Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” an open-source, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. Over the coming weeks, we will publish each of these as a standalone blog post. This is the fifth. Read the first, second, third, and fourth.
Family engagement has always been critical to student success, but never more so than now. In the current pandemic, many families have been through significant trauma, from illness, losing loved ones, financial hardship, or losing a job or a home. And of course, many children have been away from classrooms for over a year. Schools and families will need to rebuild in-person connections and shore up trust—first, so parents can feel secure in sending children back to school buildings full time, and second, so families can support educators’ efforts to accelerate student learning. Some of the digital tools that schools and families have put in place to keep connected over the last year can help.
- Regularly communicate to parents and caregivers expectations for student attendance, behavior, and grade-level academic performance—and why these are important factors in children’s development and success as adults. In addition, share the concrete steps the school or district is taking to support students to meet these expectations and make up for pandemic-related learning losses, particularly how families can support these efforts at home. Accessible forms of communication like text messages can build trust and “nudge” families, to the benefit of students.
- Work to build or rebuild trust at the system level, including by soliciting families’ goals for their children and including those goals in program planning. Many of the least-connected parents already distrusted schools before the pandemic, given their own negative experiences with schools or other institutions. Publicly listening and acting on family priorities is one way to build trust, such as by surveying families and publicly sharing how those responses inform decision-making.
- Open two-way lines of communication between parents and teachers and prioritize staff time to maintain them. Family engagement cannot be seen as something “done” to families. True engagement is mutual and relies on open and frequent communication about what’s working and what’s not, with students’ needs at the center. Successful tactics can include arranging regular “office hours” when families can contact staff for any reason, scheduling regular virtual parent-teacher conferences, and stepped-up outreach efforts by school counselors to check in with families about their needs and expectations.
- Work with community service providers to anticipate and respond flexibly to a variety of family needs, including social-service and mental-health supports. And partner with expert organizations to support highly effective instruction using high-quality curricula.
School disconnection has played out differently for different families during the pandemic. While some families gained insights as daily instruction played out over Zoom, even the most engaged students have experienced some degree of physical isolation from school environments, and the least engaged students have experienced no schooling at all.
Understanding the cultural factors that shape families’ immediate concerns and priorities is important. Schools and families can more easily agree on short-term objectives, like daily attendance, homework, and reading, when they are connected to a shared goal of a meaningful future for students.
A 2016 report by the Pacific Regional Education Lab suggests that two-way communication that includes frequent data sharing with parents about children’s general academic progress, including both formative and summative assessment scores, has a particularly high impact on students’ academic success. These positive impacts are enhanced when schools ask families about students’ interests, behaviors, and challenges. For example, a 2019 study out of Germany found evidence that frequent communication between schools and families, wherein schools share data on students’ homework completion on a recurrent basis, can increase students’ completion of homework assignments. The study found that simply assigning homework without a strong and sustained school-family relationship did not result in high homework completion rates.
Though there is some debate over the value of homework, especially in the younger grades, we know that well-designed homework assignments are beneficial to students and can communicate with parents what their children are learning at school, particularly when teachers review assignments and offer clear feedback. In addition, reading at home for at least twenty minutes a day has significant academic benefits. A compelling 2020 longitudinal study from the Oxford Review of Education found significant academic benefits correlated with students reading at home, but only when the materials read are books and not other printed materials, such as comics or newspapers. Schools should therefore consider ways to provide low-income families with books.
Finally, both families and schools have a role to play in reducing student absenteeism. A 2007 study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University points to the devastating academic costs of chronic absenteeism. Chronically absent students score 5 percent lower, on average, on math and reading standardized assessments compared to their peers.
In short, family engagement should be based on principles of transparency and mutual trust, as articulated in the following delineation of roles and responsibilities:
ROLE OF THE SCHOOL
ROLE OF FAMILIES
Respect for Families and their Cultures:
The heart of family engagement is trust, and that means building real relationships.
Find concrete ways for the principal and classroom teachers to know students, their families, and their cultures.
Participate in school events, both the academically-oriented ones, like “back to school night,” and ones intended to build community and celebrate cultures.
Attendance and Readiness:
Students make the most academic and social-emotional progress when they have enough sleep and are present every day.
Provide rigorous and engaging lessons that start on time every day. Offer social supports to families if attendance and readiness are significant challenges.
To the extent possible, ensure that students get enough sleep and arrive at school on time every day. Take advantage of supports offered by the school to ensure their child’s academic success.
The daily completion of aligned homework assignments supports students’ mastery of the school’s rigorous curriculum.
Assign meaningful homework assignments that support students’ mastery of the curriculum.
Ensure that students complete their homework every day and bring it to school.
Students need a high-quality curriculum and should read independently for at least 30 minutes every day.
Implement a robust, research-backed ELA curriculum in school and make concrete, low-cost recommendations for texts to read at home.
Read to young children every day. Ensure that older students read for at least 30 minutes per day.
Excessive screen time can create attention challenges for young children and keeps them from moving their bodies.
Provide concrete, realistic suggestions for how families can set and enforce screen-time limits while children are not at school.
Set and enforce screen-time limits and steer children toward reading, exercise, and play instead.
Students’ success in school is dependent on parents and teachers routinely and actively communicating with each other.
Share routine academic performance updates with families on at least a weekly basis, in families’ preferred languages. Solicit families’ feedback via regular, valid, and reliable surveys.
Actively communicate with their child’s teacher, including reading all emails and texts that come from the school. Offer feedback proactively or via surveys.
Dettmers, S., Yotyodying, S., and Jonkmann, K. (2019). Antecedents and Outcomes of Parental Homework Involvement: How Do Family-School Partnerships Affect Parental Homework Involvement and Student Outcomes? Frontiers in Psychology. 10.
- Simply assigning a lot of homework does not necessarily lead to its being completed. Robust family engagement (family-school partnerships in a German context) leads to improved homework completion.
Garcia, M.E., Frunzi, K., Dean, C.B., Flores, N., & Miler, K.B. (2016). “Toolkit of resources for engaging families and the community as partners in education. Part 4: Engaging all in data conversations.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Pacific.
- Speaks to the importance of sharing data with families about how their children are doing in a meaningful way as a key part of a family engagement strategy.
Hill, N., Liang, B., Price, M., Polk, W., Perella, J., and Savitz‐Romer, M. (2018). Envisioning a meaningful future and academic engagement: The role of parenting practices and school‐based relationships. Psychology and the Schools, 55(6), 595-608.
Jerrim, J., Lopez-Agudo, L., and Gutiérrez, O. (2020). Does it matter what children read? New evidence using longitudinal census data from Spain. Oxford Review of Education. 46(5), 515-533.
- It’s widely stated that reading every day is essential for kids’ literacy development. This longitudinal study makes the compelling case that this is only the case when students read books and not other printed material.
Pondiscio, R. (2019). How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Avery.
- Points to the important role of being transparent and direct with parents, among other successful aspects of Success Academies Charter Schools.
Romero, M., and Lee, Y. (2010). “A National Portrait of Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades.” New York, N.Y.: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University.
- Confirms the detrimental effects of chronic absenteeism in elementary school on school success by examining children from across various incomes and race/ethnicity groups in a nationally representative sample of children entering kindergarten.
Sharkey, P. (2010). The acute effect of local homicides on children's cognitive performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(26), 11733-11738.
Sheldon, S. (2007). Improving student attendance with school, family, and community partnerships. Journal of Educational Research, 100(5), 267-275.
- A robust family engagement strategy plays a key role in improving attendance.