Parent Engagement in Schools: What is Working? What Should We Try Next?

Like all forms of public engagement, family engagement is predicated on the relationship between the individual and the institution.

For decades now, educators, researchers and school reform advocates have emphasized the importance of parent and family engagement. While the evidence for the impact of parent engagement continues to build, school systems have made key realizations about how best to support it. Some have pushed the concept further by developing practices of "student-centered learning."

Research "repeatedly correlates family engagement with student achievement," according to the 2010 Beyond Random Acts report of the National Policy Forum for Family, School, and Community Engagement. Research also suggests family engagement gives students better attitudes toward learning, produces better social skills and fewer disciplinary problems, and leads to lower drop-out rates and higher graduation rates.

On the surface, family engagement may seem like a question of good parenting rather than public participation. But it has become clear that family engagement is largely dependent on how teachers and schools interact with parents. In particular, students benefit from schools and communities that support sustained family engagement.

Like all forms of public engagement, family engagement is predicated on the relationship between the individual and the institution. Parents are more likely to become involved in their children’s education when they have a clear understanding of their roles, are confident about their ability to help, and feel invited by educators – especially teachers – to take part.

Our own research demonstrates that parental involvement means different things to different parents. For schools hoping to boost involvement in a meaningful way, approaches ought to be tailored to match the diverse needs, priorities and capacities of parents.

The traditional approach to building family engagement is the parent-teacher conference, but these meetings often embrace the dynamics of old-fashioned, conventional participation. They are short, superficial, privilege the expert role of the teacher and serve mainly as a chance to air complaints rather an opportunity to develop plans. Parent-teacher conferences are particularly inadequate for low-income parents, those with lower levels of education, those who are not native English speakers and parents of color.

More energetic advocates of family engagement have pursued tactics like after-school programs, parent workshops and student-centered learning plans with goals set jointly by families and teachers. They also use online tools that allow parents to track students’ progress.

Looking more closely at projects that have deployed these tactics, it would appear that they embody some of the key characteristics of high-quality public engagement. They provide families with more information on what students are learning and how they can learn more effectively. They give families more opportunities for two-way communication with educators (including more chances to tell their stories). And they offer more choices about what and how students want to learn and provide opportunities to take action.

Another education reform idea, "student-centered learning," has taken this line of thinking one step further. Schools that embrace this approach find ways to make learning more personalized, with learning plans and portfolios developed by students, as well as more competency-based, with benchmarks based on skills that all students must master. Students are given more ways to take ownership of their education, and more opportunities to learn outside the traditional classroom. For example, at Pittsfield Middle-High School in New Hampshire, student-led conferences have replaced traditional parent-teacher conferences, allowing students to take the lead role in presentations that articulate academic, personal and social growth.

Summarizing the research, Patricia Willems and Alyssa Gonzalez-DeHass report that "When students are given choices, it feeds an innate need for autonomy, and they are more likely to feel a sense of ownership, empowerment, and enjoyment in their learning; they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and satisfied with instruction." In this type of engagement, the students are given more information and more choices, in a setting where educators and parents can help guide their decisions.

Educators, parents and students should consider all of these reform possibilities as they consider ways to strengthen and sustain family engagement. Rethinking conventional formats like the parent-teacher conference, incorporating online tools and adopting the principles of student-centered learning all hold great promise for supporting greater student success.


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