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Parent Engagement: Beyond the Homework Helper

A recent Gallup poll showed that a higher percentage of parents are actively disengaged than engaged with the school their child attends. This is one K-12 leadership challenge that can't wait.

It's time to rethink parent engagement.

A recent Gallup poll showed that a higher percentage of parents are actively disengaged (23%) than engaged (20%) with the school their child attends. That's 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 after the facts have been examined.
First, we need to understand what the key drivers of engagement are. Which factors led to that group of 20% becoming such strong advocates? A follow-up article from Gallup pointed to five in particular:
  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, when taken together, 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 through a pair of parent-tinted glasses?


If you don’t have a regularly updated blog on the school or district website, you’ve already fallen behind the times.


School district leadership is ultimately a people-centric issue, so 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 lead their respective schools and districts. Whether that means a superintendent who embraces his responsibility as the face and voice of the entire 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.
We’ve written in the past about the crucial role social media plays in community relations, but it’s a point that can’t be underscored enough. Superintendents and principals can no longer shy away from these platforms. No matter how many talented people you have in charge of your communications, your school- and district-wide social outreach efforts are going to fall flat without buy-in from your leadership team.
Parents will become actively engaged only when they are comfortable with the individuals who are ultimately 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 definite role in the quest for parent engagement. One of the most statistically significant parent involvement factors (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 stick their foot in the ground and say that every student will be given a fair shake at an exceptional education in a supportive environment. The first step here will always be based on 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, understand that this will take time. You can speed up the process by involving your parents in the planning and rollout phases of your standards-based initiatives. The perception that your district is committed to setting the bar high and sticking to it will be enough to inspire many of your parents to raise their own expectations, thus engaging them earlier than would otherwise be possible. 
You should strive to wow your parents at open houses and parent/teacher conferences, not bore them.

School Environment

Assuming you've done everything in your power to provide a safe learning environment, the next step is to instill a culture of respect from the district office to the classrooms, and all the way into the homes of your students. 

Alternative behavior management techniques have risen up to replace the traditional model of strict discipline and zero-tolerance policies, resulting in an environment where student support stretches far beyond academics. This respect-driven culture, much like academic standards, can be bolstered with transparency and communication.
The simple act of making assignments, activities, and communications available through an online portal can do wonders for bridging the divide between school and home. Students and parents should be treated as partners in the educational process, shifting the role of the educator from authoritarian to facilitator. In addition to these day-to-day basics, consider holding community forums in your individual schools to discuss larger trends and brainstorm solutions. Parents who feel like welcome participants in their child’s district are more likely to become – and stay – engaged.
Don’t overlook the importance of aesthetics when it comes to your learning environments. How many of your classrooms still feature the “cemetery” setup, with desks arranged like headstones in neat rows facing the teacher at the front of the room? This is not a future-ready learning environment. Alternative arrangements can work to promote group discussions, facilitate personalized instruction, and spark creativity. You should strive to wow your parents at open houses and parent/teacher conferences, not bore them. 


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 numbers – tiny cogs in a giant machine that just keeps churning.
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, and that all starts with culture.
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 deliver the level of personalized instruction that can turn around student outcomes and keep parents engaged.

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.

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 meta-analysis 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 into the big picture learning goals? By having a better handle on what’s coming down the pipeline, parents can take measures at home to support students, whether it means rearranging a schedule or just talking about important concepts while on the road.
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 getting in front of 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 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 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 significant difference, and one that should serve as a real eye-opener, especially when compared to the negligible .1% universal gain on a statewide level during the same time period.
Is parent engagement a priority in your district? Do you have the technology 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 future-ready destination? You don’t have to face this challenge alone. Here at Skyward, we’ve made it our mission to help district leaders turn parent engagement around.
If you’re ready to get started, understand that it’s not going to be easy. You’ll need to take things one step at a time while reviewing and adjusting along the way. You’ll also need to know where to start. The first step is typically a district-wide technology assessment.

Will your student information, learning management, and notification/alert systems be able to support the level of outreach you'll be asking of your staff, or do you need to look for some new partners? Is the look and feel consistent across these platforms, or will your teachers need to learn how to engage through different mediums? 

Buy-in is going to be essential to the success of this initiative, and your team needs to be confident in the tools before they can dive into the actions. We can help with that, too. 

There is only one SIS parent engagement tool designed specifically for administrators. Download the Proactive Parent Engagement Challenge today.

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