When Engaging Parents in School Reform, One Size Does Not Fit All
by Jeremiah Hess
Those of us who operate in the K-12 education arena talk a lot about how important parents are to a child's education and to making schools better. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked last year: "Promoting a community culture, where educational improvement is everyone's responsibility, is our great national mission." And parents can play a key role in promoting and sustaining that culture. But what will it take to tap into parents' full potential as partners in education improvement?
From our past research it seems clear enough that parents want schools to serve their children well and don’t believe those schools can do it alone. Our new survey of parents in Kansas City, summarized in the report “Ready, Willing, and Able,” adds a wrinkle: parents differ (often dramatically) in how they seek to be involved, and school leaders who are serious about making parents partners should be prepared to meet them where they are.
In this new research, we identified three groups of parents, each unique in preference and readiness to get involved:
Potential transformers stand out as the group most likely to brave the bureaucracy of school policymaking.
These parents tell us they are perfectly comfortable to act as advocates for broader school reform. They are ready to contact district officials and the media to discuss local school problems and to represent parents on committees that shape school policies. In our current study, 3 in 10 parents fell in this group.
Still, very few have actually been involved in these ways. Providing real opportunities for them to get more involved—and supporting their efforts to organize themselves—is an important step towards unearthing parents’ power in school improvement.
We think they’d get the support of other parents, too: even though the majority of parents don't feel comfortable getting involved as transformers, two-thirds in our survey believed that parent advocates have the ability to make a difference.
Reaching parents can’t stop there, though.
School helpers are a second group of parents with more to give.
When you need support in more traditional parent roles in a school—help for teachers in the classroom, volunteers for an event, or more support for a PTA—these are the parents to find. Though school helpers leave advocacy and school policy matters to others, all of these parents feel they could be doing more for their school– an obvious call, we think, for leaders to track these parents down.
Even reaching the school helpers doesn’t exhaust a principals’ and teachers’ options.
Help seekers deserve some special attention.
These parents are concerned about their own child’s learning and seem particularly hungry for more support from schools in helping their child do well. They aren’t likely to respond to calls for collective action, and probably won’t have the time or inclination to volunteer more at their school. Yet every single one of these parents told us there was still “work to be done” teaching their child to do their best in school, and teachers and school leaders are likely to make progress with them by supporting those efforts at home.
Utilizing parents as a powerful resource
In total, these three groups (a full 78 percent of parents surveyed) are a valuable yet untapped resource for diverse, powerful and effective parent engagement. To draw on these parents more effectively, leaders must understand that different parents will respond to a different set of appeals. Our report provides some specific strategies for each of the groups the research identified.
Yet, some principles for parent engagement are universal. For example, education leaders should begin engaging parents by listening to them and understanding their needs. Clearly communicating what exactly a school, a district or a particular teacher needs from parents to succeed is also important. As one Kansas City father told us:
"Parents don’t understand that their presence makes a difference. Schools aren’t getting that message out. Even when my school was going through its worst times, they didn’t get the message out that they needed help from the community."
There’s hope, though: parents are by no means hostile to their schools. In fact, parents across the country have told us—for this and other studies in the past—that they don’t think of their child’s school as just a service provider; they value its place in their community, trust their teachers and respect principals who return phone calls. In the Kansas City region, 77 percent of parents felt that their principals and teachers were well-connected to their communities, and just over half said they wouldn’t leave their school “even if money was not an issue”).
In spite of their concerns and complaints, parents want their schools to succeed and are aware that they need to be part of that success. For school leaders, developing relationships at this level is always possible, and it’s an ideal first step towards creating Secretary Duncan’s “community culture.”
But we think that transformers, school helpers, and help seekers can be found in any school, and we hope that the pressures of constant change haven’t made education leaders forget about simply making parents feel welcome. As one mother reminded us:
“I love it when teachers thank me for coming. I love it when the principal says, ‘Glad to see you. Hope to see you again.'”
Leaders should only remember that with parents, just as with students, one size doesn't fit all.