Parent Engagement Is the Real Key to Meaningful School Satisfaction (EdSector Archive)
A recent Gallup poll asked parents if they were satisfied with the education their children were receiving. Seventy-five percent were “completely or somewhat satisfied.” That’s up eight percentage points from the 15-year low hit in 2013, which is reason to cheer.
But as someone who has specialized in school improvement work for nearly 20 years, I see a more fundamental and more complex question that parents should answer: Are you willing to become engaged with your child’s school community? Particularly in our lowest-performing schools, parent engagement is critical.
When parents are not engaged, it opens the door to mistrust and misconceptions about what is happening at school. In their research into public education reform, University of Chicago researchers Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider found that schools with low achievement always have low levels of trust among the whole school community – including parents. Schools with high levels of achievement had high levels of trust within their educational communities.
Sometimes, problems with trust can emerge from maddeningly simple issues. One Virginia principal, worried about student safety, changed the route for cars dropping off students. Angry parents thought she was trying to block them from coming into the building.
The principal quickly met with the parents and walked them through the busy parking lot to demonstrate why the switch was necessary. The principal explained that parents were very welcome at the school -- to touch base with a teacher or have breakfast with their child among other things. Through this incident – and others like it, the parents’ relationships with the school started to grow.
Parents should feel welcomed at the school. They should be informed of their child’s progress and know that their child is safe, and that their child is receiving the best education possible. Parents need to be engaged to understand what’s happening, including understanding information that can be confusing, such as standardized test results. Parents need to measure school satisfaction in meaningful ways—beyond whether the teacher is nice or whether the school never calls about problems with their children.
A clear and effective program for communication with parents pays dividends in increasing Parent Teacher Conference attendance and participation. Student attendance goes up because students feel safer. And discipline referrals go down because parents support school polices at home, and students see a strong connection between their parents and the school.
Many school districts have online portals where parents can easily connect with classroom teachers, check on grades and homework assignments, and understand what’s expected of their children. Schools are communicating with parents through social media such as Twitter and Facebook and in languages other than English.
One middle school sent teachers to canvass the neighborhood with flyers inviting parents to the back-to-school event. Students were excited to see teachers in the neighborhood and many positive parent-teacher connections were made that lasted the school year. Another school set up a table at the weekly soccer game to share information with parents and published a schedule so everyone could see when the rotating teams of grade-level teachers would be available.
Engaging parents in the life of the school and their children’s development takes hard work. But succeeding means a school is on its way to establishing the trust essential for school improvement, higher student performance, and meaningful parent satisfaction.
Catherine Barbour is a school improvement consultant at the American Institutes for Research.