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While parents have always had a role in their children's education, there is a growing body of research today that confirms their critical role in helping both teachers and students succeed academically.
Parental Engagement Starts Early
The parent-school relationship is one that should begin early, a fact recognized by both the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education (ED). In May 2016, these departments issued a joint Policy Statement on Family Engagement from the Early Years to the Early Grades to recognize the critical role of parents in promoting children's success starting in early childhood systems and programs:
"Strong family engagement in early childhood systems and programs is central-not supplemental-to promoting children's healthy intellectual, physical, and social-emotional development; preparing children for school; and supporting academic achievement in elementary school and beyond."
The policy statement reiterated the findings in an earlier report, A New Wave of Evidence, from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (2002). This report remains the most comprehensive meta-analysis using 51 studies on parent engagement and student academic success. The report released the statement:
“When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.”
The reviewers considered backgrounds and income and included studies covering all grades, all regions of the country, diverse populations along with a variety of methods, both quantitative and qualitative. The conclusion reached was that that parent engagement led to:
- Higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
- Increase in earned credits and promotions.
- Improved attendance
- Improved behavior and social skills
- Increase in enrollment in postsecondary education
Increasing parent engagement in order to achieve these outcomes means schools are seeking ways to connect parents to school communities.
What Parents Think
A report commissioned by Learning Heroes and supported by the Carnegie Corporation called "Unleashing Their Power & Potential" details why communication can help.
The data for the report came from a survey that focused on the “perceptions of schools and the state and national assessment data.” More than 1,400 K-8 public school parents across the nation took part. The survey co-collaborators included Univision Communications, National PTA, National Urban League, and the United Negro College Fund.
The findings from "Unleashing Their Power & Potential" may hold one big surprise for educators; elementary school parents place more emphasis on their child's happiness than academics. Putting happiness first, however, shifts in the middle school years as parents develop doubts about their children's preparedness for postsecondary schools.
One primary area for concern in the survey found parents are confused on how to understand the different ways students are accessed:
“Most of the communications parents receive-report cards, annual state test score reports, and curriculum summaries to name a few-are indecipherable and incomprehensible for most parents. About a quarter of parents are not aware of their child's annual state test scores.”
The authors of the report suggest there is a need for improved communications “that are responsive to parents' needs, interests, and concerns.” They note, “Most parents rely on report card grades, quizzes, and communications with teachers to determine whether their child is achieving their grade level.” They promote helping parents to understand the connection between these forms of assessment.
That sentiment was echoed by Claudia Barwell, Director of Learning, Suklaa, with her essay, "How Parents Can Change the Global Landscape of Education" in which she discusses the challenges in finding the right balance in communicating with parents. Her essay, written from a parent's point of view, suggests that there are three fundamental areas for balance: the teacher's relationship with parents, parents' relationship with formal assessment, and the latent power of parents in co-designing schooling.
She suggests that schools survey parents and ask these key questions:
- What values do you believe are essential for a developing child?
- What part of the current curriculum is essential?
- What should we be teaching that we are not?
- What skills will they need for the future?
- What role would you like to play in the education of your children?
Such questions can begin a dialogue and improve the conversations between parents and teachers and administrators. Barwell would also see value in seeing “links to brief teaching methods and a glossary of terms so that parents can support learning at home without being told we are 'doing it wrong' by our children.”
Barwell's request for links illustrates an audience willing to use a growing number of technology tools designed for parents to understand how a school operates. There are also technology tools designed to help parents interact with the teachers and administrators.
How Parents Interact With Schools
If parents are looking for an explanation with details of what their child is expected to learn over the course of a week, month or year, there are multiple options schools may be using, from software platforms to mobile apps.
For example, SeeSaw or ClassDojo, used in preschool and elementary grades, are software programs that can document and share information about student learning in real time. For the upper elementary grades, middle and high school, the platform Edmodo allows parents to see assignments and class resources, while Google Classroom provides teachers a means to send out parent/guardian updates. All of this software offer mobile apps as well.
Because evaluation programs for teachers, support staff, and administrators include a parent communication/engagement goal, a need exists to measure communication and engagement, and these technology tools collect that data. For this reason, many schools districts encourage parents to sign up for the mobile app Remind. This app can be used by a teacher to send homework updates or by a school district to send general school updates through text messages.
Finally, most public schools now post student grades online through student-management software such as PowerSchool, Blackboard, Engrade, LearnBoost, or ThinkWave. Teachers can post student performance ratings (grades) which let parents keep a watchful on student academic progress.
Of course, the amount of information available through these kinds of technology can be a little overwhelming.
Technology tools designed to increase parent engagement are only effective if they are used by the parents. School districts need to consider how they will educate parents to use different technology tools to guide their decisions. But it is not only in the area of technology that parents need training.
Research findings report that most parents do not understand educational policy at the local, state or federal level. To correct these gaps, the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA), an educational reform plan that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2015, places an emphasis on the importance of stakeholder engagement. There are mandates for community input; states must solicit and evaluate input from parents when developing strategic plans for schools.
Finally, while teachers need to keep parents “in the loop” they also need to respect the limited time today's parents find themselves, stretched for time, energy, and resources.
Home and School Connection
Technology and legislation aside, the are other ways parents can be supportive of education in general, and they have been around almost as long as the institution of public education.
As early as 1910, a book on education by Chauncey P. Colegrove titled "The Teacher and the School" placed an emphasis on engaging parents. He advised teachers to “enlist the interest of parents and secure their co-operation by making them acquainted with what the schools are striving to accomplish.”
In his book, Colegrove asked, “Where there is no knowledge of each other, how can there be close sympathy and cooperation between parents and teacher?” He responded to this question by stating, “The surest way to win a parent's heart is to show an intelligent and sympathetic interest in the welfare of his children.”
Over 100 years after Colegrove published The Teacher and the School, Secretary of Education (2009-2015) Arne Duncan adds, “We often talk about parents being partners in education. When we say that, we're usually talking about the healthy and productive relationships that can develop between the adults in a child's life at home and the adults who work with that child at school. I can't overstate how important this partnership is.”
Whether it is a handwritten note or a text message, the communication between teachers and parents with parents is what develops the relationships described by Duncan. While a student's education may take place within the walls of a building, the school's connection to parents can extend those walls far into the student's home.