Parent Engagement: Beyond the Homework Helper Parent Engagement: Beyond the Homework Helper

Parent Engagement: Beyond the Homework Helper

by Advancing K12 Staff
Advancing K12 Staff Advancing K12 Staff Edtech Thought Leaders
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It’s time to rethink parent engagement. 

According to a recent Gallup poll, a higher percentage of parents are actively disengaged (23%) than engaged (20%) with their child’s school. Those numbers are a strong indictment of the traditional school-community relationship.

“Engagement” and “involvement” are often used interchangeably, but the Gallup Panel made a point of differentiating the two terms. Aside from participating in school activities or attending conferences, engaged parents were defined as those who “are emotionally attached and rationally loyal to their child’s school.” This is an important distinction, and one we’ll revisit later.

First, we need to understand what the ingredients of “engagement” look like. Which factors led to that group of 20% becoming such strong advocates?

A follow-up article from Gallup pointed to five driving forces:
  1. Leadership
  2. Academic Standards
  3. School Environment
  4. Personalized Learning
  5. Communication and Involvement

You can’t have a discussion about parent engagement without mentioning #5, but the other factors are all more likely to be seen in separate, unrelated conversations. 

It does not take an education scholar to see that these are the basic ingredients for any successful school. Their relationship to parent engagement would appear to be the classic “chicken or egg” scenario. So how do each of these factors look when examined from a parent’s perspective?



School district leadership is a people-centric issue—it seems only right to address it in human terms. For parents, leadership has little to do with board meetings and high-level strategy. It’s about having access to the individuals who run their respective schools and districts. Whether that means a superintendent who embraces his responsibility as the face and voice of the district, or a principal who does the same for her school, administrators can no longer afford to lead from the shadows. 

Educational leaders will never reach a critical mass of engagement without being as visible and prolific as their schedules will allow. Communications need to come directly from the mouths of the leadership team, early and often. If you don’t have a regularly updated blog on the school or district website, you’ve already fallen behind the times.

Superintendents and principals can no longer shy away from social media platforms. No matter how many talented people you have in charge of your communications, your school- and district-wide social outreach efforts will invariably fall flat without buy-in from your leadership team.

Parents will become actively engaged only when they are comfortable with the individuals who are directly responsible for the success of their children, and that’s going to take some effort on your part. If you’re doing everything right but nobody outside your walls knows about it, did it really happen? 


Academic standards

Interestingly enough, psychology appears to play a definitive role in the quest for parent engagement. One of the most statistically significant correlations between parental involvement and student achievement (as demonstrated by Fan & Chen, among others) is the aspirations parents have for the academic achievement of their children.

By instituting and—just as importantly—communicating a rigorous set of standards, school district leaders can make it clear that students are held to high expectations, but that’s not enough. Parents will also want to be assured that their children are being given the tools and guidance necessary for them to reach their full potential. There is nothing more damaging to parent engagement than the perception that students are not being challenged in school. This is especially critical in urban and rural schools, where educators are most susceptible to expectation bias.

At some point, district leaders need to take a stand and commit to every student being given a fair shake at an exceptional education in a supportive environment. The first step here will always be transparency. Do your parents know what your standards mean for the short- and long-term prospects of their children? Are they able to track progress, not just against the oftentimes-abstract concept of grades, but against specific skill elements and mastery levels? 

If your district doesn’t already have a reputation for academic excellence, this will take time. You can speed up the process by involving your parents in the planning and rollout phase of any major initiatives. If your district is perceived as committed to setting the bar high and sticking to it, you may just inspire many of your parents to raise their own expectations.


Personalized learning

Personalization is the buzzword of the decade in K–12, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. More often than not, parents know their children better than they know themselves. As a result, they expect teachers to teach to their child’s strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Parents cannot be engaged in a district where students are perceived to be little more than tiny cogs in a giant, churning machine.

There is no substitute for a high-performing, passionate teaching staff, but the sheer volume of students in many districts makes it difficult to personalize learning based solely on observation. There are just too many students and too many course sections for teachers to catch everything. This is one area where effective data use can make an enormous impact.

You are collecting massive amounts of data on your students, but who’s using it, and for what purpose? The most consistently successful school districts foster a data-driven culture from the top down. From a leadership standpoint, it’s your job to foster an environment of data buy-in. Emphasize data strategies in your professional development planning so even your most technophobic teachers can learn how to identify trends and adjust instruction accordingly.

It’s equally important to review your existing technology—if it takes a techie to get anything useful from the data, it’s time to consider a change. The best student information and learning management systems on the market are inherently designed to give educators and administrators the insights they need to meet personalized learning objectives.


Communication and involvement

This should be the easy part of your master plan for parent engagement, but it may require some adjustments to the way things have always been done. Communication means more than just a monthly newsletter or an occasional notification from the district office; it’s about opening up a window into every aspect of a student’s schooling life and giving parents access to more than just their child’s comments at the dinner table.

Make sure your parents have access to information such as upcoming assignments, up-to-date grading history, and graduation plans through an online portal. In a 2010 study of existing parent involvement research, Nokali, et. al., put the academic consequences of involvement into simple terms: “…if parents are aware of a teacher’s instructional goals, they may provide resources and support for those learning aims at home.” The researchers pointed to evidence “that these parenting practices are associated with higher academic achievement in the early grades.” 

In other words, parent visibility should not be limited to past-tense communiqués such as progress reports. It’s nice to know what’s already happened, but by then it’s too late for parents to play a proactive role. Can your parents see what their child’s schedule looks like in the weeks and months to come within the larger context of how it all fits in to the big picture learning goals? By having a better handle on what’s coming down the pipeline, parents can take measures at home, whether it means rearranging a schedule, talking about important concepts and lending support for specific passions. 

Your teachers are already working hard, but as a district leader, there are a number of ways you can support them in these efforts. First, lay down the expectation that every parent receives some form of communication about their child, whether long-form or light-touch, at least once a week. An easy-to-use messaging platform will make this a painless and productive process for teachers and parents alike. From an involvement standpoint, proactively seek out ways to get participation from traditionally underrepresented groups in volunteer activities (an outreach committee can help with that). 

Communication and involvement are not limited to the classroom, either. Push out major district announcements and initiatives through a variety of messaging mediums. Your parents are far less likely to read the board minutes than they are to look over a Facebook post or a featured newspaper editorial. It’s no longer good enough to just put the message out there: you need to go the extra step to ensure it’s absorbed by as many of your stakeholders as possible. Constant and consistent contact is a critical ingredient in parent engagement. Consider appointing a communications expert to filter district messages and deliver them in a recognizable cadence that matches the culture you want to project. 


Practical application

This is a lot of information to take in, but we can’t stress enough that parent engagement is not some abstract concept that may or may not move the needle in your district. The A/B testing has already been done, and the results are impossible to deny. 

Take the case of the Solid Foundation Program that was studied in Illinois from 2001 to 2003. For the study, 129 schools – disproportionately poor and serving populations made up of a large percentage of ethnic minorities – implemented 12 components of parent engagement after displaying low assessment scores on state reading tests. In only two years, the Solid Foundation schools went from 51.3% of students “meeting state expectations on the composite state assessment score” to 55.8%. 

That’s a statistically significant difference, and one that should serve as a real eye-opener, especially when compared to the negligible .1% gain on a statewide level during the same time period.

Getting started

Is parent engagement a priority in your district? Do you have the technology and training to support the next generation engagement strategies that so many families are looking for? What steps are you taking right now to reduce the number of “actively disengaged” parents and turn your district into a desirable destination? 

Parents can be your greatest advocates or your loudest detractors. One path leads to improved achievement and sustainable success. The other is not so pleasant. Which will you choose?

Follow-up resource: Challenge accepted

Take the Parent Engagement Challenge and connect with families like never before.


Advancing K12 Staff Advancing K12 Staff Edtech Thought Leaders
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