Every Student Succeeds Act

Digital Communication Tools Target ESSA Parent-Engagement Mandate

By Sarah Schwartz — April 04, 2017 7 min read
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School districts face new demands under federal law to show that they’re engaging parents in students’ education. And many ed-tech companies are convinced that they have the platforms to strengthen and streamline those school-to-family connections.

Yet whether those tools will end up bolstering parent engagement in keeping with the vision of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or do so in only limited and superficial ways, remains to be seen.

ESSA, like the No Child Left Behind Act before it, requires districts to set aside 1 percent of the Title I funding they receive for disadvantaged students to pay for parent- and family-engagement initiatives and distribute at least 90 percent of that funding directly to schools.

But ESSA, which became law in 2015, also sets a higher bar than its predecessor in one respect: It mandates that districts conduct outreach to “all parents and family members” in order to receive parent-engagement funding. In their parent- and family-engagement policies, schools must describe how they will conduct “regular two-way, meaningful communication” with families, and “to the extent practicable, in a language that family members can understand.”

Many schools today, including Title I schools, are already using digital tools and platforms meant to increase schools’ capability to communicate with parents via text-message, email, and other means, about classroom assignments, attendance, scheduling, and other matters.

Advocates of improving parent engagement say technology could help schools meet the law’s requirements to engage parents—but only if districts are careful to apply it in meaningful ways.

“We want folks to see [the law] as a real opportunity to engage communities that haven’t been a part of the system before,” said Maria Moser, the senior director of teaching and learning for the National Council of La Raza. “Anything that gives the school more resources and suggests that they’re making an effort to communicate with families, that’s a net positive.”

But “the danger is that people are always kind of looking for a silver bullet.” Using technology platforms, she said, doesn’t absolve districts of the responsibility to “do the groundwork for building relationships” with families.

Student Outcomes

Because most of their content is pushed out by schools, ed-tech platforms could be “just another way for schools to broadcast what’s going on without necessarily engaging families,” said Steven Sheldon, a research scientist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools. And because low-income parents are less likely to use the portals, he said, districts need to take care not to exclude populations with the highest needs. “These technology platforms are another way to help schools meet the letter of the law—but I don’t know that they help them meet the spirit of the law,” Sheldon said.

Parent-to-school communication platforms today come in many forms. Some of them, such as Remind, are used primarily for sending updates and reminders to parents, via in-app messaging or SMS text.

Others include parent-communication tools built within broader tech platforms. Those communication tools—such as ClassDojo, Edmodo, FreshGrade, and Seesaw—allow parents to access student work, view videos and photos from class, and receive updates on student behavior. Many also allow users to “like” or comment on posts. The platforms also have the ability to track parents’ engagement with specific content—such as student assignments, test scores, or electronic messages—at the classroom, school, and district levels.

ESSA's Expectations

Parent-engagement language in Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act requires schools and districts to make stronger efforts to reach out to all families.

From Title I, Part A, Subpart 1, Section 1116:

“A local educational agency may receive funds under this part only if such agency conducts outreach to all parents and family members and implements programs, activities, and procedures for the involvement of parents and family members in programs assisted under this part consistent with this section.”

“[E]ach school served under this part shall jointly develop with parents for all children served under this part a school-parent compact. … Such compact shall … address the importance of communication between teachers and parents on an ongoing basis through, at a minimum … ensuring regular two-way, meaningful communication between family members and school staff, and, to the extent practicable, in a language that family members can understand.

Research has shown that parent-teacher digital communication, when promoted under the right circumstances, can improve student outcomes.

A study published by Teachers College, Columbia University, earlier this year found that sending academic updates via text to parents of middle and high school students reduced course failures by 38 percent and improved student attendance by 17 percent. The effects were largest for high school students and for students with below-average GPAs. And a working paper released by Harvard University in 2014 found that weekly text updates to parents of students in a credit-recovery program resulted in a 41 percent reduction in the number of students failing to earn the necessary credits.

Technology platforms alone cannot fulfill parent-involvement requirements, but they can increase engagement and two-way communication, especially around academics, said Danielle Costello, a family- and community-engagement specialist for the Milwaukee district. In November, it started a districtwide implementation of Remind.

The Remind system “gives us an opportunity to have a dialogue with families that we don’t have in any of our current platforms, and that’s really classroom-based conversations,” she said. “It’s another tool in the toolbox.”

Costello, who is also a parent of a student in the district, uses the app to text with her preschooler’s teacher about student progress, classroom behavior, and updates on field trips or multiple cases of classroom colds.

Emily Voigtlander, the marketing and community manager for Seesaw, emphasized the opportunities ed-tech platforms present for a “frequent and more open dialogue.” Seesaw allows teachers and students to upload content to student portfolios, which parents can then view. In addition to student work, users can post photos or videos of class activities.

When students or teachers upload new content to the app, parents are notified “automatically,” said Voigtlanger. The app’s commenting and liking features mean that parents can interact with posts and respond to teachers. “Communication is a two-way street,” she said.

Wendy Thompson, a teacher who uses Seesaw in her class at A. Harry Moore School in Jersey City, N.J., said Seesaw helps her share content and updates with parents who can be hard to reach. “It’s important to keep parents aware of what’s happening, but it’s always been a difficult process,” she said. Most of her students’ parents work during the day. “We don’t have a lot of in-building parent visits.”

But persuading teachers to use new parent-communication platforms is not always easy, said Elliot Soloway, a professor of technology in education at the University of Michigan.

Requiring teachers to have digital, two-way communication with dozens of parents can be “literally unmanageable,” he said. “It sounds like a good idea, but I think in practice, it’s a really challenging idea to implement.”

Currently, Milwaukee’s districtwide implementation of the Remind system is not mandatory for schools. “We have different levels of engagement from different leaders as we’ve presented this as an option,” said Costello.

The value of different platforms is likely to vary by the type of communication they offer, said Sheldon, the Johns Hopkins researcher. Apps that share videos of class activities, for example, provide a greater depth of information about what’s going on in the classroom than a text notification and “really can provide very meaningful support,” he said.

‘The Biggest Challenge’

Yet even the most sophisticated platform can’t increase engagement if families aren’t using it, especially if they do not have access to a cellphone or computer.

Some companies say they struggle with getting families in Title I schools to sign up and log on.

Manish Kothari, the general manager of platform for Edmodo, said the company could do better in working with teachers to get parents on board. This is also an issue at Seesaw, where Voigtlander said there is “room for improvement” when it comes to connecting parents to the app for the first time.

Some of the disconnect stems from language barriers, Voigtlander added. Seesaw, like many platforms, can translate updates from teachers into other languages, but the app’s user interface is in English. Though not available currently, Voigtlander said that offering a translated sign-up could help parents “get connected more easily.”

One possible solution would be for schools and districts to do more to help parents set up and navigate accounts when using platforms that may not be “the most user-friendly or intuitive,” especially for speakers of other languages, said Sheldon. Low-income families are less likely to use parent portals, so if school districts don’t provide targeted user support, they could be excluding the very populations they’re trying to engage, he said.

Thompson was only able to get parent buy-in in her class at A. Harry Moore School after she demonstrated the Seesaw app in person.

“The biggest challenge for us was getting the parents to understand what the platform actually was,” she said, until she showed families their Seesaw accounts on her iPad at parent meetings.

“They got so excited,” said Thompson. “They were passing me their phones in the meeting saying, ‘Can you download it for me? Can you show me how to use it?’ ”

Despite the families’ eventual buy-in, Thompson still saw challenges in implementing technology-based communication, especially in schools that don’t have a consistent foundation of in-person parent interaction.

“It’s hard,” she said, “when you don’t have a real PTA and parents that are coming in and you can do training on something new.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week as Digital Tools Target ESSA Parent-Engagement Mandate


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