Since 2020, we’ve heard quite a lot about families’ growing influence over public schooling. From Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s high-profile embrace of parental involvement, to the rise of Moms for Liberty, to “parents bills of rights” passed by four states and the U. S. House, parents’ voices have increasingly shaped the wider landscape of public education.
But the voices capturing national attention, by and large, don’t represent the everyday type of involvement that we know truly impacts academics: things like parent-teacher conference participation and family attendance at school events. Specifically, research shows that greater family involvement correlates not only with improved student achievement, but also with attendance, behavior, graduation rates, advanced course enrollment, and college enrollment.
These findings make intuitive sense. Regular communication means that families are more likely to learn how their child is doing and to hear about teachers’ concerns. Without such conversations, many families incorrectly assume that their child is succeeding in school—a particularly salient problem at a moment when parents are significantly underestimating learning loss. Engagement with teachers can also better equip the family to support the child outside of school hours. If a school advises families on strategies for extending a child’s math learning at home, for example, students at that school are more likely to meet grade-level expectations in math.
Unfortunately, we don’t have much reason to believe that such mundane but effective forms of family involvement are on the rise.
And although the benefits occur across socioeconomic (SES) and racial groups, many families of color and of low SES encounter barriers to school involvement, in turn putting their children at a disadvantage compared to White and/or middle-class peers.
Overall, Hispanic and Black families report less communication and weaker relationships with schools. Even though the federal government requires schools to communicate with families in a language in which they are proficient, Spanish-speaking parents on the whole communicate less frequently with their children’s schools than English-speaking parents—and we can only speculate about those whose languages are less common. And low-SES families often feel less involved in their children’s schools.
Misunderstanding may be at the root of many of these communication barriers. Families of low SES and Hispanic families are more likely to take a “hands-off” approach out of deference to the expertise of educators and the authority of administrators. Others, lacking familiarity with the American education system, simply may not know how to get involved. But teachers, who are predominantly middle-class and White, often interpret deference or unfamiliarity as a lack of interest, in turn making them also less likely to initiate communication.
Even more alarming evidence suggests that educator bias may be another contributing factor. Lower parental SES correlates with a lower likelihood of families’ feeling welcome at school. Teachers are less likely to contact immigrant Hispanic families with news of positive achievement. And a study of 3,600 principals found that all principals—though particularly White ones—were less likely to respond to an email from a parent they believed was Black.
Of course, families of all backgrounds want to support their children’s education. While we can’t eliminate communication barriers overnight, some relatively small policy interventions could have a large impact:
- District and school leaders should establish a dialogue protocol for conferences and other family communications. Specific questions can help teachers better grasp families’ cultural capital and challenges, and they can create space for families to articulate concerns and questions.
- Districts should mandate protected time for teachers to reach out to families. In most districts, teachers have limited time to conduct outreach, and it usually falls within periods also used for planning and grading.
- District and school leaders should fund activities and structures that encourage family involvement. Cultural organizations, inclusive committees that seek family input into school activities and events, family nights, and other organizations can allow families to participate in ways that enable them to feel comfortable and valued.
- Districts should—most obviously—diversify their teacher and school staff workforce. While this policy move is a heavier lift, it might do the most to improve family-school communications (not to mention other student outcomes). Having educators who share more in common with their students’ families may improve communication and trust, in turn increasing the likelihood of parental involvement. For recruitment efforts, districts can invest in teacher pathways that teachers of color are most likely to pursue, including Grow Your Own programs, which recruit teachers from local communities, and alternative certification pathways. Reports from educators of color indicate that financial incentives like higher starting salaries, loan forgiveness, expanded leadership opportunities, and improved administrative support could all improve retention.
Districts rarely hesitate to respond to families with time, resources, and cultural capital. They also shouldn’t hesitate to expand access for the many other families whose children their schools serve.