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.
- Support policies and programs that educate new parents about the role they can play in children’s academic learning and development.
Particularly for at-risk families, early training about how to help children learn can go a long way. In a study of a nurse-family home visiting program that helps new parents understand how to support school readiness (among other things), researchers found a link between program participation and higher academic achievement. This link was particularly strong for children of mothers identified as having low psychological resources to deal with poverty, and the academic benefits lasted even 10 years after the nurse visits had ended. Expanded investment in programs like this could help more parents develop the foundation of skills and knowledge they need to support their children’s learning throughout school.
- Put information about students’ performance at parents’ fingertips.
There is promising evidence that texting parents with specific information about their children can result in improved achievement. In a recent study in West Virginia, middle and high school parents received weekly alerts about their child’s absences from class, missed assignments, and falling grades. The study found that the texting program, which was an automated service linked to the school’s information system, “reduce[d] course failures by 38%, increase[d] class attendance by 17% and increase[d] retention,” with more powerful effects for students with lower GPAs.
- Reach out to solicit meaningful input from parents about their child’s learning.
In order to maximize alignment between parents and schools, it is important to establish two-way communication. For example, many schools are finding that by conducting home visits in the beginning of the year, they can build trust, gain helpful information about students, and establish shared expectations with families. Since such initiatives ask more of teachers, some foundations and schools are teaming up to provide teachers with the training and additional pay they deserve to make these visits effective. Nonetheless, as the former principal of an award-winning DC school describes, the investment in home visits can pay large dividends in helping both families and schools understand what students need in order to succeed.
Promising strategies such as these are grounded in the recognition that even parents who can’t attend a Parent Night or volunteer in the classroom are highly invested in their children’s education. Focusing on that truth will help policymakers and educators design meaningful engagement strategies that truly enhance the power of parents to help students succeed.