A common refrain over the last couple years is that parents are growing increasingly frustrated with their children’s schools. The catalysts behind these feelings are wide-ranging and complex. Some have been, schools that were closed , . Others have been concerned about , , or ..
Unfortunately, many of these issues aren’t going anywhere. We live in a fraught time, and education hasn’t been spared. But with a new academic year on the horizon, now is a good time for schools to prioritize building (or rebuilding) relationships with parents that might make it easier to deal with problems and controversies when they inevitably arise. They can do so by focusing on the basics.
First, they should prioritize effective outgoing communication. If that sounds like a no brainer, it’s because it is. Of course schools should be communicating clearly and concisely with parents. Unfortunately, there are plenty of places where that isn’t happening. Parents need timely and up-to-date information about their child’s academic progress, outside-of-school opportunities, and health and safety protocols. Schools should also consider upping the ante on traditional engagement events—things like back-to-school nights, open houses, and parent-teacher conferences—by making sure there are alternative dates and times and/or virtual options for families who are unable to attend. The more opportunities families have to engage—and the more clearly and effectively those opportunities are advertised—the more likely it is that they will.
Second, schools should work to expand and improve incoming communication—the ways families can ask questions or share their input with district leaders and teachers. Effective communication is a two-way street, but many schools only focus on one-way communication. They distribute information, but they don’t establish consistent feedback channels for parents to respond. Inviting families to attend regularly scheduled school board meetings or once-a-year events is a great place to start, but it’s not necessarily the best method for building mutually-beneficial relationships or gauging parental satisfaction. Listening tours, regular parent surveys, and other data gathering strategies that seek parents out—rather than asking parents to do the work of getting in touch—should be a regular part of schools’ parental engagement playbook.
Third, schools need to be transparent about student performance. This is not a new need. For years, thehas caused parents to assume that their students’ achievement and readiness levels are than they actually are. were, unfortunately, the in plenty of places prior to the pandemic. Covid has only exacerbated gaps and of lowered expectations. that parents have to focus on right now makes it even more likely that they how far behind their kids are.
These efforts are particularly important in light of a recent Brookings analysis, which indicates low parental interest in interventions designed to address pandemic-related learning loss, such as tutoring and summer school. Given the , low parental interest in mitigation efforts should trouble policymakers, advocates, and school leaders. But as the authors rightly point out, there are also several explanations as to why interest could be low. These include “parents’ understanding of whether their child is struggling academically, their beliefs about the benefits of such recovery programs, and logistical considerations, such as availability of transportation.” If parents don’t realize that their students need intervention, or if they aren’t aware of the existence of intervention programs let alone their potential benefits, they’re not going to engage. And unless schools understand why parental interest is low—and recognize that reasons will vary in different places—they can’t come up with solutions.
Now, more than ever, it is critically important for schools to have open communication lines and use them to tell parents the truth. In terms of academics, that means using rigorous assessments to determine where kids are, making sure students’ report cards aren’t downplaying problems where they exist, creating evidence-based plans for how to remediate and enrich, and then communicating it all—where kids are, where they need to be, and how the school is going to get them there—to parents. Downplaying problems or kicking them down the road to deal with later won’t win schools any favor with parents, but being transparent and communicating a plan for improvement will. It will also help kids in the short- and long-term. And in the end, that’s what really matters.