Families & the Community

Want Test Scores to Improve? Make Engaging Families a Top Priority

By Lauraine Langreo — October 14, 2022 3 min read
Mother and son work at home on laptop.
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One key to academic progress during the 2022-23 school year will be for schools to do a better job getting parents and teachers working more closely together toward common goals.

That was one of the big takeaways from the SEL Exchange Virtual Summit, hosted Oct. 13 by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. In other words, schools need to put family engagement at the top of their priority lists if they want to see academic improvement.

“Most schools and systems in America are not really designed for really comprehensive, authentic, deep collaborations between home and school. So they need to be redesigned,” said Eyal Bergman, the senior vice president of the nonprofit Learning Heroes and one of the speakers at the summit.

Build trust

The first priority for schools is to rethink how they’re engaging families, especially if what they’re doing now is not working.

“Oftentimes, what I hear is, ‘we can’t get parents to come back to school. They don’t come to this or that, help us get them to come to the thing that we want to do for them,’” Bergman said. At Learning Heroes, he leads efforts to support schools in building more meaningful partnerships with families.

Back to school nights, parent-teacher conferences, and other family-engagement events are not going to lead to any positive and meaningful changes for students “unless we are deliberately seeking to build, and in many cases, restore trust with families,” Bergman said.

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Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union, agreed that parents are critical stakeholders and need to be engaged in a different way.

“For too long, schools have engaged in a very transactional relationship with parents and families,” Rodrigues said. “It’s been very difficult for us to be able to advocate on the issues and priorities that are important to us as a community because often we’re met with a system that is so entrenched with the status quo that they think they have all the answers.”

One way to build trust is by doing home visits, Bergman said. With phone calls or parent-teacher conferences, educators control the conversation too much because they decide what will be discussed and those conversations happen in classrooms, where teachers feel most comfortable, but parents often don’t. But with home visits, the dynamics are reversed.

Another way to build trust is to include parents in decisionmaking from the beginning, Rodrigues said.

“Make sure that when you’re beginning planning, or just starting down the road, you’re bringing us to the table at the very beginning, instead of just checking a box asking us to sign off on your idea,” she said.

For example, polls have shown that the majority of parents are supportive of social-emotional learning and parents are aware that those skills are critical for their children’s success. But parents might not understand all the components of SEL if they’re not brought into the conversation early on. They might even be confused by what the term SEL means.

“The way we come together around this is by being transparent, by having conversations with each other, by listening to the priorities of parents and families, instead of just talking at us around the priorities of the school system,” Rodrigues said.

See also

Image of a teacher interacting with a family.
Laura Baker/Education Week and iStock/Getty

Invest in the infrastructure

Bergman said it’s important for a district to have a cabinet-level family engagement officer. There should also be time set aside for professional learning focused on family engagement practices. (Fewer than a third of teachers across the country have ever reported any professional development in family engagement, according to Learning Heroes data.)

At the school level, Bergman said it’s the teacher’s responsibility to collaborate most closely with parents because they know their students better than other school staff. The principal’s job is “to clear the runway” to ensure teachers are given the time and training to make that happen, he said.

Focus on the goal

Perhaps the most important thing for educators and parents to remember is that they are working toward the same goal, which is for students to be successful.

“Family engagement is not an end, in and of itself,” Bergman said. “It is a means toward what we’re all here for, which is student learning and wellbeing.”

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