The Future of Parent Engagement Russ Davis Updated: August 16, 2019 Software Development, EdTech, Technology, Teachers Schools and parents don't always communicate often or well. In today’s hyper-connected society, there is no excuse for this.If you ask parents, they’ll often blame it on the school or its staff. Conversely, if you ask educators, you get the opposite — it is parents who do not get engaged. As with most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Communication is a Two-Way StreetThe fact that the school-to-home communication gap exists at all is a shame. After all, parental and educational goals are aligned. Both parties want students to succeed. In 19 years working in public education, I’ve yet to meet a parent or teacher who openly said: “I do not care about my child” or “I do not care about my students.” In fact, the research bears out that the ‘parent who doesn’t care’ is largely a myth. Overwhelmingly, parents love their children and want only the best for them. Conversely, teachers truly want their students to exit school well prepared for a better life. If the goals of these two parties are aligned, then why does the inability to communicate effectively exist in the first place? At SchoolStatus, we’ve been looking into this issue for several years. While our goal has always been helping schools gain efficiencies through data analytics, our core mission is to change education, forever. We’ve found that simply having data in one place is not a panacea of any sort. Data is only powerful when we do something with it. (In fact, if you are collecting data to make yourself feel better but aren’t doing anything with the resultant data sets, you can stop. You are doing yourself and your students a disservice.) What is parental engagement?During our research, I was surprised at the misnomer of what ‘parental engagement’ actually was. Is it attending an occasional Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) meeting? Showing up for a basketball game? How about volunteering to bake cookies? What comes to mind when you think of engaged parents? At SchoolStatus, we are fundamentally reimagining parental engagement and what it means.We believe parental engagement exhibits the following traits: 1. Student-Driven: The conversation should ultimately focus on the student and their needs. 2. Purposeful: Conversations should have a purpose, keeping ‘fluff’ to a minimum. Teachers are busy. Parents are busy. 3. Actionable: Parents should be able to take away something actionable. Vague notions of a child ‘not doing well’ should be centered on specific steps a parent can take to help the student improve his or her performance. 4. Reasonable: Both parties should be working to accomplish tasks and goals that are reasonable. Expectations should be achievable and well-meaning. Also, both parties should have reasonable expectations about responsiveness and should be respectful about holiday and time-of-day concerns. (Hey, everyone has a life outside of work, even teachers.) 5. Continual: Once the lines of communication are open, keep them that way. Parents and teachers should have a constant, open dialog that isn’t just focused on a single problem, but should encompass a student’s holistic experience in the classroom. This works out to SPARC. (We thought that was pretty clever, too.)Mo’ Money, Mo’ ProblemsIn a society where e-mail, text messaging and calling are all ubiquitous ways to communicate, why is it so difficult to get in touch with a school and speak directly to a teacher? Is it the money? In the United States alone, the Universal Service Fund (the FCC-administered fund that subsidizes K-12 telecommunication services and equipment) doles out nearly $4 billion USD annually to schools. Given the size of that investment, one would assume that schools are rapidly becoming more communicative and are overcoming serious communication hurdles; however, outside of small pockets of engaged parents and schools, that assumption has simply not proven to hold true. Is it parental connectivity? In a recent study, cell phone penetration amongst parental-age (30–49) adults in the United States was 79% with 97% of smart phone users indicating they had their phone with them frequently and have sent a text in the past week. You only need to walk into a restaurant on a Friday night and see faces illuminated in the glow of a phone screen to know connectivity is not a lasting hurdle. Parental connectivity to mobile devices is more abundant than it has ever been in human history. How about access to e-mail? I would challenge you to find a single teacher in this country who doesn’t have access to school-provided email of some kind. Conversely, weekly e-mail usage amongst adults in the United States is approaching 88.5% — more adults are online today than any time before. So just what are the problems that create barriers between teachers and parents?Barriers to Meaningful ConversationsI believe there are five barriers to meaningful conversations between school and home. 1. Time: There is not a lot of research about why teachers and parents don’t reach out more. However, a chief complaint from teachers is a lack of time during their work day. Anecdotally, one could then infer that contacting a parent takes time from their day that teachers don’t have.2. Personal Boundaries: If a teacher is to send text messages or make calls during the day, often, they’re going to end up giving up their private mobile phone number. This is problematic in several ways, the first and foremost being the inability to ‘turn off’ work — if someone can text you about a student at 11 pm, then life outside of school may suffer.3. Ease of Use: Finding contact information in a student information system (SIS) and using that information to make a call or send a message is a disjointed process. It requires multiple logins and additional (you guessed it) time. If you find yourself in a time crunch (as almost all teachers are), what is not easy, is not performed.4. Multiple Languages: The United States is often referred to as the great melting pot. This is no more apparent when you review the growth of English as a Second Language (ESL) and K-12 English Language Learners (ELL) students. Because a student speaks english, a teacher would be remiss to assume their parents do the same. Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, boasts 152,592 students whose native language isn’t english. Teachers often aren’t able to communicate with these families without the aid of native language translators.5. Accountability: For administrators in a school, it is their job to ensure the trains run on time. Part of that job is making sure parents and teachers are communicating on a regular basis. Today’s conversations happen out-of-band, meaning they’re not measured or observable outside of putting a call on speaker phone in front of an administrator. Are solutions really solutions?In search of the perfect solution to this problem, how do you avoid being sold a solution that isn’t really a solution? You can observe those around you and try to avoid making the same mistakes. It’s easy to find a webpage of a product that appears to solve every problem, but when you actually implement most solutions, you’ll find they’re often lacking.Calling and Texting Blasts: There are a number of solutions in the marketplace that claim to solve the technical issues of communicating. If a school needs to send ‘blast’ messages (call, e-mail or text), there are a multitude of products that allow for this. These products have become increasingly popular in the past few years.But is that really parental engagement? I would suggest that the answer to that question is: no. Blast services are just bullhorns. App Confusion: Just as 10 years ago many schools adopted calling and texting ‘blast’ systems, today teachers are adopting products like Remind or Classdojo. They look really snazzy.These apps usually follow the same pattern: a teacher logs in, creates a class code, parents download the app, enter this code and voilà — parental engagement, right? Not so fast.While these apps solve part of the technical issue of being able to send messages, many messages do not a meaningful conversation make. Most of these apps are being used to remind parents of an upcoming test or to notify a team soccer is cancelled. While this quacks like a duck, it’s not really a duck. Remember: engagement is not about messages, it’s about conversations that exhibit SPARC (above) — student-driven and actionable.These apps also lack the ability to use more than one medium (telephone calls, anyone?) and the conversations are generally opaque to the keepers of a school’s cultural flame: principals.Email: As I mentioned above, e-mail penetration is virtually 100% in schools across the United States. Super resourceful teachers may gather a list of parental e-mail addresses and set up a list in Google apps. What’s the harm in that?From the teacher side: if you’ve ever attempted to gather a list of e-mail addresses and manage them, you know the first obvious problem. It’s a technical challenge reserved for the ‘techies’ in a school. In order to garner this information from a school’s SIS, it usually requires district action which is typically impractical on a local level.From the parent side: once you receive an e-mail using a broad list, often teachers make the mistake of putting every address in the To: field. This exposes your e-mail address to every other parent (yay) and becomes a real treat when someone clicks ‘Reply-All’. Let the games begin.A Real SolutionAt SchoolStatus we’ve built a real solution that meets the needs of teachers, parents, and principals while ensuring engagements meet the needs of real engagement — SPARC.Parental engagement works in poor and wealthy communities alike. There’s a great body of research that confirms this — all schools need the tools to increase parental engagement and help students succeed.