Recommendations: Ready, Willing and Able?
Schools seeking to boost parental involvement in a meaningful way must tailor their approaches to match the diverse needs, priorities and capacities of different parents. Public Agenda developed the following series of recommendations to help education leaders successfully engage all parents in school improvement. These recommendations are based on the survey research for "Ready, Willing and Able?," on subsequent focus groups with Kansas City region parents, and on our deep experience in stakeholder engagement in K-12 education.
While these recommendations were developed for a regional project, they are broadly applicable. The recommendations in this section are intended to honor the diversity of experiences and attitudes among parents in Kansas City while providing advice to educators, funders and reformers on how to engage and communicate in ways that will move the needle on change. We believe that if school, district, state and national education leaders implement these principles and practices, parents can become a powerful partner in improving K-12 education with their own children at home, in their children's schools or in the broader education reform arena.
In presenting the promising strategies that follow, we do not aim to minimize the work needed to meet the challenge of engaging parents as partners in reform. Instead, we emphasize that effective engagement of parents is indeed possible when done purposefully. Quotes throughout this section are drawn from focus group conversations with Kansas City parents that were especially designed to explore parents’ views on different engagement approaches. They have been edited from their original phrasing for clarity.
Based on this research and decades of experience supporting sound public engagement, we first want to urge change leaders to keep at the center of their engagement planning and execution four overarching principles.
1. Communication goes two ways.
Leaders, policymakers and reformers sometimes assume “communication” means simply sending out information or articulating their messages. Surely, this is part of the picture; good, clear communication by teachers and school leaders about academic expectations, homework, absence and school safety policies, extra-help resources and so on are a prerequisite for more active and constructive parental involvement. But sound parent engagement entails more. It is an exchange, in which both parents and educators bring their concerns and ideas to the table to address problems and strengthen schools in ways that can help students succeed. School leaders can, in turn, bring broader concerns to local policymakers. A parent in Kansas City described one experience with ineffective communication:
I think parents need to be more involved, but the schools need to be informative without putting us to sleep. We’ve been to PTA meetings where the topics were, “Who wants to be on the board of this,” or “Who wants to be the chairman of this?” But we don’t even know what these things do.
2. Begin by listening and addressing key concerns.
As we have learned, parents experience the Kansas City public education system in different ways, and one-size-fits-all communications or focusing on small subsets of issues will likely not work equally well for all of them. In large part, this means change leaders should begin by listening. It is critical to identify the burning “first-things-first” issues on parents’ minds and to know how they think and talk about them. Parents will be most open to constructive involvement if they know their chief concerns are understood and being attended to. For instance, focus groups, community dialogues, events where parents already meet or lower-intensity mechanisms like surveys with open-ended questions and feedback forms can help change leaders listen intention¬ally to the concerns and ideas that are foremost in parents’ minds.
3. Approach parents with a clear request.
This strategy is deceptively simple: it is to approach parents by asking for their help. As noted earlier, nearly a quarter of parents surveyed say that, in the past year, they’ve never been asked to help out or volunteer at their children’s schools. The importance of this principle is reflected in the comments of one parent in Kansas City, Parents don’t understand that their presence makes a difference. Schools aren’t getting that message out. Even when the school was going through its worst times, they didn’t get the message out that they needed help from the community. It was just, “We’re going through this, and we’re trying to work it out.” They didn’t ever say to parents, “This is what’s going on. If we don’t get anything back from you, this is what will happen to your kids.”
4. Provide many and varied opportunities to engage.
When asked to describe effective ways in which parents can get involved in their children’s education, parents in focus groups listed many, varied activities, including monitoring their children’s homework, communicating with teachers via email, regularly visiting their children’s classrooms and attending community meetings. When it comes to engaging parents in school improvement, the more diverse the opportunities to get involved, the greater chance of attracting parents of varying degrees of readiness, willingness or ability. Moreover, it is important to engage parents not only on problems, such as school safety, but also on successes, such as celebrating improvements in student achievement.
Finally, as this study shows, providing many and varied opportunities also means attending to the different types of parents who seek to participate in different ways—the potential transformers, school helpers and help seekers.
For each of the categories of parents described in the research findings, we suggest several communication and engagement practices to help put these guiding principles into action:
Don't Overdo the Typology: Some Fundamental Practices Cut Across Parent Types
The typology emerging from this research has important implications for effective parent engagement and serves as a useful framework to plan tailored engagement strategies. Overusing it, however, runs the risk of pigeon-holing parents or catering to types that are easier to reach. In addition to tailoring strategies to the needs and inclinations of different types of parents, we also urge change leaders to return to the principles that began this section and use them to guide engagement efforts that cut across parent types or situations, as well. The principles can be translated into broader stakeholder engagement strategies using several concrete practices outlined here.
- Find the priorities that overlap. When seeking to engage larger groups of parents and other stakeholders, engagers should still begin with the overall guiding principle: start where people are. While issue priorities will vary among stakeholders, parental concerns, community concerns and experts’ concerns are likely to have some overlap, indicating the areas or issues around which to begin a broader engagement strategy. Opinion research, gap analyses and facilitated dialogues can help illuminate the overlaps among stakeholders’ views.
- Use the right amount and the right types of information. Data are just one piece—albeit a very important one—of how people form their views and judgments about a given topic. As we learned in the parent survey, only about one-third of parents overall see publicizing more data about schools’ spending, student achieve-ment and teacher quality as a way to improve parent engagement greatly. Instead, education change leaders must take care to find the very few key data points that can help people work through their knowledge gaps, clarify misperceptions or open up space for new thinking and problem-solving ideas. More detailed and compre-hensive data should still be made available to those who seek it, as stakeholders often begin to have more questions and need more information as they become engaged and dig into an issue. Making information available at events or on websites are ways of filling this need once it arises.
- Cultivate a deeper understanding of how problems can be addressed. People often need to go through a variety of stages to come to terms with an issue, decide what approaches to problem solving they are willing to support and figure out how they can make their own contributions to change efforts. Schools, funders and community organizations can provide opportunities that help parents work through this process in two important ways:
- By supporting parents' "self-organizing" tendencies. Regardless of typology, parents face similar pressures and want the same things for their children. They therefore see potential in mutual support through parent networks and community-building efforts to help them navigate shared challenges. For instance, one parent shared this statement:
We need to connect with each other, and that is where the breakdown is coming into play, as well. We can’t rely just on the school. Us parents got to group together and say, “Okay, we all have work schedules. We all have to make meals when we get home and do homework and do all of this. Why don’t this week, Jake makes chili and we all get together and we sit down and let the kids do homework and talk about some issues—network—and find out agencies to help each other.”
Change leaders and engagement experts can also create user-friendly online tools to support parents’ desire to network, share information and develop mutual support systems.
- By providing opportunities for dialogue and deliberation. In our view, carefully designed, community-based face-to-face dialogue is the most effective and powerful vehicle to move people from awareness of a problem to developing solutions. Remember that parents and other concerned citizens can come to an engagement process with a sense of “meeting fatigue”—that is, feeling as though they are already doing as much as they can, or having participated in previous engagement efforts that lacked adequate opportunities to contribute or mean¬ingful follow-up. For these reasons, community dialogues must be structured to be as productive as possible.
Several ingredients go into well-designed engagement efforts, including, but not limited to, a diversity of participants; discussion materials that prompt meaningful conversations about areas of common ground, disagreement, questions and ideas for action; high-quality facilitators; careful attention to event logistics and space; and a clear plan for follow-up on the discussions.
Broad-based dialogue with a diversity of stakeholder groups creates new lines of communication and forges new ways of working together for people at varying degrees of readiness, willingness or ability. Whether in large public forums or small-group meetings, in face-to-face settings or via the Internet, dialogue among citizens and across different perspectives can be key to building public under¬standing and to addressing problems facing schools, districts and communities. Planners who attend to important details while keeping these guiding principles at the fore will have the best chance of making the most of potential transformers’ energies, spurring school helpers to contribute in new ways, and bringing the voices of help seekers to the conversation on improving public education for all students in the Kansas City area.