Throughout 2020 and into 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures and led districts to implement remote and hybrid learning solutions. As many students began learning at home, families were more engaged with their child’s day to day education experience than ever before.
However, more engagement with schools doesn’t necessarily mean families are more confident. In fact, families reported having less understanding of their child’s achievement compared to previous years and being more worried about the progress their kids were making.
While it’s true that the pandemic heightened feelings of concern, the desire to know more about how prepared students are for their future is not new. Families have always played a critical role in student outcomes, and when they’re meaningfully engaged, everyone benefits.
In the United States, decades of research have shown that parents have a positive influence on student academic achievement when equipped to support their children’s learning at home. One study showed that parent involvement in at-home learning had more than twice the effect on student test scores than parents’ education levels or socio-economic status. Another recent report highlighted the positive impact families were able to have on student learning when teachers engaged them through high-quality instructional materials.
As we continue to experience one of the most challenging periods for education in our lifetimes, let us not return to business as usual, but instead learn from the difficulties of COVID-19 and recognize that trust is built and reinforced by clear and open communication between schools and families—and trust is essential when partnering with families to support learning. Here are five strategies school systems should consider as they look to build trust and community with families that will last.
1. Recognize families as key partners in student learning
Current research and advocacy efforts to improve school-parent communication mostly focus on one type of communication: student achievement report cards. This is a huge missed opportunity. When communication focuses more on day-to-day learning, parents can be enlisted as partners. For example, if third graders are learning how to explain their own ideas in class discussion, parents, who are aware of this goal, can support development through daily interactions with their children. Quality family engagement begins with the belief that families are an asset, have a lot to offer and, if empowered with the right information, can be real partners as schools work to prepare students for college and career.
Don’t underestimate how much parents want information about their children’s learning experience, including the curriculum they use every day. A 2020 Brookings Institution report cited an example from the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative about the creation of a family hotline to provide guidance and resources related to student learning. In just the first month, the hotline received 1,000 calls. No matter how stressed or busy or overwhelmed parents are, they want to contribute to their child’s academic success.
2. Listen first
When engaging families, district leaders and teachers should be listeners first. Take the time to learn about your community: what do your families need? What are the things that stand in the way of families getting what they need for their children, and what helps?
When including parents in decision-making, be sure to create structures that allow for participation from families that reflect the diversity of lived experiences in your community. Pay attention to who is giving feedback and who is responding. Are you only conducting public sessions in a single language? Are there multiple opportunities and formats for families to engage—in person, online, over the phone? Oftentimes, the best approach starts with learning from as many voices as possible.
3. Offer right-sized information directly connected to what students are learning
Families want to be engaged, but the way districts provide updates and the kinds of information schools offer matters. Parents have expressed a lack of confidence when it comes to understanding what their child needs to know in order to succeed. Think about regularly sharing right-sized information connected directly to student learning that can help parents take incremental steps that, over time, build confidence.
A concrete way to help parents know about what their child is learning is to provide information about the curriculum and the types of work that they will be seeing their kids do for a specific grade. At Family Engagement Lab, our tool FASTalk helps teachers provide regular updates to families in their home language with information about what their child is learning and how they can reinforce that learning at home. The updates, sent by text message, focus on student learning activities connected to high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum and have been shown to meaningfully improve student learning outcomes. Districts can use this program to engage families in what students are learning and support parent-teacher partnership and collaboration.
4. Be explicit about how family feedback shapes decisions
Just as engaging families in student learning is important, what happens after families are engaged is critical as well. Communicating how school and system-level decisions that relate to student learning were made (including curriculum choices), how parent feedback was incorporated, and what the decision means for families and students is critical.
In 2018, Baltimore City Public Schools engaged families around the district’s English language arts curriculum adoption. Families offered insightful feedback about what they hoped to see in the new materials and highlighted components such as supports for English language learners and materials that reflected the needs and cultures of all students. This feedback from families became integral in the district’s ultimate choice, and Baltimore made a point of sharing exactly how community engagement shaped the selection of the new program.
5. Make space and support teachers to do this work
Teachers are often asked to do an impossible job with few resources. Building strong, trusting partnerships to support student learning takes time and effort. If districts truly want family engagement to be a priority, leadership must make it one within the school building. Principals and other leaders can model and reinforce how important partnerships with families are. For example, a recent study found that teachers who received a free mobile app to communicate with families were more likely to use it if they received intensive training and continued support such as communication tips and reminders. Providing teachers with resources to support them as they engage families can go a long way to ensuring quality, intentional engagement actually happens and is sustained.
Elisabeth O’Bryon is the co-founder and Chief Impact Officer at Family Engagement Lab
Lauren Weisskirk is the Chief Strategy Officer at EdReports