Families & the Community

Why Aren’t Parents More Worried About Declines in Student Achievement?

Districts need to be intentional about communicating the hard news about low levels of student achievement, experts say
By Caitlynn Peetz — November 15, 2022 6 min read
Image of a parent helping with homework at home.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last month’s release of data from the assessment known as “the nation’s report card” was striking. Students across the country, regardless of where they live or their background, suffered staggering blows to their learning during the pandemic, losing ground that experts fear will take years to recover.

The results bolster dozens of other estimates of depressed achievement thanks to the pandemic and have spurred urgent calls to action. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called them “appalling” and “unacceptable” and pressed the community to ensure students aren’t “the ones who sacrifice most now or in the long run.”

But despite the months and months of warnings, American parents still tend to think the problem lurks outside of their home—affecting other children but not their own.

Despite the widespread evidence that the majority of students are struggling, most parents—92 percent according to one survey by Learning Heroes— believe their children are at grade level and doing just fine in the classroom. That disconnect could affect school districts’ ability to help students regain academic ground post-pandemic, even as they have millions of dollars to spend on learning recovery.

“If parents don’t have the right, or the accurate, information, they can become a barrier instead of a partner,” said Bibb Hubbard, the founder and president of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit focused on ensuring parents have accurate information about students’ progress. “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. That will affect how well that money is being utilized and reaching the students it needs to reach.”

What’s causing the perception gap about how kids are doing?

The disconnect is likely due, at least in part, to report cards and other school-level academic measures given to parents that often paint a more positive picture, Hubbard said.

Usually, if a student is sent home with a report card that shows a “B” in reading, for example, parents will interpret that as their child is reading on grade level and doing OK, Hubbard said. But that’s not necessarily true—it means they’re meeting classroom expectations, which might or might not include their reading level.

Absent other student-specific data, like standardized test scores, or explicit communication from teachers about their child’s performance, parents often believe that their student is doing fine academically. Then, if they’re told their child should participate in tutoring or after school programs, they’ll likely question why or opt out.

To be sure, the issue of grade inflation has long been debated in the K-12 space, but it’s likely that thanks to the pandemic, what’s on those report cards could be even more misleading than before the pandemic.

During school closures in 2020 and 2021, some districts relaxed their grading policies to accommodate the unique problems students were facing—learning from home, widespread illness, death, trauma, and financial problems.

Some advocates, like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, have criticized the move, arguing that “lowering expectations” set students up for failure.

In a recent report, Fordham researchers say that higher expectations and tougher grading correlate with better performance. Easing grading policies in the midst of so much change and difficulty left students with less reason to engage and perform well, they said.

The changes in grading policies could also help mask the severity of students’ needs, they suggest.

Be generous with your data

For educators, it’s critical, Hubbard said, to be clear with parents about what classroom grading means (and doesn’t). Teachers and administrators should consistently explain the benchmarks they use for grading, and share as much student- and district-level data from other assessments as possible, Hubbard said.

That can be difficult after more than two years of pandemic-related difficulties, which have sometimes created tension between community members and school staff. Teachers may be afraid parents will blame or judge them for their children’s struggles.

Over time, though, parents generally respond more positively to honesty and transparency than attempting to downplay the severity of a situation, Hubbard said.

It can help, she added, to prioritize consistent family engagement from the beginning of the year between parents and teachers, so when difficult conversations need to happen, it doesn’t feel “punitive.”

“What districts often default to is the first time a parent hears from a teacher it’s because there’s a behavior problem, or something bad has happened, so immediately, it’s in the negative frame,” Hubbard said. “So then the parent feels defensive and then the teacher feels defensive and it becomes this very negative exchange.”

An innovative way to break through ‘teacher speak’ and connect with parents

Some districts that have noticed the disconnect between parents’ perception of their children’s performance and reality have found success in tried-and-true approaches.

In Columbus, an approach to engagement that predates the pandemic by nearly a decade has set the groundwork for connecting with families. For years, the city’s school system has operated a “family ambassador program,” in which community members—like parents, grandparents, and retirees—serve as liaisons between families and the district.

People who apply and are chosen to serve as ambassadors are paid a stipend for their work, which includes coaching parents on how to effectively interact with the their child’s school, advise them on how to address issues, connect with community-based services, and maintain open communication about school happenings.

Ambassadors receive training about district systems and best practices in engaging with families. They are often bilingual, and can help break down the “teacher speak” that can sometimes cloud the messages districts are trying to relay.

“The way we talk in schools, there’s a lot of acronyms or jargon, and the great thing about the ambassadors is it’s a parent talking to a parent in a way that makes more sense,” said Tonya Milligan, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning. “There’s a comfort level that is going to exist that our parents are going to ask questions that they may not ask to a teacher because they feel intimidated or uncomfortable, but they’ll ask to another parent.”

Empowering students can help bridge the gap

New engagement strategies can help districts relay important messages, too.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring advises districts to continue hosting the virtual meetings and information sessions they adopted during the pandemic, so more families can participate without the hassle of traveling to a specific location or giving up time at work or at home.

Those meetings should be held consistently, and would ideally be provided in multiple languages, or with translation services available, she added.

“There is no perfect silver bullet around communication, there is simply the mandate that we are consistent with it,” Herring said. “There are pockets of your community where one form of communication may work better and not so much in the other, and as much as we’re still working to explore that, we are committed to doing that.”

People also look to superintendents as leaders, and hearing the information directly from them in a clear and direct way could help get important messages across, she said. Herring hosts “cluster chats,” where she visits different neighborhoods to talk face-to-face with community members about district happenings and students’ needs.

But the most effective tool to getting parents and schools on the same page about their children’s academic progress may just be the children themselves.

“If we can communicate to that child what they need and why, and make them feel like they’re supported and want to engage, they are also powerful in communicating that with their families and parents,” Herring said. “Perhaps they’re the most impactful triggers to get parents into the school building.”


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community Q&A How These District Leaders Turned Family Engagement on Its Head
Two Leaders to Learn From share insights on what family and community engagement entails.
7 min read
Families & the Community Video ‘A Welcoming Place’: Family Engagement Strategies for Schools (Video)
Schools that enlist parents as partners see positive results. Here's how to do it.
1 min read
Families & the Community Bring Back In-Person Field Trips. Here's Why
School field trips took a hit due to the pandemic and are still recovering. Educators and experts explain why they should come back.
4 min read
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va. arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va. on Tuesday, April 23, 2024 for an outdoor education field trip. During the field trip, students will release brook trout that they’ve grown from eggs in their classroom into Passage Creek and participate in other outdoor educational activities.
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va., arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va., on April 23, 2024, for an outdoor education field trip.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Families & the Community 5 Ways to Get Parents More Involved in Schools
Schools don't need an influx of money and resources to have effective family engagement, experts say.
9 min read
Various school representatives and parent liaisons attend a family and community engagement think tank discussion at Lowery Conference Center on March 13, 2024 in Denver. One of the goals of the meeting was to discuss how schools can better integrate new students and families into the district. Denver Public Schools has six community hubs across the district that have serviced 3,000 new students since October 2023. Each community hub has different resources for families and students catering to what the community needs.
School representatives and parent liaisons attend a family and community engagement think tank discussion at Lowery Conference Center on March 13, 2024 in Denver. One of the goals of the meeting was to discuss how schools can better integrate new students and families into the district.
Rebecca Slezak For Education Week