Guest Post by Meghan Forder
I recently interviewed several principals and teachers for an academic research project, and everyone described multiple ways that they were working to increase parent involvement. The principals talked about community fun nights, school site councils, coffees, and using signs and posters to make families from all backgrounds feel welcome. The teachers talked about using texting apps and rewards to encourage parents to volunteer, return field trip forms, or bring in school supplies.
Community building, communication, decision making, and volunteering are all important types of parent involvement at school. But I was surprised that no one talked about the type of involvement proven to have the greatest impact on student achievement: learning at home.
Study after study has shown that a family’s involvement in helping their child learn at home is essential to academic success (Harris & Goodall, 2008; Sheldon, 2009; Zhang, Hsu, Kwok, Benz, & Bowman-Perrott, 2011). In fact, parents’ involvement in their children’s at-home learning—through basic activities such as parent-child conversations about school, encouragement and discussion of reading, and expressions of interest in a child’s personal and academic progress—has been shown to have more than twice the effect on student test scores than parents’ education levels or a family’s socioeconomic status (SES) (Melhuish et al., 2008). This finding—that parent involvement at home can have more influence on a student’s education than a family’s SES—is extremely important, because SES now accounts for one of the most significant achievement gaps between students. This gap is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap, and about equal to the gap between children with highly educated and less-educated parents.
Higher-SES families are investing more time and resources in their children’s learning outside of school (Reardon, 2011), while children in poverty are significantly less likely to be exposed to learning activities such as reading at home (Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo, Garcia Coll, 2001). As a result, the achievement gap between students from rich and poor families has grown 30 to 40 percent since 1976 (Reardon, 2011).
This discrepancy between rich and poor students paints a bleak picture for the American Dream, if low-income students are unable to climb out of poverty through education. But there is a silver lining here, and it’s those studies that show that parent involvement in learning at home can close this gap through simple activities that don’t cost money.
So in addition to their efforts to increase family involvement at school, how can schools help families to help their kids at home? The first thing schools need to do is let parents know what a huge difference their involvement at home can make. Parents who believe their involvement will make a difference are more likely to be involved (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997).
Once parents know their involvement is essential for their child to be successful in school, they need to know how to create a home environment that fosters this success.
Text messages are currently one of the most effective ways to reach families across the economic spectrum. Although there is still a socioeconomic divide in internet access and email use, with wealthier Americans more likely to be online (Anderson & Perrin, 2016), nearly 100 percent of American parents with school-age children own a mobile phone (Pew Research Center, 2017). Studies have already demonstrated the effectiveness of text messages as a means of boosting parent involvement by providing educational activities they can do with their child at home (Hurwitz, Lauricella, Hanson, Raden, & Wartella, 2015; York & Loeb, 2015).
Obviously, the home learning environment isn’t the only factor in student achievement. The administrators and faculty I talked to are all using every tool they can find to help their students succeed. But to give students the best possible chance at success, parents have to be more than helpers—they need to be full partners in their child’s learning, with educational tool boxes of their own.
Families have always played a key role in their child’s learning. Activities that families engage in to support their children’s learning have a meaningful impact on child outcomes, from better grades, higher test scores, and improved attendance (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Jeynes, 2005).
With this growing evidence base, parents have been exposed to countless news articles and social awareness campaigns reinforcing their critical role in their child’s learning. On a national level, research has uncovered that nearly 85% of parents believe that they can make a difference in their child’s learning and academic progress (Be a Learning Hero, 2016). Parents today are spending more time with their kids than they did 50 years ago, embracing a belief that “more parenting is better parenting.” One would expect that the growing involvement of parents would have led to dramatic increases in student performance. But that has not been the case.
As it turns out, the assumption that “more is better” is not only flawed, but we (speaking as moms, too) believe that line of thinking is way too stressful! Thankfully, it’s the quality - not quantity - of time that matters most, which means that understanding what to do to make that time count is essential.
Schools and teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to meaningfully engage families. Many families are already investing time, but are in need of information about how to best support their child’s learning. Furthermore, nearly all parents expect this type of information from their child’s school and teachers. Yet, teachers often lack the training, tools, time and support to meet this opportunity. A national survey we recently conducted revealed that families are significantly more likely to receive information from their child’s teacher or school about how their child is doing academically than how they can support their children’s learning.
We started Family Engagement Lab to help teachers and schools ignite the potential of millions of parents to support children’s learning. Our pathway is unique: we work to connect the key adults in children’s lives - parents, caregivers and teachers - around the common goal of supporting student learning. Families need and want to know the high impact activities (the ones that meaningfully affect learning) that they should be doing with their children and they want to learn them from a trusted and knowledgeable source like their child’s school or teacher. And we’ve seen evidence that this is the case from our direct work with families and educators. In our recent pilot program in Oakland Unified School District, we found that when teachers send home specific, curriculum-aligned activities, families do them. And just as important, as families demonstrate to teachers how invested they are in their child’s learning, they pave the way for ongoing collaboration.
We imagine a future where all parents have a savviness that matches their desire to see their children succeed, and teachers cultivate ongoing partnership with confident and engaged families. Families are ready. Are you?
Vidya Sundaram and Elisabeth O’Bryon are co-founders of Family Engagement Lab, LLC, along with Bill Jackson, founder of GreatSchools.