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Parents as Partners

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

All educators are committed to increased student achievement. As we seek the best ways to achieve these results, we must include parents as partners in the endeavor. Parental involvement is a vital and necessary component in students’ education so it should never be treated with indifference or inattention.

Since the support of parents is so important, it begs the question: What are the most effective ways to involve parents in the education of their children?

A good place to begin is with recognizing, respecting, and responding to the variables in today’s families. Families come in many different formations and structures. The traditional two-parent home may no longer be the norm in many schools; instead, the family dynamic may include step-parents, single-parent homes, same-sex parents, or multi-generational settings. Today’s parents and caretakers differ widely in their ages, races, cultural backgrounds, political and religious affiliations, and economic standings. Given this diversity, it is necessary for educators to be purposeful in deciding how to communicate with and mobilize these unique families that make up our school communities. To inform our decision making processes, we need to understand the political implications, build repertoires for reaching out to and communicating with parents, and consider how we report student progress. Additionally, we need to be aware of the myriad ways families want to be involved and knowledgeable about what the research says about what kind of parental involvement makes the most difference.

Understand Political Implications
In early May of this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the Obama administration will be doubling the funding aimed at increasing the involvement of parents in the education of their children. As with the Race to the Top initiative, school districts will compete for a portion of the $270 million being apportioned in order to increase parent participation in the life of the school. The allocated amount, representing 2% of Title I funding, is double the amount that had previously been made available to schools. As part of the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the official title of the initiative is “The Role of Family Engagement in Education Reform.” In making the announcement to delegates at the “Mom Congress” held at Georgetown University, Secretary Duncan referred to parent involvement as “the power we need to harness.” He shared examples of how parents had contributed to student success in schools through their involvement including better nutrition in school lunches, summer programs for the arts, improved literacy for boys, and summer/after school programs. Duncan further urged parents to “think big” and challenged school personnel to step up their efforts to engage parents.

Reach Out to Families
A Vanderbilt University study concluded that if parents are to become productively involved in their children’s education, they must feel invited. While this finding may seem obvious, the conclusion should cause schools to examine their current practices and to determine if they should be taking a more proactive role in making parents and caretakers feel welcome in the school. It may be time to turn “lip service” into action. Schools across the nation have taken specific steps to show their parent population that they are sincere about wanting parents to take part in school life. Schools have found success when they:

  • Make home visits prior to the beginning of the school year to increase parents’ comfort level with school personnel.
  • Hire parent liaisons to help to build cultural and linguistic links between minority parents and the school.
  • Recruit teachers who are dual-language speakers to improve communication with families.
  • Provide food and babysitting services at school meetings in order to make attendance less difficult for families.
  • Set up meetings for specific populations including parents of second language learners, students with special needs, and accelerated learners in order to clarify services available to their children, reduce distrust between home and school, and provide insights as to how to parents can navigate the system of available services.
  • Reach out to religious leaders, including imams, rabbis, and ministers, on their “turf” in order to improve relations, answer questions, and clarify school practices.
  • Work with businesses and other community organizations to establish and enhance support for school programs.
  • Establish classes for adults on a variety of topics including parenting skills, second language acquisition, managing finances, computer skills, and obtaining employment.
  • Treat each and every parent who visits or calls the school with respect, dignity and genuine concern; the importance of first impressions including a friendly voice on the phone or a welcoming greeting by the front office staff can not be underestimated.

Improve Communication
If schools want parents to believe that their input and involvement is important, there are some tried and true practices that schools can implement to send this important message. Suggested methods that teachers or administrators might follow to improve communication include:

  • Make positive phone calls; do not wait for problems to occur to contact parents.
  • When making a routine phone call, immediately let the parent know that there is no emergency.
  • Send periodic postcards with good news about student achievement; remember that students do not have to achieve “perfection” to warrant a postcard home.
  • Communicate through emails; most families have access to emails and they can be both time savers as well as ways to send positive messages to parents.
  • Have students complete Tickets to Leave to take home; the slips can include prompts such as “What I Learned Today” or “What Made Me Proud of My Work.”
  • Create class newsletters with instructional information completed by the students; parents may be more inclined to read communiqués produced by children rather than adults.
  • When small problems begin to emerge, contact parents for their input and support before the situation becomes magnified.
  • When making a call to discuss a problem, always begin with good news first; parents need to know that the school personnel have a balanced view of their child.
  • Return phone calls as soon as possible; a good rule of thumb is to return the call within a 24-hour period.
  • Make any communication, whether it is a phone call or in a parent conference, a mutual problem-solving session; remember the value of compromise in determining steps that will be taken.
  • Always, always, always listen and do not interrupt – even when you might not agree with the parent; your time to talk will come.
  • When you make a mistake, admit it, apologize and move on.
  • Let parents know with specificity what they can do to support their children’s learning at home; it must be remembered that most parents want to help their child but they simply do not know what they should do.
  • Schedule periodic (monthly) curriculum nights where parents can hear first hand the teacher’s plans and even participate in some of the upcoming learning activities.

Reinterpret Family Involvement
Recent studies and surveys have attempted to confirm what parents want from their schools and how they wish to be involved in the life of the school. Determining what parents want from their schools can be a tricky road to navigate. Some parents want a say in the selection of teachers their children will have. A University of Michigan study has found families in schools with higher levels of poverty prefer teachers who strongly value student achievement while what is most important to higher income parents is that their children are happy and enjoy their school experience. Other studies revealed that an increasing number of parents participate in school shopping much like they would shop for a product or service. Factors that influence their shopping decisions include class size, schools that are family/community oriented, schools that nurture competition, and schools with competitive teacher salaries. Interestingly, standardized test scores are not often the most important criteria parents use when choosing a school for their child.

Report Student Progress
For a majority of parents, what is most important is how their students are progressing in school. Understanding and interpreting information from schools can be a perplexing process for parents. For example, it confuses parents when there is one set of terms in elementary school, another in middle and high school, different criteria for state assessments, and still another for nationally-normed standardized tests. Helping parents interpret achievement information and using consistent understandable terminology can be very helpful. 

Moreover, teachers should make every effort to communicate clear learning objectives as well as assessment criteria to parents on a frequent and consistent basis. The most disappointing comment school personnel can hear from a parent is, “I have absolutely no idea what my child is supposed to be learning in school.” Finally, progress reports or student work sent home with sketchy or confusing comments may simply blur the lines of communication. Although it may require extra effort on a teacher’s part to ensure that written communication to parents contributes to their overall understanding about the content and skills students are learning, it can have a huge impact on the parent’s overall impression of the class and the school as well as their capacity to work as partners with the school.

Make the Biggest Difference
A recent study by California State University-Long Beach Professor William Jaynes shed new light on the kinds of parent involvement that had the biggest overall impact on student learning and progress. After completing a meta-analysis of the literature on the topic of parent partnership with schools, he concluded that many of the commonly-held beliefs about the traditional forms of parent involvement in schools did not have the greatest influence on student achievement. Whereas practices such as attending school functions, checking or helping students with their homework, or establishing rules about how children should study at home certainly contributed to student learning, Jaynes concluded that more effective, subtle actions on the parts of parents made a bigger difference in their child’s academic progress. According to Jaynes, parents should establish a supportive but scholarly atmosphere in the home by creating warm expectations that are not stringent or overbearing. Through his research, he found that time spent delivering low-stress communication, conveying love and support to children, spending time together, and sharing the importance and value of a college education had a greater impact on academic achievement than the more traditionally-held practices. His overall conclusion was that academic involvement without love has a limited impact. As for what schools should do, Jaynes suggests that educators should not hesitate to tell parents directly what kinds of involvement make the biggest differences, and should concentrate on finding the best ways to get parents thinking and acting along those lines.

Concluding Thoughts
As professionals, we should view parents as true partners in the education of their children. We should establish protocols that will enhance parental involvement in a variety of formats and in the most positive ways possible. How we create a welcoming environment, initiate positive contacts, respond to concerns and needs, and compromise when we face tough situations, can have a huge influence on parent support in the education of their children.

In the second edition of her best-selling book, Why Didn’t I Learn This in College? Paula Rutherford includes a self-assessment tool in each chapter that allows practitioners to determine their current level of thinking and practice on a variety of topics including creating a positive learning environment, making learning active, planning instruction, and assessing student progress. One such tool is titled Working with Parents as Partners. This tool will help educators to determine what practices are working well, what ideas have not been addressed, and what goals can be set to make relationships with parents more productive.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Parents as Partners” Just for the ASKing! May 2010. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2010 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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