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
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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.”

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