When Families and Schools Work Together, Students Do Better. New Report Has 5 Ways of Engaging Parents in Their Kids’ Education

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In the 1990s, parents in a Central East Austin, Texas, school didn’t know that their children, who came home with As and Bs on their report cards, were actually scoring in the bottom quartile on state tests. But when an organization meant to connect families and schools started sharing student performance data, these families, who were primarily from low-income households, led the effort to turn their school around in student performance, teacher turnover, and attendance.

There’s a pervasive, but false, myth that families from low-income households are less engaged in their children’s education than wealthier, white families, said Heather Weiss, director of the Global Family Research Project and author of a new report on family engagement for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This erroneous belief can lead schools not to try to engage families, which is a lost opportunity, as research shows family engagement can increase student achievement and boost graduation rates — especially for children in low-income households.

Family engagement efforts in schools vary widely across the country, Weiss said, ranging from mobile communication to home visits by teachers. The report focuses on five research-backed areas: attendance, data sharing, academic and social development, digital media, and transitions between grades.

“It’s very clear that family engagement is a shared responsibility,” Weiss said. “Families have a responsibility to engage, and us — meaning the institutions, community organizations, and others — have the responsibility to create the conditions that enable them to engage.”

Research has found that involving families in schools leads to increased student achievement, improved graduation rates, and better preparation for college. The idea dates back to at least 1965, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first signed into law. But the topic has received renewed interest since the Every Student Succeeds Act was updated to replace the phrase “parental involvement” with “family engagement,” a more inclusive term.

“We’re not getting where we want to be around educational equity, and people are recognizing that, so they’re open to new kinds of solutions,” Weiss said.

Philanthropic organizations have been taking note too, said Ambika Kapur, a program officer at Carnegie who commissioned the report. Many foundations donate to family engagement efforts, and about half of those have only recently become interested in the subject, according to a recent survey of 74 philanthropic organizations commissioned by Carnegie. In recent years, about $230 million has been given annually toward family engagement.

“For me, the surprising thing is … it almost seems like it’s common sense,” Kapur said. “Why haven’t we done this before? Why haven’t we talked about how important families and communities are in their children’s education?”

Weiss recommends that school leaders talk to parents to find out what they want for their children from schools, and then tackle a few goals at a time, like working with parents to increase attendance or turning in homework assignments.

Here are five areas the report recommends:

1. Attendance — Nearly 8 million students missed 15 or more school days in the 2015-16 school year, and families are a major influence in combating chronic absenteeism. Some schools send text messages to parents, letting them know when their children are not in class. For example, one study found that family engagement was a major factor in improved student performance in math and reading in Chicago Public Schools.

2. Data sharing — Schools should make student data shareable, accessible, and understandable for families, rather than filled with jargon or confusing language. In New Orleans and Boston, a nonprofit organization called EdNavigator works with employers to provide a family engagement adviser as a fringe benefit for low-income parents. The advisers help guide families through their children’s performance in school, from grades to discipline records, and advocate for parents who can’t miss work to attend school meetings. The report also highlights Louisiana’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, which allows parents to see their children’s data electronically on information like attendance, Individualized Education Plans, and discipline.

3. Academic and social development — Parents should be viewed as co-teachers in their children’s academic development. Because most of a student’s life is spent outside of school, parents should be encouraged to help their child focus on literacy and STEM subjects, even when they’re not in class, and to develop their social-emotional skills by discussing feelings and relationships with their children. A program developed by Dr. Marta Civil at the University of Arizona has teachers visit students’ homes to learn about the ways they approach math, so the teachers can incorporate those ideas into their lessons. They also hold math tutoring-type sessions for parents so they can help support their children’s learning.

4. Digital media — Parents should be seen as agents to help their children learn safe and smart digital media skills. They can talk to their kids about how to identify factual information and be safe on social media. Digital apps can help parents reinforce subjects that children are learning in school, and schools can capitalize on messaging services — like texting — to keep parents up to date on missing assignments or class lesson plans.

5. Transitions — Transition times, such as the periods between elementary, middle, and high school, are important for re-engaging families, especially because family engagement typically decreases as children get older. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, city officials consulted parents and then drew up a list of available afterschool programs for families when they signed up their children for kindergarten. The city also created mentorships for older students to help smooth the transition between phases of their academic careers.

Disclosure: Carnegie Corporation of New York provides financial support to The 74.

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