Arnett: Strengthening Connections Between Home and School Can Make a World of Difference for Students. Technology Can Help

As educators scope out their work during the early ramp-up of the school year, one important item on their to-do list should be building connections with students’ families and learning about their lives outside of school. This isn’t just a sensible idea: Modularity Theory, a framework that explains how to optimize system performance, illustrates why integrating home and school is a key lever for schools striving to drive learning gains. But for interconnectedness to happen, schools will need to turn to innovations that reframe educators’ roles and responsibilities.

According to Modularity Theory, the most direct way to improve a system’s performance is to integrate the pieces with the biggest influence. This is why Amazon recently built a fleet of planes, trucks and drones — to integrate shipping logistics with order processing and inventory management to enable reliable next-day delivery. This is also why Microsoft, ostensibly a software company, started developing the hardware for tablets. It couldn’t design an exceptional next-gen computing experience by relying on other companies to figure out the hardware side.

The same holds true for education. Students’ experiences both at school and at home affect their learning. Although school is the formal setting where students go to learn, decades of research show that family circumstances are the strongest predictors of student achievement. Furthermore, both Modularity Theory and empirical research suggest that sizable gains in student achievement could follow from finding better ways to integrate the two.

Consider what interconnectedness between educators and families might look like. Imagine a school where teachers relied on daily support from family members volunteering as tutors, project or field trip coordinators, or guest speakers. At the same time, since work schedules and other responsibilities make it hard for many families to engage during the school day, educators could build bridges in the other direction by making occasional after-hours house calls and then maintaining regular personal, caring contact through text messages, phone calls or video chats.

Closer integration among parents and educators would shed light for both parties on what students most need to thrive. If a child was struggling academically, teachers would understand the social and emotional context of his life outside of school and might propose interventions that better meet that child’s needs. Similarly, a parent who suspected her child was struggling at school would have no trouble connecting with the teacher to get a better read on the situation and find a cooperative solution. Thinking of other benefits, how might such connections and relationships reshape tensions and misunderstandings between families and educators of different racial, ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds?

In spite of these potential benefits, efforts to connect home and school face real limits. Schools cannot, and should not, try to run families the way Amazon owns and operates trucks and planes. Nor can schools boost a family’s income or resolve turmoil at home. But the real challenge constraining educators is time. Integrating home and school requires more than biannual parent-teacher conferences, signatures on homework packets and an occasional call home when a problem arises. It requires building deep relationships and learning from one another. With all the work of running classrooms and managing a school, when do educators have the time to become family liaisons?

Although there’s no magic trick to double the hours of the day, innovations that expand teachers’ capacity are the next best thing.

Just as microwaves, washing machines and dishwashers can give busy parents more time to spend with their children, teachers need tech-enabled solutions that can free up more of their time for working with families. Fortunately, technologies on the market offer just such time-saving benefits: streamlining how teachers hand out and collect assignments, grading quizzes and tests that check for basic understanding, serving up online practice problems tailored to students’ learning needs, helping teachers find lesson activities aligned to learning objectives and even taking a first pass at grading student essays. Among these technologies, the biggest time savers are often those that can free teachers up from having to repeat the same lecture-based lessons over and over each class period and each year.

For example, Stacy Roshan and Kareem Farah are two teachers in the Washington, D.C., area who created online videos to replace lecture-based instruction. By automating substantial parts of their lessons, they can now spend more of their planning and class time helping students wrestle with concepts and building relationships with their classes. In a similar manner, some of that time could be allocated to arranging meetings and engaging in other activities that forge bridges with students’ families.

As another example, teachers at Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City each mentor approximately 40 students. These teachers check in with each of their mentees at least weekly to help them plan and monitor progress toward their academic goals, coach them on study habits, support them with college applications and counsel them as they work through issues with peers or other teachers. Additionally, mentor teachers connect with students’ families to integrate their support with the help they get at home. How do teachers at Innovations find time for these mentoring responsibilities? Students do much of their learning through online resources curated by their teachers, which in turn frees up teachers’ time for things like office hours, ad hoc tutoring and mentoring.

Strengthening the links between home and school can make a world of difference for students. Ultimately, home-and-school integration will only be unlocked by expanding teachers’ capacity — and technology is the key to making it happen.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute, studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation and identifying disruptive innovations in education. He previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, and taught middle school math with Teach For America in Kansas City Public Schools. 

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