“If we are concerned about student achievement, then we must be equally concerned about parent engagement.” —Dr. Pedro Noguera
Pizza nights and bake sales. Concerts and football games. Twice-a-year parent-teacher conferences. Once-a-year welcome curriculum nights where the goal is to get just 20 people to show up. This is what people ordinarily think of as “parent engagement,” and, not surprisingly, neither schools nor parents come away feeling very engaged.
For parents who are struggling to make ends meet, who did not have positive experiences in school when they were students, or who are new Americans unfamiliar with how the system works, these traditional efforts to engage may instead highlight barriers between the culture of the community and the culture of the school.
Traditional parent involvement efforts assume that schools are neutral places that treat everyone equally, but that ignores cultural context, and leads to a focus on changing the parents in order to match a preconceived notion of what a good parent should be.
“I went to the parent nights and stuff for the first year, then afterwards I just walked away...You're getting talked at, and you're just there with your family. [You] can't talk to anybody else. ... I haven't gone too much this year because I had other activities.” —Parent
In contrast, research consistently finds that strong parent–family–school relations is critical to student success. When schools and parents work together to support students, students show improved school adjustment and social skills as well as better grades, achievement test scores, credit completion, and college enrollment (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). A study of 400 Chicago schools found that school engagement with parents and communities was as important for student success as strong leadership, continued professional development, instructional support, and a positive, child-centered school climate. In fact, schools with higher levels of parent and community engagement were 4 times more likely to have higher reading scores and 10 times more likely to have higher math scores (Bryk, 2011). What’s more, these research studies have generally relied on more traditional measures of parent engagement (e.g. parent-teacher night attendance), indicating that these estimates represent just the beginning of what’s possible if parents were truly seen as partners in education.
Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Road Map Project is seven school districts, higher education institutions and hundreds of community-based organizations in Washington's South King County, working together to keep 120,000 students on track from cradle through college. Over a 6-month period, a group of Road Map Project educators and parents came together in Kent, Wash., to form a design team (all quotes in this article are from Design Team Members). The team started with the belief that parents themselves are the experts on their own interests, needs and priorities — and that schools can be leaders in achieving more effective partnerships by recognizing parents’ strengths, accounting for cultural context, and changing policies or practices to remove barriers.
“We’re there to hear the concerns and the thoughts of the parents. They’re coming to say there’s an issue, and ask ‘What can we do?’ They don’t need you to fix it for them. They just want you to hear that they have a concern or that they would like some change to happen and to not take it personally but to ask them ‘So what do you think could change to make it better?’ It was eye-opening to me. I just always thought I was supposed to fix it.” —Teacher
Through this Design Team, as well as surveys and interviews in five different languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Somali), we gathered information about what matters most to parents, and how to build parent-teacher and parent-school relationships that support student achievement.
Previously, the primary measure of family engagement was head counts at school events. Now, the parent-driven indicators of success are:
- Efficacy: Percentage of families who feel knowledgeable and confident in their ability to support their child’s learning
- Climate: Percentage of families who believe their school provides a welcoming and culturally responsive learning climate
- Influence: Percentage of families who have leadership opportunities and influence decision making at their school or district
These indicators are meant to be a tool in the broader process of learning and improvement, not a cure-all or a weapon.
Based on the surveys and interviews, we have a wealth of data that recognizes parents as experts, and are using that information to contribute to a Family Engagement Guide, a Parent Curriculum and professional development opportunities for schools in the seven districts of the Road Map Region.
“This is so enriching. It created such a positive environment and safe place for parents to address issues, and it empowered me too, if I want to do something to affect other parents, I can, and you guys were all so positive and good. I cherish this.” —Parent
Using this new approach to family engagement will strengthen parent-teacher partnerships and help shift schools and districts towards a transformative goal of educational equity — and that is good for all our kids.
“As parents we have the power to change everything. … We have to initiate change and demand it.” —Parent
The authors are researchers at the University of Washington’s College of Education, project on Equitable Parent-School Collaborations. An earlier version of this post was originally published on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog.