This essay and the accompanying webinar are part of a series that supplement Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement by Karen L. Mapp and Eyal Bergman, a report commissioned by Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores the dynamics and barriers that stand in the way of effective family-school partnerships and outlines how to reach a more liberatory, solidarity-driven, and equity-focused family engagement practice that supports educational excellence for all children.
At Family Engagement Lab, inequality in family engagement drives our dual focus on empowering historically underserved families to support student learning and modeling inclusive and equitable family engagement for educators. Through our signature tool, FASTalk, we address both objectives. With FASTalk, teachers share engaging, at-home activities by text message in each family’s home language to reinforce classroom learning and curriculum. Features such as opt-out enrollment for families, professional translations, and automated messages aligned with the academic calendar ensure that all families are warmly invited to engage in their child’s learning.
It is widely recognized that families from historically underserved communities can sometimes experience linguistic or cultural challenges when sending their children to school. At Family Engagement Lab, we support families in bridging the learning between the classroom and home in a language they recognize. FASTalk is an SMS-based family engagement tool that gives families the foundation to implement actions at home that promote student achievement. The experiences that families have with FASTalk are valuable, and we’d like to share one of them with you.
Family Engagement Lab is proud to participate in the 2021 Education Writers Association National Seminar as part of the panel discussion, “Family Engagement in a Post-COVID Era.” We offer the following companion document for journalists covering family engagement, and focused on addressing this question:
How can reporters do a better job of understanding what drives engagement of parents, especially parents of color, in education and schools?
Families are passionate supporters of their children’s learning. In marginalized communities, including low-income communities and communities with a high percentage of families of color, it is sometimes assumed that families are less interested in their child’s education. Through our experiences at Family Engagement Lab, we have found that this can be a narrative that undermines the power and impact of families. To counter this narrative, it is critical to elevate the voices and perspectives of diverse families. Here are suggested questions for journalists covering stories related to family engagement.
Parent-Teacher Relationships Impact Student Learning
Children thrive when their parents and teachers partner to support their learning and development. A good working relationship between parents and teachers forms the foundation so both can collaborate to respond to each child’s unique needs.
The Research Behind the Importance of Parent-Teacher Relationships
The powerful link between parent-teacher relationships and student learning has been demonstrated in multiple studies. In Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that schools with strong connections with parents were 10 times more likely to improve in math and four times more likely to improve in reading than schools weak on this measure. Furthermore, in schools where connections with parents were weak, it undermined virtually all attempts at improving student learning.
Strong relationships can be empowering for both parents and teachers. A few years ago, I met an elementary school parent who explained, “Teachers have to see parents ask them things, so that teachers have the confidence to tell us what is happening at school.” Building and sustaining parent-teacher relationships is an ongoing process that needs to start early with banking positive interactions. Research from psychology researcher John Gottman shows that stable relationships need five times as many positive interactions as negative. Positive interactions spill over to help improve student engagement and learning outcomes as well (Christenson & Reschly, 2009).
Schools and teachers can create the conditions for these positive interactions with parents by proactively inviting families as partners and recognizing the important role of families. As the parent I met explained, “For me, it's really important that the teachers support us by communicating what kids are doing in school, what they are low at so that we can help support them too.” When teachers open the doors and invite regular communication, it can set parent-teacher relationships on the right course.
The Research on Supporting EL Students
While ELs are the most rapidly growing student subgroup, representing nearly 10% of public school students and speaking more than 400 different languages and dialects, over 30 states do not require EL training for general classroom teachers beyond what is required federally. Indeed, the research on teacher preparedness and self-efficacy for teaching ELs paints a bleak picture. Despite a strong likelihood of having an EL student in their classroom, teachers are often without the necessary training and support to meet the needs of a heterogeneous EL student population with unique educational needs related to developing both English language skills and building subject area knowledge. Accordingly, national data reveal many ELs have unmet academic potential, as evidenced by academic assessment results comparing the achievement of ELs to their non-EL peers.
How Teachers and Families Can Partner to Support EL Students’ Success
Strategies for educators to move from “barriers to family involvement”
to “leveraging strengths through family engagement”
A few years ago Family Engagement Lab facilitated a gathering of parents to discuss parent-teacher partnerships at their elementary school. During the discussion, the group moderator pulled us aside to let us know that a parent was there because her child had been retained a grade and she did not know why. A few weeks later at a similar gathering, we were pulled aside by the moderator again, this time to tell us about a parent whose child was receiving decent grades throughout the year but scored poorly on the state test and now needed summer remediation.
In both cases, the teachers and parents did not share a common language. Language differences often come in between the two most important figures in a child’s life—parents and teachers, and limit their ability to communicate early to identify problem areas and partner together to support struggling learners.
The consequences are severe. English Learners (also referred to as English language Learners, ELs, or ELLs) make up 9.5% of public school students, and 16% of kindergarteners nationally, yet proportionately far fewer achieve academic proficiency compared to their English-speaking peers. For example, national data reveal that fewer ELs achieve proficiency compared to non-ELs in mathematics (14% versus 43%) and Reading (9% versus 40%). Lost learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to reduce academic progress even further. The long-lasting negative impacts are well-documented and range from lower high school completion rates to lower earning potential and underemployment.
While decades of research underscore the value of family engagement, the crises of the past year cast a new light on its importance. First, the pandemic-forced school closures blurred lines for educators and families, as parents abruptly took a front row seat to their children’s educational experience in a way that they never had before. Second, our country’s reckoning with racial injustice highlighted an urgent need to equitably engage families in their child’s education. With this heightened recognition that meaningful and authentic family engagement is critical, it has also become clear that establishing a shared, well-understood definition of family engagement is critical.
We, at Family Engagement Lab, have been focused on family engagement since our founding in 2016. Powerful insights directly from families and educators regarding their experiences and needs, paired with research uncovering that involvement from a parent or caregiver in at-home learning has more than twice the effect on student achievement than parents’ education levels or socio-economic status (Melhuish et al., 2008) motivates our work, drives our commitment, and has shaped our definition of family engagement. Our approach to family engagement builds off of the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnership, which highlights how relationships between educators and parents are central to supporting student and school improvement.
During a truly remarkable 2020, my colleagues and I are grateful to have had the opportunity to reach, impact, and connect with a growing number of leaders, educators, and families through our work at Family Engagement Lab with FASTalk. Yet, as I look to 2021, what brings me the greatest hope is the feeling that our work is part of a powerful collective effort, and our organization part of a greater community working to advance equitable educational outcomes through meaningful family engagement.
At Family Engagement Lab, we work to build bridges for every family and every classroom to support students every day. FASTalk is helping schools and teachers share weekly information and tips in families’ home language that are explicitly connected to student learning.
To all of you who work in education, we know you are working day and night right now to figure out how to help our kids feel a sense of security, connectedness, and stability so they are ready to learn this fall.
No matter where you are in the world, this fall will be unusual. Many of the rituals of fall that provide families, students, teachers and school staff an important touchpoint during the start of the school year are going to have to be reimagined. “Back to School Nights,” welcome events, and home visits are being adapted as I type this to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to heal from trauma together, while forging the important new bonds needed between teachers, students, and parents.