Equity & Diversity Opinion

Family Partnerships Are Key to Digital Equity

By Vikki S. Katz, Michael H. Levine & Carmen Gonzalez — September 16, 2015 7 min read
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This fall, 3.5 million children will start kindergarten in the United States. One-quarter of them will be Hispanic, more than 90 percent of whom are U.S.-born, and just over one-third of whom are growing up below the poverty line. Hispanic kindergartners score lower in reading and mathematics than all other ethnic groups, and more than 8 in 10 are not yet proficient readers by 4th grade. And, if current trends continue, over one-third of the Hispanic children who start their educations this fall will drop out before they finish high school.

These statistics are not only unacceptable, they are also indicators of an education system in peril. To better identify which priorities should drive the next round of national debates on educational equity as we move into a new election cycle, our research teams have engaged in national and community-level research to investigate how low-income Hispanic families integrate technology and educational media into everyday routines, and how tech use influences relationships within families and with educators and schools.

We conducted in-depth interviews with 336 parents and their school-age children, in three districts (located in Arizona, California, and Colorado). We have also completed two national surveys: one with low-income Hispanic parents (with children ages 2 to 10) about educational media use at home, and a second this summer with 1,200 low-income parents of different ethnicities (with children in grades K-8) to assess how they view technologies’ influence on learning, in school and out.


Our research clearly demonstrates that while the technologies themselves are usually touted as the change factor, relationships matter most. Parents’ relationships with administrators and teachers are crucial to how they integrate technology at home. Many parents depend on teacher-recommended online resources to guide children’s out-of-school learning. Schools’ outreach to parents when adopting new digital learning platforms—specifically how a district promotes the program to families, and how programs respond to parents’ needs and concerns—is also critical to maintaining families’ trust. In one of our study sites, a hasty shift to a digital curriculum had the unintended consequence of limiting immigrant parents’ ability to help their children with their homework.

We also examined how technology adoption affects family relationships. Parents’ own tech-related attitudes directly affect how children use technology to complete assignments and to pursue their own interests. Furthermore, we found that collaborative engagement with technology can support students’ classroom learning and enhance their tech-related skills. Parents and children fluidly trade expert and learner roles as they use technology together, and do so even more frequently in Spanish-dominant, immigrant-headed households. These experiences point to two especially important family assets: strong traditions of family interaction related to technology use, and parents’ deep motivations to learn new ways to support their children’s success.

How might we strengthen the home-school and family relationships we have found are critical to successfully supporting Hispanic students on a much larger scale? Here are three action steps for policymakers and education leaders to consider:

We need to support educators so that they can support the nation’s families.

While schools are critical in the fight for educational equity, they can’t do it alone—as every educator already knows. We also know that children spend fewer hours in school than they do at home and in community spaces that serve as informal learning environments. Our research suggests that mobile technologies provide exciting opportunities to link different spaces where children learn.

Schools have yet to capitalize on the promise such technologies hold for supporting learning and development, however. A recent PBS survey suggests one contributing factor: While 76 percent of the nation’s K-12 teachers are using digital media in their classrooms, only 33 percent of pre-K teachers are doing so. These findings suggest that training for early educators is both urgently needed and potentially very powerful for getting low-income families on a trajectory for confident engagement with digital technologies right from the start.

Wiring underserved schools and community institutions will not close opportunity gaps unless we do the same for the homes where children live."

Administrators, policymakers, and curriculum developers need to develop practical, sustainable ways to support teachers’ digital practices. And, as more early-childhood teachers begin using digital media, innovative curricula that integrate digital pedagogical practices will become critical.

Supporting educators cannot end with a focus on technology. Building meaningful relationships with families in increasingly diverse districts requires modernizing existing teacher-training programs and providing ongoing support for established teachers. Such efforts should enable teachers to develop the skills and sensitivities needed to establish trust, identify family assets and concerns, and work together with parents to achieve sustainable change.

We must empower families as partners for achieving equity.

Proactively partnering with families to ensure their children’s educational success is equally important. While low-income minority families are often viewed in terms of their limitations (in education, English proficiency, income, and so on), we counsel for moving from a deficit framing of families to one that emphasizes how their assets can contribute to realizing the changes we need in K-12 education.

Therefore, while conversations about digital equity inevitably focus on students and their schools, homes are key sites for children’s learning. Wiring underserved schools and community institutions will not close opportunity gaps unless we do the same for the homes where children live. Our research demonstrates the importance of considering students as part of families—and for making families meaningful partners in developing new digital pathways to learning and school success.

For example, school and districtwide shifts to digital curricula should only be done at a pace that allows parents to keep up with the changes to how their children learn and do homework. One key implication for policymakers is to redesign how the federal Title I program’s family-engagement programs are delivered, and to ensure that national initiatives to encourage school and home tech use (such as ConnectEd and EveryoneOn) engage parents in every stage of the process. Rapid, uncritical adoption of technological innovations is very likely to leave parents behind, reduce their capabilities to help with their children’s schoolwork, and exacerbate intergenerational differences that ultimately disadvantage students’ academic advancement, rather than enhance it.

We must recognize that well-informed public-private partnerships can be catalysts for change.

To drive national commitments for effective digital innovation in education, we recommend that existing public-private partnerships develop or renew their focus on equity and local capacity-building. Our research reveals that national programs to address digital inequality are often out of tune with community needs. For example, the 170 families we interviewed in three states were all eligible for discounted broadband via Connect2Compete, but fewer than 20 were online via this flagship K-12 program of the EveryoneOn initiative. Access was a less pressing issue for these families than the lack of local skills-training and affordable tech support.

Digital Promise, a public-private partnership launched in 2011, is a model for relationship-based efforts toward educational equity. That initiative is now focused on engaging networks of innovative schools to scale up best practices that integrate research-based digital learning. It should be expanded to have a laser focus on opportunities for low-income families.

Our diverse nation faces considerable challenges to achieving educational equity. The urgent need for thoughtful, evidence-based innovation is clear. To give this year’s crop of preschoolers—the class of 2030—the very best chance of succeeding, we will need to change our approaches to build enduring home-school-community partnerships. Technology is not a magical elixir. But, if deployed wisely, these new tools can help strengthen the relationships that matter most in supporting children’s growth and success.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Cultural Assets and the Digital Promise: Dreams for the Class of 2030


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