Trotter, R., & Rivera, V. (1989). The Effects of Migration
on Children: An Ethnographic Study. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Department
of Education, Division of Migrant Education.
Henderson, A. (1987). The Evidence Continues To Grow: Parent Involvement
Improves Student Achievement. Columbia, MD: National Committee for Citizens
in Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 315 199)
Herrington, S. (1987). How educators can help children of the road.
Instructor, 97, 36-39.
Interstate Migrant Education Council. (1987). Migrant Education: A Consolidated
View. Denver, CO: Interstate Migrant Education Council. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 285 701)
Lawless, K. (1986). The Family Support System: Education in Its Broadest
Context (Harvesting the Harvesters, Book 4). Potsdam, NY: School of Professional
Studies, Potsdam College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 279
Shotland, J. (1989). Full Fields, Empty Cupboard: The Nutritional Status
of Migrant Farmworkers in America. Washington, DC: Public Voice for Food
and Health Policy. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 323 076)
Simich-Dudgeon, C. (1986). Parent Involvement and the Education of Limited-English-Proficient
Students (ERIC Digest, December). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 279