Why Getting Parents Involved in Learning Isn't Enough
“When parents support positive learning environments at home and are engaged in their child’s academic endeavors, students experience higher achievement and better academic outcomes.”
Houtenville and Karen, Journal of Human Resources (2008)
It's Open House. I am making my rounds, making sure all of our tech is working. After passing several empty classrooms I catch a couple of my colleagues in mid-conversation.
“The crowd looks a bit thin this year.” said a social studies teacher holding a stack of blank, self-sticking name badges with “Hello, my name is …” printed in red letters across the top.
“There’s several empty classrooms in this hallway," replied a colleague. "I wonder where everyone could be?”
Going Beyond Parent Involvement to Parent Engagement
Has the traditional concept of parents’ night, or open house, become an exercise whose best, well-intentioned days, passed us by? As school personnel, are we not communicating, informing, and welcoming enough for today’s families? Maybe we have been inviting parental involvement when we should be fostering parental engagement.
- Parents—What are the barriers keeping you from engaging with your child's teacher or school?
- Teachers—What forms of support are you seeking from your students' parents?
- Students—What would be the impact of knowing your caregivers and teachers were working together on your behalf?
In a recent interview for ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, Karen Mapp, author and Harvard educator, says school-family partnerships can move past what she calls “random acts of parent involvement” by building family engagement initiatives on foundations of student learning and development.
Suggesting nearly all parent involvement programs are too passive, Mapp says there are three things parents should know about their child’s school and school-related experiences:
- Parents are the child’s first teacher. Parents need to know they are an essential aspect of their children’s development.
- Parents possess a deeper knowledge about their children. Educators are better able to differentiate and individualize instruction when armed with the background information parents can provide.
- Parents need to know they have access and support from their child’s teacher and school. Parents should have a direct line to feedback that helps support their child’s learning and development.
It would seem face-to-face interactions would produce the greatest results in a school-family engagement initiative. However, we all know time and resources are finite. How do people interact and stay engaged in a modern, digitally connected world?
Finding the Right Place: Spoiler, It's Your LMS
Like many schools, we have a school Facebook page and a school handle and hashtag on Twitter. We have Snapchat filters and Pinterest boards.
What about the sometimes maligned classroom learning management system (LMS)? Could this digital space hold the key to moving the school-family initiative from involvement to engagement? For instance, communication, or the lack of communication, is seen as a key barrier to increasing school-parent engagement.
Studies reveal the frequency and quality of school-initiated communication with parents is rare. In 2012, nearly sixty percent of public school parents report never having received a phone call home from their child’s school during the previous year.
In Engaging Parents Through Better Communication Systems, researcher and educator Matthew Kraft says, “Digital technology must be an integral and purposeful part of schools’ communication infrastructures. Nearly every adult has a mobile phone.”
Teachers can use the LMS to communicate feedback on student progress, share course content and parent resources, establish social networks for parents, and engage parents in classroom discussions and experiences. An LMS worth its salt will provide a mutually convenient digital place where parents, teachers, and students can establish partnerships with the aim of optimizing learning and development in schools.
Often, a robust LMS will provide communication via one-way notifications, as well as, two-way communication between schools and families. Additionally, the LMS communication pieces can be enhanced with embedded web content and interactive elements such as polls, multi-media comments, and discussion threads.
At our school we support parent communication by using Schoology to post school-wide announcements, post updates and resources to specific graduating classes, and exchange direct messages between teachers and parents.
Parents, like Melinda N., have expressed appreciation for the communication and depth of information the LMS provides to families. “I like how I can observe, and sometimes, participate in my daughter’s classroom experiences," she explained. "I can monitor and support her progress. Messaging teachers is a single click from the course materials. Easy, helpful, and convenient.”
As we have learned, inconsistent practices in posting updates and information limit the communication effectiveness of the LMS. Like many schools, we started with an opt-in approach to enrolling parents in our LMS platform.
Moving from involvement to engagement proved to be challenging since many families, some with the greatest need, were not included in communication loops. Schools and teachers should regularly collect contact information and communication preferences from families. Such information has allowed us to expand and diversify our communication practices.
All Aboard! Aiming for 100% Parent Engagement
This year, we activated Schoology accounts for all of our parents. These accounts are linked to their child’s account.
Parents can view their child’s progress, participate virtually in classroom experiences, and maintain a direct line of communication with the teacher and school. In addition, each student’s LMS account is associated with their advisory teachers and their guidance counselor. As you would guess, this creates a mutually beneficial support network within the platform, with the student at the center.
As Karen Mapp says, involvement tends to be passive, falling short of true effectiveness. With collaborative digital places like Schoology we can positively influence students, as Matthew Kraft says, “by engaging parents as partners in the education process.”
The research on the positive effects of parent engagement and school achievement are indisputable. Our infrastructure is in place, now it’s a matter of creating the expectations and dedicating the time necessary for teachers and parents to collaboratively advance student learning for all.
- Parental Effort, School Resources, and Student Achievement by Andrew J. Houtenville and Karen Smith Conway (2008)
- Unlocking Families’ Potential: A Conversation with Karen L. Mapp by Naomi Thiers (2017)
- Parent and Family Involvement in Education, From the National Household Education Surveys of 2012 by Amber Noel, Patrick Stark and Jeremy Redford (2016)
- Engaging Parents Through Better Communication Systems by Mathew A. Kraft
- 5 Keys to Forging Strong Parent Engagement 2016 by Dennis Pierce.
- Schoology's Parent Guide via the Help Center