Families & the Community

Personal Touch Beats Technology for Parent-School Communication, Survey Finds

By Jake Maher — February 20, 2020 4 min read
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A new report from the Center for American Progress finds that personalization—not technology—is seen as the most important feature of good parent-school communication by key players in the public school community.

CAP senior consultant Meg Benner and research associate Abby Quirk surveyed more than 900 parents who were broadly representative of the public school population, along with more than 400 teachers and more than 400 school leaders, to see what kinds of communication they used most often and preferred the most.

All three groups said highly interpersonal interactions, like parent-teacher conferences, are what they most frequently rely on and value most as a means of communicating. High-tech methods of communication did not as a whole score more highly than low-tech ones, and the survey results “do not suggest that systems relying on newer technology are used more or less than other systems, or that they are considered more or less valuable,” according to the report.

“We thought there might be special interest in options that use technology because they’re newer, they offer potentially more options, but what we found was that the technological advancement, so to speak, of the communication method really wasn’t that important,” Quirk said. “What we found was that the individualization was really important.”

Parent-teacher conferences scored highly, as did personalized emails and calls. Eighty-nine percent of parents, 85 percent of teachers, and 97 percent of school leaders said parent-teacher conferences were “mostly” or “extremely valuable,” according to the report. Social media, on the other hand, scored near the bottom, above only robocalls among the options on the survey. Only 58 percent of parents, 47 percent of teachers, and 67 percent of school leaders said social media was “mostly” or “extremely valuable.”

Technology’s ‘Allure’

Matthew Kraft, a professor of education and economics at Brown University and a specialist in school-parent communication, said the expectation that high-tech methods would score highly might be attributable to the “allure” of certain kinds of technology, like mobile communication platforms.

While communications platforms like these can potentially reach more people more quickly and cheaply than low-tech options and may even be individualized, they’re not always meaningfully interactive, Kraft said.

“A number of initiatives have been about one-way communication, where a student information system automatically texts or emails information about a student’s attendance or their grades or missing assignments to their parents,” Kraft said. “That’s individualized—it’s different for every kid—but it’s not a conversation. It’s just a one-way push of information.”

Kraft added that providing teachers with adequate resources and time to communicate is in the long run the most effective way to improve parent engagement. “The new technology is a platform. It doesn’t necessarily change the nature of the communication.”

Still, the report’s authors noted that the difference between the most- and least-used communication methods was not enough to entirely write off any specific method.

“A lot of the parents who use strategies that use a lot of technology found them very useful, and so I think what we took away from that is while as a whole individualized methods are critical to maintain, that doesn’t lessen the value of some of the other strategies that use technology,” Benner said, like social media. “It’s important to make sure it’s not either-or.”

The CAP researchers cited as an example the case of Sidney Lanier Senior High School in Mobile, Ala. The school has problems with student turnover, with a large portion of each class changing between and even during school years. The school has struggled in the past to keep parents engaged.

In a context like this, social media can emerge as a useful communication method. It doesn’t require a constantly changing pool of parents to frequently update their contact information, and many are already familiar with how to use the technology. By embracing a wide range of kinds of communication, Sidney Lanier has been able to improve parent communication and engagement in recent years.

The key, Benner and Quirk stressed, is having “multiple points of entry” for parents: The more methods of communications available, the better.

Among the other findings from the report, “One Size Does Not Fit All: Analyzing Different Approaches to Family-School Communication”:

• Parents, teachers, and school leaders overall report that they are satisfied with existing levels of communication. Three quarters agreed that communication was “actionable,” and more than half said the level of communication was “just right,” as opposed to too much or too little.

• Teachers felt the amount of communication in elementary, middle, and high school was “just right,” while district leaders were more likely to say the level of communication in middle and high school was “too much.” Parents, conversely, were more likely to say the level was “too little” in middle and high school.

• Parents’ perception of the quality of school communication did not vary significantly by race or ethnicity in the survey.

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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