One of the many challenges highlighted by the pandemic has been the lack of communication between so many parents and educators, fueling frustration on both sides. Well, back in 2018, I chatted with Heejae Lim, the founder and CEO of TalkingPoints, about her then newish venture’s effort to help connect parents and schools using digital tools. Today, 10 of the 20 largest school districts partner with TalkingPoints—using AI and human translators to translate back-and-forth into 145 languages. If you’re interested in hearing more from Lim, you can check out her 2022 TED talk on “The Most Powerful Yet Overlooked Resource in Schools,” which has more than a million views. Here’s what she had to say.
Rick: In 2018, back before the pandemic, we chatted about your organization, TalkingPoints. Just as a refresher, can you say a bit about how TalkingPoints works?
Heejae: TalkingPoints is an education technology nonprofit that drives student success by removing critical barriers to equitable family-school partnerships, such as language, time, mindsets, and capacity. Our platform uses two-way translated communication, powered by both AI- and human-based translation, to facilitate meaningful family-school partnerships. For families, getting started is as simple as texting—no sign-ups or downloads are needed. Teachers can send a message to families as a text or through our free app; families can reply in their home language and vice versa. Teachers can also attach files or images to the messages they send families and even send videos with translated captions. We include other built-in supports in our platform to help ensure families and educators can connect in ways that are effective and understandable. For example, our embedded education glossary ensures that words with multiple meanings are put in an educational context so they can be properly translated, described, and understood regardless of language. So a “sub” is translated to mean a substitute teacher, not a sandwich, and a “hot spot” is a Wi-Fi access point, not a war zone.
Rick: Today, how many languages does TalkingPoints translate? And what’s your reach?
Heejae: We currently offer support in 145 languages; recently, we added 20 new languages, including Bhojpuri, spoken in India; Quechua, spoken in South America; and Krio, spoken in Africa. And for us, equitable access includes not only connecting families with teachers but also with their students’ full education support team. Last year, we expanded who could access our platform so that school and district staff—like a special education teacher, a nurse, a psychologist, or a bus driver—could communicate directly with families. Today, TalkingPoints is present in 2 out of 3 schools across the country. Each year, we connect millions of families and educators through our platform.
Rick: What kinds of obstacles do you encounter in working with schools or families?
Heejae: One obstacle we have discovered through our research is that there is a gap between what teachers and parents want out of communication. We found that families want more academic progress and behavior updates from educators, while educators want more information on student social-emotional wellness and family circumstances from families. But the biggest obstacle we face is that families are often siloed away from district conversations about how to transform teaching and learning or how students will recover from the pandemic. An investment in family-school partnerships is often seen as an extra “nice-to-have” and not core to student learning. The reality is that investing in a tool like TalkingPoints is relatively low-cost and high-impact compared to many other school improvement programs. For one thing, the key ingredient needed to build relationships between schools and families is already present—educators and families. To leverage families more effectively doesn’t require hiring more staff but rather an investment in technology and support for educators to use it as part of their everyday teaching and learning tools. So what is needed is new mindsets, not necessarily new personnel.
Rick: Can you talk a bit about how what you’re offering is different from or similar to what other providers are offering?
Heejae: Our purpose goes beyond communication—we’re fundamentally focused on improving student outcomes by helping each and every family engage effectively with their schools and in their child’s education. And, as a nonprofit, we are able to invest in research and pilot new programs that can lead us to better, more effective strategies for building family-school partnerships to drive student success. My goal is for TalkingPoints to establish the gold standard for universal family engagement, that drives best practices, grounded in research, and to share these practices widely so that all students can get the support they need.
Rick: So, you’ve recently released a new study that tried to examine the academic impact of TalkingPoints. Can you talk a bit about how it was conducted and its findings?
Heejae: Our research team partnered with a third-party researcher to conduct a study on how using TalkingPoints impacted academic outcomes and attendance in a large urban, diverse school district. Because the district adopted TalkingPoints slowly over the course of several years, we were able to design a study that compared schools that used TalkingPoints with schools that did not, and importantly, controlled for individual and school characteristics. And the findings are so exciting: The schools that used TalkingPoints saw higher test scores, improved course proficiency, and lower absenteeism rates for all students. And we saw the greatest gains in each of these measures for underserved groups, including Black and Latino students, and students with disabilities. Overall, the gains students made on state standardized tests in math equate to an additional seven months of learning. And the higher attendance rates provided 2,000 more hours of in-the-classroom learning. These are encouraging findings, particularly as we think about helping students catch up from pandemic learning losses.
Rick: How often do parents and teachers wind up interacting? And what do they mostly talk about—logistics, student performance, behavior, or what have you?
Heejae: Among teachers and families, we see a mix of both classwide announcements and direct messages to families. And overall, these messages tend to focus more on logistics than academics or behaviors. In a recent analysis of more than 30 million conversations, we found that more than 40 percent focused on logistics, whereas conversations concerning academics, homework, class participation, or behavior comprised less than 20 percent. And in our latest survey of teachers and families, we found that both educators and families want deeper, student-centered information. The key then is for TalkingPoints to help both teachers and families move beyond logistics to deeper conversations that support student success.
Rick: Does TalkingPoints have uses other than as a translational tool? How else do you see educators or parents using it?
Heejae: Absolutely. While we started with translation, because it is clearly a need for those with language barriers, we’re focused on removing all the systemic barriers that get in the way of families feeling empowered to be a part of their child’s learning. In fact, the majority of our families are English-speaking and do not need translated communication, but that doesn’t mean they understand all of the communication. That’s because education is often filled with a lot of jargon, which can be daunting for those who are not familiar with the system. Our app includes an “Ed 101” tool that demystifies these terms for families: They can simply click on an unfamiliar term, like “IEP” or “field trip” to see what it means. And our “readability flag” alerts teachers when the message they’re using is above a 5th grade reading level and offers suggestions to simplify the language.
Rick: If you have one tip to offer teachers or school leaders based on what you’ve seen over the past four years, what would it be?
Heejae: I’d advise every educator to reach out early in the year, or before school even starts, to begin building relationships with families. Start by asking families what their hopes and dreams are for their child and how they can partner together in achieving the academic and other goals both parties want to see. Families are the biggest wealth of information about their children, and their love for their children is so universal that schools that can leverage this—and see families as part of their learning team—really see student learning accelerate.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.