Family Engagement Lab gathers insights from the field
Family Engagement Lab went on a listening tour with school district leaders across the country from districts of varying sizes, student populations, and strategic priorities. We asked these leaders about their top priorities for the 23-24 school year, the things that are keepinging them up at night, and the things that have them most excited about the future of education. In this post, we’ll explore some of the themes that emerged from these interviews and the implications for technology programs in education.
Top pain points that surfaced for School District Leaders
There were some unsurprising trends that surfaced from these conversations around top pain points and challenges for district leaders. A few things that are keeping district leaders up at night; challenges with retaining high-quality educators, concerns about balancing student academic performance and well-being post-pandemic, and managing unwieldy technology ecosystems that expanded as a result of pandemic-era technology purchases.
There were some additional, and unexpected, themes that emerged around the role of family engagement in student academic achievement. District leaders shared that there is general agreement about the value of engaging families to support their child’s learning and academic performance, particularly when it comes to promoting attendance and classroom engagement. Yet, there is also a sentiment that the family engagement strategies adopted during the pandemic are falling short of meaningfully engaging families. There also appears to be a very real need for content that provides evidence-based, learning-focused strategies that are specifically designed for parents and families.
Key Benefits & Implications for Technology in Education
The results from our listening tour also surfaced many of the benefits that education technology offers to students, teachers, and families. Most importantly, effective selection and use of education technology can greatly enhance student learning experiences, making learning more engaging, rigorous, and relevant. After hearing from District leaders, we’ll be keeping our eye on a few categories of education technology that are showing real promise:
Ultimately, school district leaders also noted that they will continue to prioritize solutions that center student learning, deliver evidence-based strategies, and integrate seamlessly into the technology ecosystem. These solutions are more likely to; reduce teacher burnout by making teachers jobs easier, create opportunities for personalized learning, and maximize opportunities for learning inside and outside of the classroom. Broadly, we’ll continue to see Districts move towards streamlining their tech stack to ensure that their learning ecosystem is addressing the following priorities:
Programs that all districts should consider
The 2024-2025 academic year will continue to see a shift in education technology, as noted in the District Administration piece on key trends in EdTech; increasing emphasis will be placed on assessing the success of academic interventions and relying on data to drive decision-making. This trend underscores the importance of grading solutions, assessment platforms and student SIS systems that make it easy to collect student-level data. Data warehousing and visualization solutions will be increasingly important as Districts are trying to aggregate and make meaningful use of student level-data to assess the success of academic interventions.
We’ll continue to see curricular shifts in literacy towards the Science of Reading and adoption of high-quality Mathematics instructional materials, which will change the ways in which teachers are delivering high quality instruction. Districts will need to provide professional development for teachers to ensure successful adoption and implementation of new curriculum and instructional strategies. To help strike a balance and reduce teachers’ workload, Districts will also continue to explore opportunities for AI to support effective instruction, especially in areas where effective use of AI may help free up time by removing or automating daily tasks.
We’d offer that Districts might be missing a critical opportunity to effectively engage families in support of their child’s learning and development. Parents have the capacity and desire to enhance the learning experience for their child by helping to draw connections between school-based instruction and real-world contexts.
Family Engagement Lab is committed to helping Districts leverage the potential of high-impact family engagement to accelerate student learning outcomes. Our experience in the field has revealed that there is a cascade of positive effects when Districts equip families with the information and tools they need to support their child’s learning and development.
We’re addressing an important pain point that has surfaced from these interviews - providing learning-focused strategies and activities that are designed specifically for families. FASTalk is an evidence based parent-teacher communication tool that translates high-quality instructional materials into tips and activities that families can easily use to support their child’s learning outside of the classroom. FASTalk tips and activities are informed by best practices for engaging families and are professionally developed to align with high-quality instructional materials. We’ve spent several years evaluating FASTalk’s impact on academic achievement and have observed significant improvements in student learning outcomes in ELA and math.
Empower educators, Engage parents and families, Enhance learning for Students
District leaders are shaping the future of k-12 education now. They are making decisions informed by the needs of learners and staff in their district, are focused on evidence-based strategies and programs, and are considering how new solutions integrate into the existing tech stack. We’d offer that high-impact family engagement will enhance the existing learning ecosystem for educators and students.
Author: Kelsey Hodge
Teachers and parents/families are the most important stakeholders in a student’s learning journey. A student’s success is dependent on both teachers and families being equipped with the information and tools they need to provide support. Consistent communication between teachers and families, that is learning-focused, can activate a powerful partnership that makes the most of classroom instruction and opportunities to reinforce learning at home.
As FEL’s Partner Success Manager, I am responsible for helping teachers implement high-quality family engagement strategies through FASTalk - our parent-teacher communication platform. As a former teacher, I have firsthand experience with implementing family engagement strategies in the classroom. My experience balancing the needs of students with complex instructional material, and prioritizing family communication, makes me uniquely positioned to help other practitioners in the field.
I recently co-facilitated focus groups with families in DeSoto Parish Public Schools, where they shared more about their experiences receiving learning-focused communication from their child’s teacher. Below I share some reflections based on their feedback and how this shapes our work sharing effective strategies with FASTalk Teachers.
What family engagement strategies have you implemented as a former teacher? What were some of the challenges you faced?
My first school emphasized the importance of building learning-centered relationships with families by prioritizing regular, on-going communication about what students were learning and their areas of strength and weakness. That experience fueled my interactions with my students’ caregivers when I entered the classroom as a secondary social studies teacher in Dallas. With more students and complex instructional material, I struggled to provide accessible snapshots of our learning goals and consistent insights into students’ academic growth. Each year in the classroom provided me with the opportunity to build that muscle, but I still found it challenging to balance many competing priorities.
FASTalk reduces the burden on teachers by working alongside schools to create playlists of messages aligned to student learning that are sent automatically to families each week on the teacher’s behalf.
What stood out most to you from the focus groups in DeSoto? How will this shape your work and the touchpoints you have with FASTalk teachers?
I found it striking how much families across grade-levels appreciated the conversations and interactions that the FASTalk messages prompted for them. Each caregiver revealed moments of connection that grew from FASTalk texts, from prompts that encouraged the hands-on measuring of items around the house to prompts that sparked dialogue on real-world questions at the heart of classroom novels. It was heartening to hear caregivers with students in different grade-levels share how the FASTalk texts led their children to connect with one another around learning. After posing a FASTalk question on a novel being read in class, one mother listened to her older child who’d previously read the book discuss it with his younger sibling. Another mother shared how much her younger child looked forward to hearing her older sibling’s FASTalk texts and engaging in the conversation as well.
The focus groups in Desoto highlighted for me the importance of elevating family feedback and stories for teachers. Stories like the ones that Megan and I heard provide a really essential window into the impact of the FASTalk messages that teachers may not regularly see. I’ll be using future touchpoints and communication with teachers to highlight stories from families in their districts.
Was any of the feedback surprising? In what ways?
There were notable differences in how families hoped to engage with their child’s learning at the elementary and secondary levels. The two sessions reinforced for me that just as the needs of families change depending on grade level, so does the support that teachers need to engage families in learning-focused relationships. It’s not only important for our team to elevate family feedback for teachers but also for us to provide ideas for ways in which FASTalk can facilitate on-going dialogue around information desired by families and information shared by teachers. It’s essential for our team to hear from teachers at both the elementary and secondary levels to better understand their needs in order to tailor the support we provide.
At Family Engagement Lab, we are committed to helping districts, schools, and educators implement best practices in family engagement that invite parents and families to support student learning. When family engagement is done well, teachers feel supported, families feel connected and purposeful, and students thrive.
Author: Megan Lorio
Developing FASTalk messages follows a rigorous process, which includes gathering feedback directly from families. Without feedback from parents and families, we’d be missing critical insight from one of the most important stakeholders in a student’s learning journey.
As FEL’s Managing Editor, I am responsible for developing the FASTalk tips and activities that go home to parents and families each week. I served as a teacher for 7 years and as an instructional coach and school administrator for another 3 years in Washington D.C., NYC, and New Orleans. As a classroom teacher, I experienced firsthand the power of families as a critical partner in student learning. In my role as Managing Editor, I sit at the intersection of teaching and learning and family engagement, where I am able to bring my deep knowledge of instruction and translate that into messages for families that make a meaningful difference in supporting their child’s development.
I recently co-facilitated focus groups with families in DeSoto Parish Public Schools, where they shared more about their experiences with FASTalk messages. In this post, I share some reflections about how this feedback will shape the FASTalk message development process.
How are curriculum-aligned messages developed? And why is family feedback so important?
When developing curriculum-aligned FASTalk tips and activities, our primary goal is to ensure that families gain an understanding of what their child is learning and how they can best support at home. Curriculum-aligned messages are developed by both focusing on the key standards for the grade level as well as fostering knowledge-building through parent-child interactions around specific themes and texts. We work to make sure that the messages sent home are accessible, relevant, and fun for families to complete! The messages aim to take the most critical goals of each of the curriculum’s units and give activity ideas that are actionable, so that families feel empowered to help at home and students meet curriculum and grade level goals.
Family input is critical to the development of high-quality FASTalk parent-teacher messages. We frequently invite feedback about FASTalk from all families through surveys, polls, and focus groups. When we are developing new tips and activities, we check in more often with families, focusing on questions such as: “Are the messages engaging and fun for you to complete with your child?” And “Do the FASTalk messages help you better understand what your child is learning in their class? How so?” Throughout the development process, we work to elevate the voices of the families we serve to ensure that the messages are equipping families with the curricular information they need to best support their child’s instructional goals.
How do you make sure that the suggested conversation prompts and activities can be easily incorporated into families’ lives?
We know and understand that parents and families are busy! They need quick, actionable ideas to support their child’s learning at home. We work to develop FASTalk tips and activities that encourage opportunities for on-the-go conversation and connection between a family member and their child around learning. As we develop the messages, we think about whether families could try the activity on the way to school, at the grocery store, or before bedtime. The activities share ideas that incorporate learning into everyday routines and encourage positive, joyful interactions between a parent and their child.
Was any of the feedback from the focus groups surprising? In what ways?
I was most surprised to hear the differences in how families hope to engage with their child’s learning depending on grade level. The session with middle school families affirmed that the needs of families develop and change as their child ages. Specifically, middle school families were less interested in understanding or practicing specific skills with their child and were more interested in FASTalk messages that encouraged back-and-forth interactions with their teenager and were clearly linking classroom learning to real-world experiences. For example, one middle school parent expressed that a sample middle school math message around approaching math problems when stuck was more helpful than a message about how to practice a specific math skill. As we develop new messages in mathematics, it will be important to incorporate this feedback to ensure that we are meeting the unique needs of middle school families.
What’s hot off the press or in the works right now when it comes to the FASTalk messages?
In the past, FASTalk has primarily supported literacy learning through the messages that go home each week. As we grow and respond to the needs of families, students, and schools, we are focusing on developing a more robust library of math tips and activities. Families are eager for ways to engage with their children around multiple subject areas and we are excited to think about how we can incorporate math learning into the FASTalk experience for more families. We often hear from families that they lack confidence in supporting their child’s learning in math. We are excited to think about ways that FASTalk can be a part of equipping families with the information and resources they need to build that confidence!
We hear consistently from families that they are committed and very willing to support their child’s learning, but what is missing is the critical learning-focused information about what is happening in the classroom and how they can help. FASTalk’s purpose-built messages and two-way communication capabilities ensure that families receive regular communication from school, delivered in their home language.
Headlines in major outlets have been pretty dire lately- the impacts of the pandemic on student learning continue to reverberate through schools across the country. We’ve heard from District leaders that they are looking for solutions to recover instructional time and accelerate student learning, and are laser focused on:
While these focus areas will meaningfully and positively impact K-12 education, they may fall short if families are not considered as a key stakeholder in maximizing the impact of HQIM and SEL programs. Research shows that when families are equipped with the right tools and information they are able to effectively support their child’s learning and well-being. Yet, as school curriculum and instruction changes parents and families have expressed frustration, feeling like they don’t have the right tools to support their child’s learning in ELA and Math.
We’ve asked co-founders of Family Engagement Lab, Vidya Sundaram and Elisabeth O’Bryon, to weigh in on the opportunity that exists in 2024 and beyond. They have shared predictions for how Districts will accelerate student achievement by leveraging the strengths of parents and families to increase their involvement and reinforce student learning.
How can Districts make the most of classroom instruction?
Vidya Sundaram shares, “Improving the quality of instructional materials is a smart, cost-effective strategy to improve learning outcomes. Districts looking to optimize their curriculum investment will also implement newly available curriculum-aligned offerings, from professional learning to assessments and family communications.”
What’s the role of families in effective SEL programs?
Elisabeth O’Bryon, highlights that “With student mental health needs outpacing many schools’ capacity to provide support, it will be even more critical to look to families as vital partners in supporting student success. Social and emotional supports show up in FASTalk in a number of ways: (1) messages are designed to support key relationship building between parents and children as well as parents and teachers, and (2) tips and activities provide families with the opportunity to practice and reinforce specific SEL skills at home.”
How do you envision school learning environments changing for multilingual learners?
Elisabeth O’Bryon is optimistic that, “as we continue to see an increase in the linguistic diversity of our school communities, as well as growing interest in multilingual learning environments, I am hopeful that a spotlight is shone on what a tremendous asset multilingualism is. Embracing multilingualism truly enriches school communities and, as such, schools need to be equipped to equitably and authentically engage multilingual families as partners in supporting student learning.”
How do you envision K-12 EdTech evolving next year?
Vidya Sundaram shares “While generative AI has been the hot topic of 2023, I expect next year we will see K-12 technology advancements that strengthen the capacity of teachers (such as automating repetitive tasks), and more multilingual culturally responsive learning resources for students and families.”
We’ll be digging into each of these topics in 2024 and sharing how parent and family involvement are an integral part of a student’s learning support team. Subscribe to our newsletter to hear the latest!
Default settings play a significant role in shaping our experiences and interactions with technology. In the realm of technology adoption, default opt-in features can have a profound effect on whether individuals embrace new tools and their subsequent impact, particularly as it relates to family engagement and communication tactics. This post explores the relationship between the opt-out model, technology adoption, and the eventual influence they both have on student learning outcomes.
Technology almost always comes to market with a set of defaults. These are pre-set options or configurations that guide users through a process, intended to optimize their overall experience. They serve as a starting point, and individuals often stick with defaults without considering alternatives. This is particularly important in the context of implementing technology designed to serve teachers and families. What is paramount, however, to ensuring sustained adoption of technology for these audiences is users' initial experiences and overall ease of use.
This where opt-in defaults play a crucial role that most developers overlook. When it comes to technology adoption, defaults can act as a double-edged sword. On one hand, well-designed defaults can simplify the onboarding process and encourage users to explore new tools. They provide a seamless and intuitive experience, minimizing barriers to entry. However, default settings that are poorly chosen or not customizable may hinder adoption rates. Users might find themselves grappling with features that don't align with their needs or preferences, leading to frustration and disengagement.
Default opt-in settings on family engagement tools like FASTalk, have a pivotal influence on the impact technology has on learning outcomes. When families are automatically opted-in to receive communications and updates from schools on their child's curriculum and what they're learning in the classroom, the likelihood of them actively choosing to opt-out drastically diminishes. This simple default setting requires passive consent from families, while simultaneously serving as the key to opening the doors to active participation and collaboration at home.
By harnessing the power of the opt-out model, organizations like ours are able to bridge the communication gap between schools and homes, taking the load off teachers' hectic schedules as well as the pressure off busy parents and caregivers. It's time we acknowledge the immense impact of simple and often overlooked features to ensure we continue to develop tools that are beneficial to our children and students and easy to adopt for educators and caregivers, alike.