Category Archives: Research

Education is All Guts, No Glory for Some Parents

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

We’ve heard the phrase “No Guts, No Glory” (like in this Air Force manual), but when it comes to parents and their children’s academic success, the phrase doesn’t hold true.

Parents can have all the “guts” — hopes, wishes, and high expectations for their kids — but their kids still may not get the “glory” — a great education and high academic achievement.

That’s because too often, kids don’t have equal odds when it comes to educational opportunities.

It’s not because their parents don’t care, as a misguided stigma against poor parents might suggest. A hypothesized culture of despair says that parents with the least financial resources discount their children’s odds for future success and hence invest less into their child’s academic experience.

In fact, parents across demographic characteristics and economic conditions tend to have strong and robust expectations for their children, and these patterns of thought are influential over the course of their children’s academic careers. However, the difference between economically advantaged and disadvantaged parents is in the objective probabilities that their children will succeed as hoped. That is, for parents at the bottom end of the economic spectrum, the gap between their high expectations and their child’s likely reality is much larger than it is for parents with greater economic means. All parents seem to have the guts to dream big, but only some of their children are likely to see the glory of results.

Then what can schools do to support parents in helping their kids? Schools must offer equitable educational opportunities and reinforce mechanisms in the home that drive student achievement. Parental expectations and behaviors can mitigate economic inequities, but schools must deliver the goods through rigorous learning standards and outstanding instruction, which sadly remains not a foregone conclusion.

As schools consider their approach to parental and family engagement, they should understand that high academic expectations don’t necessarily translate into parents attending school events or volunteering their services. Schools should acknowledge and continuously reinforce parental beliefs about their child’s potential, and they should emphasize ways parents can support — through the home environment and through specific behaviors — their child’s learning.

All parents are hopeful about their children’s futures: sometimes against real odds. This provides an opportunity to focus outreach to families. Schools can and should bolster what parents hope and do for their children. Yet they must reach inward too, to ensure what they expect from parents is mirrored by high expectations and excellent teaching during the school day.

Building Momentum For Family Engagement: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Jeff Schulz

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

At Bellwether, we believe that schools are most successful when families and parents are engaged. But despite decades of research on family and parent engagement strategies, there is still little consensus about meaningful family involvement in a child’s education: what does it look like, how does it translate into student achievement, and what is a school’s role in facilitating it?

To get some answers, we spoke to Bellwether principal Jeff Schulz, who has been a member of our Strategic Advising team since 2013 and has helped school districts, charter management organizations, and service providers address a wide range of strategic issues. In the Q&A below, Jeff talks about a recent project advising a major client on family engagement work and what he’s learned.

How do you define family engagement? How does this work look on the ground in different communities? 

The Flamboyan Foundation – which does some of the best work nationally in this area – defines family engagement as “the collaboration between families and educators that accelerates student learning.” I like this definition because it encompasses so much more than ice cream socials or “donuts with dad” and gets at the essential role of schools.

This collaboration can take on many different forms:

  • Providing timely information to families about student performance, and creating multiple opportunities for parents to interpret and act on that data (e.g., progress reports, parent-teacher conferences, report card nights, regular email/writtencommunication)
  • Welcoming parents into classrooms to advance learning (e.g., reading with younger kids, talking about their profession, helping teachers prepare learning activities)
  • Seeking input from families on key school decisions (through surveys, focus groups, or a standing group like a parent teacher association)
  • Supporting parents to advocate for resources and supports for their schools (e.g., speaking to local, state, or national representatives about critical issues)

What do you take away from the research on family engagement?

The research on family engagement is not as well developed as some other areas (for example, the What Works Clearinghouse has a whole collection of research around literacy and dropout prevention). However, there is research that suggests a correlation between better student performance and more engaged families. Here are a few key findings from a recent summary:

  • Schools instituting high-quality family engagement programs have higher attendance rates than similar schools without such programs
  • 71% of teenagers interviewed in one study said that more communication between parents and schools might have prevented them from dropping out of high school
  • Meta-analyses of 40+ studies found a significant association between family engagement and the academic achievement of urban elementary and middle school students

To be clear, these findings point to a correlation between effective family engagement and student success, not a causal link. Stronger research on the impact of effective family engagement, and what “effective” actually looks like in practice, is an area we’d really benefit from as a field.

Tell me about a recent family engagement client project: What was the problem and what was Bellwether’s proposed solution?

This year, we partnered with a large and rapidly growing multi-region charter management organization (CMO). The client believed that effective family and parent engagement was critical to its continued success, and it invested significantly in surveying parents, creating parent curricula, and developing an advocacy approach.

While they saw a positive impact from their investments, the work was not clearly aligned to an organization-wide strategy or set of metrics. On top of that, the work was often distributed among different teams in multiple regions, making it difficult to assess the overall impact.

That’s where Bellwether came in: our Strategic Advising team was asked to support the development of a five-year family engagement strategy. We interviewed people from across the organization – including central office staff, school leaders and teachers, and parents – to understand what was working well and what gaps needed to be addressed.

We developed a family engagement vision, set of shared beliefs, and measurable goals to guide the work. This provided a framework that everyone could understand and rally around even as specific strategies and activities evolved over time. The three overarching goals we identified were:

  • Engage families in classroom and school activities
  • Build family knowledge and skills
  • Empower families to take action on issues that affect their child’s education

With goals in place, it was easier to identify specific initiatives that aligned and could be measured, including: planning for a family liaison program, a parent advisory committee at each school, and a “parent university”; better utilizing existing tools to communicate student performance; and supporting parents to organize and advocate for their schools’ needs.

What are the biggest misconceptions about family engagement?

The biggest misconception I see is that there is a tradeoff between focusing time, energy, and money on family engagement versus direct support to students. In fact, when done well, family engagement is in direct alignment with student success. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

A second misconception, which relates to the first, is that family engagement is a “nice to have” and not a “must have.” For students to succeed, families must be engaged and supportive partners. This is particularly true when students leave school for college or other transitions. At that point, the school’s sphere of influence ends or is greatly diminished.

In what ways do racial blind spots or biases affect family engagement efforts?

Different cultures have different norms: whereas some parents are perfectly comfortable visiting a school and asking tough questions about their child’s experience, other parents might be more deferential to teachers and less likely to proactively advocate for their child. There are also parents who have had bad past experiences with schools or witnessed a revolving door of school leadership, resulting in low trust. This divide is especially prominent in urban schools, where teaching staff are commonly much less racially diverse than the communities they serve. Schools must proactively build a welcoming and non-judgmental culture for parents, encourage them to visit the school, and create space for those types of conversations.

Are there any big picture best practices around family engagement you can share from your work? What makes a winning family engagement strategy?

Through our research and benchmarking, we’ve identified five design principles that inform successful family engagement strategies:

  1. Successful family engagement requires a shared organizational mindset that deeply values and respects family contributions.
  2. To achieve buy-in among staff, the top leaders must emphasize the importance of family engagement.
  3. Principals should be the focal point of training efforts so they become champions of family engagement in their schools – without their support, family engagement will remain sporadic and transactional.
  4. Track results and publicize them. This will build excitement around familyengagement.
  5. Make family engagement as easy as possible for campuses to implement, with easy and customizable resources, strong program design, and staff support at the central office.

What’s your advice for an organization looking to invest in family engagement?

  • Start with families and parents. Understand their needs and desires. If you’re a parent, think about what you want from your child’s school, and then think about how to make sure all parents have that.
  • Don’t make it “one more thing.” Think explicitly about how family engagement can support other goals and priorities. For example, if a school has a goal aroundincreasing reading achievement, engage parents through starting and operating a book fair, leading a book drive, or volunteering in classrooms or the library.
  • Support teachers and administrators. School staff are busy. If you’re going to ask them to increase time and energy on family engagement, think about how to take other non-essential tasks off their plates (e.g., paperwork) and provide them with ready-to-use resources and supports.

To learn more about Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team and how we can partner with you on family engagement strategies or other work, email contactus@bellwethereducation.org.

One Area Where Parent Engagement Research is Clear: Early Childhood Education

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

Let’s be honest: parent engagement is both an imprecise and confounding term. In theory it’s hard to argue against engaging parents in their child’s education. Yet, a couple of years ago, two sociology professors attempted to do so, claiming that parent involvement in education does not improve — and may actually hinder — student achievement. Their research methods were widely criticized and debunked, but the discussion that ensued raised questions about the underlying science regarding parent engagement. In general, few policymakers or practitioners can easily outline what effective parent engagement actually entails. Thankfully in recent years, a clearer answer has emerged in the field of early childhood education.

There is a long history of including parent engagement in early childhood education. In fact, parent engagement has been a fundamental aspect of Head Start — the only federal pre-k program — since the program’s inception in 1965. Head Start was founded on the principle that child development is the product of multiple levels of interaction, with both parents and teachers playing important roles. Based on this history, parent engagement has long been stressed as an important component of early childhood education.

On top of this foundational commitment to family engagement, the early childhood education space also benefits from an emerging body of research that shows that positively changing parents’ behaviors and expectations can directly improve children’s initial and long term academic performance, and that parent engagement is central to promoting children’s school readiness and social-emotional development. A 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation brief outlined four types of parent engagement programs that have been tested using randomized-controlled trials and which were found to positively improve outcomes for low-income preschool aged children. Effective programs typically had at least one of these characteristics:

1.) Promote Positive Parenting Practices and Parent-Child Relationships

The first category of effective approaches to preschool parent engagement includes programs that target specific parenting skills. Examples of such programs include the Incredible Years Parent Training Program, Chicago Parent Program, Dare to by You, and ParentCorps. These programs include tailored lessons aimed at parents which emphasize parenting skills — such as routines, encouragement, and limit setting — known to promote children’s social and emotional development and reduce behavior problems. Each of these programs have been evaluated using rigorous methods and have been found to provide benefits for participating parents and their children.

2.) Promote Home Learning Activities

Programs in this category help parents learn how to engage in developmentally appropriate learning activities . These programs provide parents with home learning materials, coach parents how to use the materials effectively, and provide parents with opportunities to practice their new skills. These programs have been found to have positive effects on parent-child conversations and parent use of interactive reading strategies. In turn, these behaviors are associated with positive impacts on children’s literacy skills, academic performance, and self-directed learning. One notable program in this category is the Research-Based Developmentally Informed Parent (REDI-P) program. This program was designed as a complement to Head Start and was intended to promote sustained gains for children. The program includes home visits with parents before and after the kindergarten transition and provides parents with learning activities (e.g., guided books, evidence-based learning games, interactive stories, and guided pretend play) to use with their children in order to support school-readiness skills.

3.) Strengthen Parent Teacher Relationships

These programs provide teachers with training focused on building strong relationships with parents. Two successful programs focused on strengthening the teacher-parent partnership are the Getting Ready intervention and Companion Curriculum. The Getting Ready intervention supports teachers in making home visits and hosting collaborative planning conferences with parents with the goal of improving the parent-child and parent-teacher relationship. The program has been used as a supplement to Early Head Start settings across the country and has been found to produce gains in children’s language use, pre-reading skills, and positive learning behavior in the classroom. The Companion Curriculum is a professional development model for enhancing parent involvement in Head Start that also focuses on the parent-teacher relationship. One part of the model involves establishing family corners in children’s classrooms, where parents can informally engage their children in fun, stimulating activities.

4.) Emphasize the Child’s Health

These types of parent engagement programs are designed to increase parent knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating and facilitate healthier lifestyles. Many of these programs focus on reducing childhood obesity for children under five through home-based interventions. In the last five years, a number of studies of programs implemented in the home context have reported significant positive effects on BMI. These programs include Salud con la FamiliaPediatric Overweight Prevention through Parent Training Program; and Healthy Habits, Healthy Homes. Salud con la Familia is a community-based, culturally tailored childhood obesity intervention that engages Latino parents and their preschool-aged children in skills building to improve familial habits related to nutrition and physical activity. Healthy Habits, Health Homes is a home-based intervention aimed at low-income parents that focuses on improving household routines known to be associated with childhood obesity including frequency of family meals, time watching TV, and removing screen media from bedrooms of young children. This intervention was found to increase children’s sleep duration and reduce children’s TV viewing on weekends and BMI compared to controls.

Thanks to decades of high-quality research, we now know how to improve early childhood programs through targeted and effective parent engagement. This body of research also provides clues for strengthening parental engagement efforts during the early elementary grades and beyond. For example, the research on early childhood parent engagement interventions reveals the importance of developing culturally-tailored and culturally-appropriate interventions and the importance of utilizing interventions that help parents develop their child’s social emotional and physical development as well as their academic performance. 

“I’d Better Bring Home An A”: The Power Of Parent Expectations

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

It’s the beginning of the school year, and I’m already behind on my assignments — that is, the flurry of forms to fill out, orientations to attend, and Back-to-School nights to add to the calendar. As an education researcher, I applaud all the efforts to engage me in what’s going on at school — and I love hearing about what my kids are learning — but as a working parent of a middle schooler and a high schooler, I admit I groan a little trying to fit it all in.

Often, parent involvement gets framed as caregivers’ level of interaction with the school — coming to school events and volunteering with the PTA, for example. While such activities may present minor scheduling headaches for me, many caregivers face much bigger obstacles, including lack of childcare, language barriers, or working multiple jobs. Framing engagement around school-based activities can lead to the assumption that the parents who don’t appear, especially low-income parents, are apathetic about their children’s education.

But that assumption is off the mark. A parent or guardian can have a powerful impact on a child’s achievement even if they never set foot in the school. A 2013 meta-synthesis of research on parental involvement drives this point home: out of a wide variety of types of involvement explored in many different studies, parents’ expectations for academic achievement had the strongest impact on students’ academic performance.

A student I met once in a focus group at a large city high school made this point even more succinctly. When asked her thoughts on parent involvement during high school, she said emphatically: “My mom is working in another city right now, so she’s not at home. But I know I better bring home an A, or else!” Even though they were physically separated, her mother’s expectations for high achievement were a very real motivating factor.

Ultimately, a central goal of family engagement is to increase the alignment between home and school in support of each child’s education. One way to do that is by inviting caregivers to the school, but there are many other ways to provide families with the tools they need to champion learning at home. For school leaders and policymakers seeking to engage a wider range of families, below are several examples of strategies that empower parents and guardians to reinforce high expectations for academic achievement, even if they are not able to physically come to the school. Continue reading

How Teacher Turnover Hurt Improvement Efforts in These Minnesota Schools

This is first in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

As students come back to school this fall, many will find teachers and principals they’ve never seen before. About 16 percent of teachers leave the profession or change schools every year, and that number is even higher in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools.

How does teacher turnover affect students and schools? The research is not always clear. Several studies in urban districts show a general negative association between turnover and student achievement. One study found negative teacher turnover effects spread even to students with veteran teachers, suggesting turnover can impact schoolwide achievement and morale. But a certain amount of turnover is inevitable, and in some cases, staff changes can improve student scores by exiting ineffective teachers or allowing teachers to take on new leadership roles in schools.

The experience of the Pathway Schools Initiative, a seven-year effort to improve third grade literacy in seven Minnesota elementary schools, sheds further light on how turnover can hurt the momentum of school improvement efforts. With the support of the McKnight Foundation, schools participating in the initiative worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) to implement PreK-3rd improvement efforts.

All seven Pathway schools were urban (located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area), relatively low performing, and predominantly low-income. But rates of teacher turnover varied widely between schools and from year to year. The graph below shows the differences in PreK-3rd grade teacher turnover among four participating schools over a two-year period.

Ultimately, schools in the Initiative struggled to make significant progress in improving PreK-3rd grade instruction and literacy outcomes. An independent evaluation conducted by SRI International identified teacher turnover as one of the major challenges, among many, facing schools in their professional development and instructional change efforts. Evaluators also found some cases where newly hired teachers were associated with lower student performance, but results were inconsistent by school and by year.[1] Overall, professional development was a huge component of the initiative, and when large numbers of teachers left, that institutional knowledge and investment left too. As one teacher told evaluators, “We’ve had so much turnover among the staff that we’re reinventing the wheel every year.”

Data collected by SRI International, from SRI 2016-17 Pathway Schools Initiative Annual Report. Note: Data were not available in this time period for every school in the Initiative.

School improvement efforts like the Pathway Schools Initiative, which focused on assessment, instruction, and professional development, need a certain level of stability to succeed. But chronic educator turnover in high-need schools should not be viewed as an inevitable reality. In blogs to come in this series, we’ll continue digging into data and stories from these schools to look at the impacts of teacher and leader turnover and examine potential action steps schools, districts, and states can take to ensure turnover is not a roadblock to school improvement.

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[1] Schmidt, R.A., Chen, W., Torre, D., Woodworth, K., and Golan, S. (2017, April). The Role of Student and School Characteristics in Predicting Early Literacy Gains. Poster Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), Austin, TX, and Pathway Schools Initiative Phase 1 Case Study