Families & the Community

How to Help Parents Understand Students’ Academic Needs Post-Pandemic

By Caitlynn Peetz — November 17, 2022 3 min read
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To experts and education leaders, the severity of students’ needs is clear. The majority of students struggled to make academic gains during the pandemic, and districts are expected to have to make historic investments in recovery strategies to catch them up.

But the situation doesn’t seem to be as clear to parents.

Most—92 percent, according to one survey by Learning Heroes, a nonprofit focused on ensuring parents have accurate information about students’ progress—believe their children are at grade level, despite widespread national data that show that students across the country, regardless of their background, lost ground during virtual classes.

The disconnect could stunt districts’ efforts to catch them up.

Here are three tips from experts and district leaders about how to get everyone on the same page about students’ achievement.

1. Be transparent with your data, and share it consistently

The more data you can share, the better, experts said.

National data, like NAEP scores and high-level ACT or SAT scores, can feel too conceptual to parents. Routinely sharing district- and classroom-level achievement data, such as results from unit tests or major assignments, can help paint a more accurate picture of what’s going on closer to home, Learning Heroes Founder and President BibbHubbard said.

Having a benchmark can be helpful, so sharing comparable data from previous years and the district’s goals for students’ performance can help drive home the key points and areas of need.

Part of the work is shifting the mindset about district operations. Districts should value families as integral parts of students’ success and give them access to all of the important data and information.

“It’s about valuing families, wanting to hear from them, wanting them to be a part of the school community in a way that works for them and helps us help students,” Hubbard said.

2. Explain what it all means

Just sharing the data isn’t enough.

It can be difficult for people who don’t work in education to make sense of the information, so it’s critical for administrators and educators to be clear with parents about what classroom grading means (and doesn’t).

What does a student need to do or achieve to receive a “B” in a class? Does that mean they’re on grade level—able to multiply and divide fractions, for instance? Or does it merely mean they’re turning in all of their work? Absent other information or explanation, parents tend to assume a passing grade means their child is doing just fine in class and might not need any extra help, Hubbard said.

If parents don’t have accurate information, they could become a barrier, rather than a partner, in getting their child the help they need to catch up. They might not take advantage of extra services, for example.

“If parents have this false sense of, ‘My kid’s doing fine,’ they are going to send them to basketball camp rather than summer tutoring,” Hubbard said.

3. Meet families where they are

Don’t make families work to get the information you want them to have. It’s important to know your community and how they best receive communication. That may not look the same for everyone in the district, so a menu of options can be helpful.

More traditional forms of communication, like emails and text messages, can be effective, Atlanta Superintendent Lisa Herring said. But setting up public meetings with the superintendent or other high-level administrators can help drive home important points.

Many districts began hosting virtual meetings during the pandemic, which made them more accessible to more families who otherwise couldn’t (or didn’t want to) commit an entire evening to traveling and sitting through an in-person meeting. Continuing those meetings and hosting them in the languages families in the community speak can help bridge the gap, Herring said.

The Columbus schools in Ohio have found success in a “family ambassador program,” in which community members—like parents, grandparents, and retirees—serve as liaisons between families and the district.

The program predates the pandemic by nearly a decade, but Tonya Milligan, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, said it can help align parents’ perceptions of their children’s performance by breaking through the “teacher speak” that can sometimes bog down districts’ messages.

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