How Well Do Schools, Families Communicate? Study Sees Parent-District Disconnect

Deane: Research in over 75 districts reveals a desire for personalization, chaotic school choice processes, lack of engagement, information overload.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

A version of this essay originally appeared on LinkedIn.

A few weeks ago, many were pointing out the four-year anniversary of the last “normal” week of our lives. Some pandemic-era reflections acknowledged the “silver linings” like more time with family, flexible work arrangements, gratitude for one’s health. With respect to education, however, it’s harder to find such perspectives, as stunted K-12 academic achievement poses serious long-term implications for a generation of learners.

This is unquestionable and absolutely cause for concern. But long before that seismic shift in March 2020, a similar story held true: Schools largely helped some — but not all — students thrive. For many years, parents accepted this status quo, even as they desired otherwise in the form of emotionally supportive environments, rigorous college preparation and the opportunity for their children to explore diverse career pathways, to name a few.

These priorities aren’t new, but in the wake of the pandemic, parents are now more openly exploring other ways to meet them — fueling increased absenteeism, a decline in public school enrollment and a substantial rise in homeschooling, microschools and families exercising various forms of school choice.

Ironically, at this moment when parents are expressing frustration with the status quo, more and more schools and districts are indeed embracing new models and ways of measuring success, prioritizing student-centered pedagogy, inclusive pathway programs and interdisciplinary learning. Yet, despite these positive changes, schools often lack the means to communicate their efforts effectively to parents, leaving them disconnected from the very information they seek.

GreatSchools wanted to dig deeper to understand how districts were communicating with parents postpandemic and how parents were looking for schools in an era of exploration and increasing disengagement.

For the past year, we have undertaken a variety of research, including conducting in-depth interviews with district leaders from across the country, surveying and interviewing parents to understand their mindsets and priorities, and examining more than 75 districts nationwide to find out what kinds of data they are collecting and sharing with their communities.

Some of our findings substantiate what we’ve suspected to be true: Information overload is real, pockets of innovation exist, parents value information that pertains to their own child. Others underscore the need to strengthen feedback loops between parents and districts to elevate families’ shifting desires and, in turn, deliver the information they value most.

A few key themes that emerged in our research among parents and district leaders include:

The data that exists doesn’t always match what parents are prioritizing, and many still find the school search process chaotic. 

  • Parents expressed challenges in finding schools aligned with specific values or characteristics they prioritize, such as specialized programs, safety or a friendly atmosphere.
  • Parents still believe that the only way to assess a school culture is by visiting in person.
  • Mental health programs and services for students are significant concerns for parents, but they say they don’t know how to find this information.
  • Not all parents approach searching for a suitable school with the same time and energy: Some conduct only superficial research, leading to frustration or resignation.
  • Parents lack guidance on when and how to prepare their child for enrollment in a new school, including navigating lottery programs, understanding application procedures and participating in events like open houses or tours.

Parents’ relationship with their children’s school varies widely, but trends show a growing desire for a more personalized experience.

  • A majority of parents are satisfied with their school but still worry about their child’s happiness and emotional well-being.
  • Dissatisfied parents, while fewer in number, prioritize academic quality over emotional well-being.
  • Middle school parents are more likely to feel stuck, possibly due to limited school choice options. High school parents seeking change emphasize academic preparation for college and tailored educational experiences for their children.
  • Parents feel there is both too much information coming from districts and not enough relevant information as it pertains to their individual child.
  • Parents prefer personalized information about their child rather than broad, aggregated data about the entire school or district. 

District leaders are feeling caught between a rock and a fiscal cliff, but many acknowledge they should do more to engage parents in their communities. 

  • District leaders acknowledge that many parents and caregivers are unaware of programs that could benefit their child, such as help with clothes or food, extracurricular activities or scholarship opportunities.
  • While many districts and states collect data from parents through surveys, there’s often a lack of follow-through in terms of analysis, sharing and action based on the results.
  • Some district leaders feel politicized culture wars are making their jobs more difficult, worrying that parents on one side of the aisle will be unhappy with any decision they make.
  • District leaders believe that improving the quality of education matters more than collecting and distributing data. Some struggle with enough resources to do both.

These findings paint a picture of educational priorities among America’s parents that reflect an emphasis on both academic rigor and mental health and well-being. Although a majority report being happy with their school, responses suggest that even these parents harbor concerns about their children’s short and long-term happiness. District leaders want parents to not only have a better understanding of the innovative ways they are working to meet their needs, but to see the precarious position their schools are in — as emergency relief funding dwindles, fiscal cliffs loom and parents continue to seek alternatives.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today