Analysis: Families Play 4 Key Roles In Partnership With Schools. How Two-Way Communication Makes These Relationships Stronger

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Many lessons were learned during the past year of remote learning, but one remains particularly relevant as classrooms around the country reopen: Schools and families can’t effectively support students without being in partnership with each other.

The critical role of family-school partnerships, particularly in historically underserved communities, was well documented even before the pandemic struck. Decades of research show that family involvement —  including supporting at-home learning, participating in school activities and monitoring children’s academic and social activities — pays dividends across the developmental continuum. It’s particularly beneficial for lower-income students for whom school may be one of many competing demands (e.g., jobs, sibling baby-sitting) on their family’s time.

Traditional strategies, though, aren’t always effective. The pandemic strained what was already a tenuous school-family connection in many communities.There is a growing sense of mistrust in schools among Black, brown and Asian families that the pandemic has only amplified, leading many parents of color to pull back from in-person learning. And while schools may be trying to increase communications with families, more frequent one-way outreach is not a recipe for building trust.

For years, researchers like Harvard University professor Karen Mapp, have cautioned school leaders about the limitations of the one-way communications families traditionally receive. “The heart of this work [of engaging families] involves treating families as true partners,” said Mapp in an interview. She advises schools and organizations to shift the role of parents from spectators of the work schools do to co-designers of students’ learning and wellness. To do this right, schools must share power with families and acknowledge that every family has strengths and resources to offer, while remaining mindful of barriers to engagement (i.e., work demands, language and culture differences).

One two-way approach involves leveraging technology to enlist families as academic support to drive student learning. For instance, TalkingPoints, a family engagement platform, enables regular dialogue and collaboration between schools and families, tailored to each family’s preferred language. The purpose is to build the capacity of teachers and families to partner with each other to support students academically, socially and emotionally. Teachers use an app or text messages to share information, insights, photos, videos and documents with specific family members to give them a clear view of daily classroom activities. The family members can reply with questions or share information about the child’s home learning environment. If the replies are in the home language, TalkingPoints will translate them into English for the teacher. Compared to its June 2020 report, the platform’s July 2021 report revealed that after a year of using TalkingPoints during distance learning, teachers report a deeper understanding of their students’ circumstances, and families report feeling more confident in supporting their child’s learning. The platform’s most recent survey showed that 93 percent of participating teachers have seen positive changes in students’ behavior and performance as well.

PowerMyLearning, a program focused on strengthening the “triangle of learning relationships” among student, teacher and family, is another example of two-way engagement. It empowers educators to engage students and partner with families to implement research-based instructional practices across four domains: the learning environment, instructional planning and delivery, data-driven decision making and student agency. Family Playlists, one of the company’s products that delivers homework assignments in families’ home languages, helps students learn at home by becoming teachers themselves. Students receive assignments through text messages to their designated family member’s cell phone, and then teach their family what they are learning through real-world, hands-on activities. Families engage in meaningful dialogue with their child while providing feedback directly to the teacher via their phone in their preferred language. Results from randomized controlled trials show that compared with standard solo homework assignments, Family Playlists have a statistically significant positive impact on outcomes related to student agency, which were especially pronounced for English learners.

Models like these are establishing deeper relationships between schools and families by acknowledging and building on the myriad roles that families can play in students’ educational journeys. In the Christensen Institute’s latest report, Family Engagement Reimagined: Innovations Strengthening Family-School Connections to Help Students Thrive, research reveals four key roles that families are playing in partnership with schools: as academic support to drive student learning, as guidance support to help students navigate out-of-school and postsecondary pathways, as informal mentors to cultivate and expand students’ career options, and as sources of community to promote student well-being. Tapping families as sources of community for one another is perhaps the most innovative of the four roles. Recent research shows family-to-family connections can lead to greater parental confidence in advocating for their children’s needs, access to resources and positive changes both in the way families interact with one another and in influencing the schools attended by their children. By building these relationships, parents are, in turn, expanding their networks, which translates to a wider net of support and resources available to their children long term. For example, SchoolCNXT, a family engagement app, connects families to build relationships with each other and school staff to exchange resources unique to their needs. 

Effectively and equitably serving every student this year will require new models and tools that help schools unlock the potential of families as sources of support for students’ well-being and learning. The good news is that families are ready for bold changes that shift the traditional power dynamic with schools and build the capacity of both to work together as partners. By weaving families’ aspirations and assets into students’ learning — inside and outside the classroom — schools can make the long overdue shift from one-way communication to two-way, authentic family engagement. 

Mahnaz R. Charania, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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