Pittman & Darling-Hammond: Surveys Find Parents Want Bold Changes in Schools — With More Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom

(Learning Heroes)

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COVID-19 disruptions gave parents and families unprecedented views into their children’s schools, classes and teachers, and deepened insights into their children’s learning styles, interests and challenges. Whatever they thought of their schools before, many parents now have strong opinions about what they want them to provide. They are looking beyond fall reopenings to rethink schooling, and they care about having good choices for interest-driven learning opportunities beyond the classroom.

Two important national parent surveys released in early May shed new light on how to think about the often-used phrase “more and better learning.” Both emphasize the importance of acknowledging that learning happens in families, schools and communities in complementary ways.

One, the Beacon Research National Survey, conducted with Shaw and Company Research and funded by the Walton Family Foundation, gauged how parents would like to see federal stimulus funding for education used. The other, conducted by Learning Heroes with Edge Research and funded by The Wallace Foundation, sought to understand how parents, teachers and providers of extracurricular programs perceive the value and assess the quality of these programs in supporting children’s social, emotional and academic development, particularly during the summer and in the context of COVID.

Here are some of the key findings:

Parents are concerned about the impacts of the pandemic on learning progress and on their children’s readiness for the fall, and want a whole-child approach as part of a solution. In the Beacon Research survey, 4 in 10 parents report they are very concerned about their child’s progress. Learning Heroes’ research confirms this and offers additional details.

  • While a quarter of parents worry about their children falling behind academically, 40 percent are concerned primarily about missed social connections and relationships.
  • Just 39 percent of parents want to make up lost classroom time by extending the 2020-21 school year into the summer, while many more — 57 percent — want schools to offer summer programs that include art, music, sports and other non-academic activities, an earlier Learning Heroes survey found.
  • For this summer specifically, top priorities for parents are addressing social, emotional and/or mental health needs (55 percent) and providing physical/outdoor activity (54 percent), rather than academic support/making up for learning loss (37 percent). Teachers, in general, agree (54 percent, 51 percent, 39 percent). Extracurricular program providers, interestingly, see the three categories as equally important (46 percent, 49 percent, 47 percent), and have a fourth goal as well: finding passion and purpose (49 percent).

Parents see the disruption created by COVID, combined with new funding, as an opportunity for transforming public education to make it more equitable and learner-centered. The Beacon research found that 73 percent of parents support the American Rescue Plan — but want assurances that the funds will be used for “bold change,” not for business as usual. Among the changes desired by two-thirds or more of respondents:

  • More experiential learning, such as college credit/work-based learning/apprenticeships
  • Better use of technology, by expanding broadband access and providing teachers with improved instructional materials, digital resources and training for online learning
  • More personalized learning by providing special funding for students with greater academic needs and expanding high-quality tutoring programs
  • More attention to students’ emotional/mental health by providing tools for teachers and students
  • Increased learning time by expanding free pre-kindergarten and child care, and offering summer school instruction to any child who wants it

These surveys show that “whole child, whole community” is not a goal for parents — it is a given. They value schools but don’t want more traditional school time. Compared to the two-thirds majority ratings given other suggested changes, only a minority of parents in the Beacon research supported “extending the school day or school year.” The Learning Heroes study sheds light on why.

  • Parents want their children to develop a broad set of skills and believe that home, school and extracurriculars play complementary roles in achieving this. When asked what they believed each should focus on, most parents selected academic fundamentals and problem-solving skills for schools, respect and kindness for the home, and social skills and teamwork in extracurricular programs.
  • Of those surveyed, 65 percent of parents enroll their K-8 children in one or more programs or organized activities that offer learning or skills outside the regular school day, even though, in most communities, families must pay for them. Enrollment would be even higher if not for barriers such as cost, transportation and lack of availability. A recent poll conducted by the Afterschool Alliance finds that demand regularly outstrips supply. Nationally, there are three children waiting to attend extracurricular programs for each child enrolled, and 57 percent of parents said cost was an important factor in their decision not to participate.

These findings lead to a key implication as schools reopen: An influx of new funding for programs this summer and throughout the next several years may help increase access to extracurriculars. But this money will not jump-start the bold changes parents want if educators and policymakers do not recognize and support learning and engagement that extends beyond the school day, the school walls, the school staff or the traditional school approaches.

Expanded learning is more than expanded time. In communities like Tulsa, Oklahoma; Cleveland; and Boston, and throughout California, savvy leaders are investing in ongoing partnerships with community-based program providers ranging from Boy and Girl Scouts and Boys and Girls Clubs to debate leagues, bicycle clubs, parks and libraries. This kind of bold change that broadens education and support for young people is what policymakers and leaders must continue to envision in this moment of crisis and opportunity.

Karen Pittman is co-founder and senior fellow at the Forum for Youth Investment. Linda Darling-Hammond is president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education emeritus at Stanford University.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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