Ready, Willing and Able?

Kansas City Parents Talk About How to Improve Schools and What They Can Do to Help

Parental involvement means different things to different parents. If schools hope to boost involvement in a meaningful way, their approaches must be tailored to match the diverse needs, priorities and capacities of parents.

This report offers school and district education leaders specific ideas for engaging parents across the spectrum - whether they are comfortable shaping education policy, prefer more traditional activities or need support to improve their involvement at home. While the research, underwritten by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, explores the views of Kansas City parents, it also echoes findings from a previous Public Agenda study national in scope and raises important questions for education leaders nationwide.

We found that parents bring different needs and interests to the table when thinking about involvement in their child’s education specifically and improving education generally. They are:

  • Divided on what kind of involvement will best improve schools. 52 percent say it is improving the quality of parental involvement at home, versus 42 percent who say that it is getting parents more directly involved in running schools.
  • Split on how they prefer to be involved. 31 percent seem ready to embrace broader roles in shaping how schools operate and advocating for policy reform. 27 percent say they could help out more in traditional ways at their children’s school, and feel comfortable to do so. Another 19 percent are primarily looking for more guidance from their schools on how to help their children succeed.
  • Often not as involved as they would like to be. Just over half (51 percent) of the region's parents admit that they could be more involved at their child's school if they tried hard. Even those parents who said they would feel comfortable advocating for school improvements by contacting public officials and the media have often not been involved in these activities.
  • Supportive of their own teachers and principals. 77 percent say the principals and teachers at their child's school are connected to the community and have a good feel for what's going on there.

Three Different Groups of Parents

While parents surveyed differ in many ways, we also found that parents can be grouped based on similar goals, concerns and ideas about education and involvement in schools that they share. We hope that understanding the characteristic thinking of these three distinct groups can help school and district leaders, educators, funders and reformers reach out to them more effectively and plan programs in the ways that best fit their needs. These distinct groups are:

Potential Transformers: parents who are poised for deeper action on education policy, though still on the sidelines. These parents say they would feel "very comfortable" serving on committees to decide school policies and advocating for school improvements by contacting public officials and the media. However, very few have been involved in these ways. Thirty-one percent of parents surveyed fall into this group.

School Helpers: parents who are willing to get more involved in traditional ways. These parents are less comfortable with advocacy roles but say they could be more involved helping out directly at their children's schools. School helpers say they feel "very comfortable" participating in traditional involvement activities, including volunteering during school trips, bakes sales or sporting events or attending PTA meetings. Twenty-seven percent of parents surveyed fall into this group.

Help Seekers: parents who are concerned about their children’s learning and are primarily looking for more guidance from their schools. These parents are unlikely advocates and they feel they are already doing as much as they possibly can at their children’s school, yet all help seekers feel they have not yet succeeded in helping their children to do their best in school. At the same time, this group is more critical of their teachers and schools than other parents and more skeptical about most initiatives to improve parental involvement. Nineteen percent of parents surveyed fall in this group.

Recommendations for Engaging Parents by Meeting Them Where They Are

This report offers recommendations that 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.

In presenting these promising strategies, 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.

Public Agenda recommends that school leaders heed and apply these important over-arching principles to engage more parents:

  1. Assure communication goes two ways. Clear communication from educators on academic expectations, school policies and resources is important, but parents must also have the opportunity to bring their perspectives to the table.
  2. Begin by listening and addressing key concerns. School leaders should identify the pressing concerns of parents and gain understanding of how they think and talk about them. When parents know their chief concerns are being addressed, they are most open to constructive involvement.
  3. Approach parents with a clear request. Nearly one-quarter of parents surveyed say they haven’t been asked to volunteer or help out at their children's schools in the past year. School leaders should ask parents for help.
  4. Provide many and varied opportunities to engage. When school leaders provide diverse opportunities for parental involvement, they have a greater chance of attracting parents of differing views and readiness.

The project also offers concrete and practical measures that education leaders can take to engage Potential Transformers, School Helpers and Help Seekers in more effective ways. You can download these recommendations here or from the menu on the left.

Find out more:

- Join the conversation on Twitter with #ReadyWilling Able

- Download the full report

- Download the executive summary

- Download the Recommendations

- Download information about the parent typology

- Download the methodology and full survey results

- View Report Charts and Graphs

Related publications:

Will It Be on the Test? A Closer Look at How Leaders and Parents Think About Accountability in the Public Schools (2013)

Jean Johnson

This report describes some underappreciated tensions between the ways parents and education leaders think and talk about “accountability” in education and suggests areas where dialogue between them could be fruitful.

Failure Is Not an Option: How Principals, Teachers, Students and Parents from Ohio’s High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools Explain Their Success (2012)

Carolin Hagelskamp and Christopher DiStasi

This report summarizes the key attributes and practices of nine Ohio schools in high-poverty communities whose students have had remarkable academic success.

Education: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide (2012)

Jean Johnson

One in a series of six, this resource and discussion guide describes four competing approaches taken by today’s education reformers and is intended to help the public weigh and assess the values, pros, cons and tradeoffs of each.

You Can’t Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform (2012)

Jean Johnson

This book recaps a decade of Public Agenda’s opinion research among parents, students, teachers and the general public and summarizes the organization’s theory of change and public learning.

Boosting Parent Involvement: Results from a National Survey of Parents (2011)

This research investigates surveyed parents nationwide on their involvement in their children’s education and their knowledge of national education issues, as well as their local schools.

What’s Trust Got to Do With It? A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools (2011)

Jean Johnson with Jon Rochkind, Michael Remaley and Jeremiah Hess

This resource for school leaders offers leaders eight clear and actionable principles to help them effectively communicate with and engage communities facing school turnaround.

About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on school reform, teacher effectiveness, achievement gaps, parent and community engagement and other K–12 education issues. Find Public Agenda online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.

About The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that aims to foster economic independence by advancing educational achievement and entrepreneurial success. Founded by late entrepreneur and philanthropist Ewing Marion Kauffman, the Foundation is based in Kansas City, Mo., and has approximately $2 billion in assets. For more information, visit, and follow the Foundation on and

Download the Full Report

Ready, Willing and Able?

Kansas City Parents Talk About How to Improve Schools and What They Can Do to Help

Media Type: PDF

This report offers school and district education leaders specific ideas for engaging parents across the spectrum.


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