I vividly recall the first week of March 2020. I was visiting my family in Dallas, TX over Spring Break when we learned that the coronavirus outbreak was spreading like wildfire and schools would immediately close their doors. Unbeknownst to me, my three children wouldn’t have the opportunity to return to their physical classrooms that year to finish off PreK, 3rd grade, and 5th grade, respectively. And across the nation, the imminent stress of parents learning how to juggle full-time jobs with kids at home in limited home spaces, with limited technology tools, and with limited awareness of what our own children needed from us was palpable—and deeply anxiety provoking.
Within months, Learning Heroes, a national organization that provides actionable insights based on survey data to empower parents, began to validate the confusion and uncertainty parents and guardians, including myself, had about the fate of our children’s schooling. This time last year, I was reflecting on their initial survey results from May 2020 and published a blog calling for schools to rethink family-school engagement in light of parents’ responses that revealed a lack of guidance from schools.
Last month, Learning Heroes released results from their most recent parent survey. Across the surveys implemented through this ongoing pandemic (May 2020, February 2021, and December 2021) I noticed significant shifts in what’s keeping parents up at night. I also noticed a convergence of goals between parents and educators over time. This longitudinal data offers valuable insights and lessons that can be applied to guide family engagement efforts into 2022 and beyond, particularly between schools and families of color. Here are three takeaways that stood out the most to me as I continue navigating my own children’s learning this year:
1. Parents need an accurate picture of their child’s achievement.
This first wave of nationwide surveys in May 2020 of over 3,600 parents and guardians of students in K–12 public schools revealed that despite increased school-family engagement, parents reported an inflated view of their child’s academic performance. One year later, data from the February 2021 survey suggests parents’ confidence in understanding their child’s achievement deteriorated. Fast forward to the current academic year, and significant gaps remain between parent and teacher perceptions of students’ academic performance. More than 9 in 10 parents (92%) think that their child is at/above grade level, while only 44% of teachers believe that their students are prepared for grade-level work.
For me, getting an accurate picture of my children’s learning is critical. My four-year-old, for example, wasn’t yet able to consistently write her alphabet, let alone read age-appropriate books when the pandemic first hit. I needed a solid grounding on her strengths and weaknesses in order to support her effectively at home, and I didn’t come to this awareness until after COVID-19 pushed my children out of the classroom. Without an accurate picture of students’ achievement, parents can’t adequately support their children’s learning.
In a recent 74 interview, Bibb Hubbard, president of Learning Heroes said, “Parents…rely on state report cards to understand their children’s progress in school” and “[they] want the truth, even if it isn’t good news.” Moving forward, schools’ family engagement efforts should ensure that parents and guardians have the context and insights then need to accurately interpret and find meaning in their children’s academic data in order to partner effectively with schools and support learning. The opportunity, therefore, is for schools to deliver any potentially upsetting news on their children’s progress now for the sake of building trust long-term.
2. Parents need a more solid foundation of trust in schools.
As families headed into the 2021-2022 holiday season, the majority overwhelmingly identified the safety and security of their children and school staff as their top priority. Families also reported the development of the whole child and their child’s academic progress as ongoing priorities. While these themes have remained consistent since the start of the pandemic, an increasing number of parents report these as top priority concerns—meaning the strategies (or potential lack thereof) on many schools’ parts to alleviate these concerns aren’t working
This current year in particular, with the all-too-often lack of transparency on COVID-related decisions and ongoing debates about critical race theory, families report that having politicians who aren’t educators making decisions about what students learn in the classroom as their number one concern.
These worries and apprehensions seem to be rooted in a deeper problem: the growing mistrust between families and schools. In my own research on family engagement models, one theme emerges consistently: effective family engagement hinges on trust and reciprocity between families and schools, not simply disseminating information.
“Families…are looking to next year as an opportunity to engage even more deeply with their children’s teachers and schools,” Hubbard has emphasized since day one of the pandemic. “This is a moment to establish clear expectations for parent-teacher relationships grounded in trust and a shared understanding of the child’s progress and academic achievement.”
3. Parents and teachers must harness their shared agreement on priorities.
The good news is that the December 2021 survey data revealed that parents and educators are aligned on what is most important for students right now: their safety and security, making progress academically, and addressing their mental health and wellbeing.
This tight agreement can serve as a powerful foundation for building deep, two-way engagement efforts between parents and educators to ensure students receive the support they need. For example, Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit working to close the literacy gap by closing the gap between home and school, coaches teachers to deliver high-quality literacy instruction and trains parents as literacy coaches. “Teachers and parents have a goal in common—students’ educational success—and they need each other to accomplish it,” asserted Alejandro Gibes de Gac, founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative. “Teachers are the experts on instruction. Parents are the experts on their children, accumulating a wealth of knowledge about their children as learners,” he said. The power of these partnerships lies not only in strengthening the parent-teacher relationships, but in the parent-child relationship at home.
As my own family and families across the nation continue to grapple with the uncertainty of the pandemic, one thing is clear: current challenges have activated parents’ desire for engagement in unprecedented ways. In fact, 93% of parents this year commit to being as involved or more compared to last year when their child was learning at home. For me, having had to take the lead in teaching my own daughter how to read, and navigating my eldest on the emotional rollercoaster of starting middle school with a mask, I remain in deep gratitude to the teachers who prioritized building a relationship with my family to better understand and support my children’s needs.
But as the pandemic continues, and as Learning Heroes’ surveys reveal, there’s room for continued improvement in school-family engagement. As families, students, and educators enter year three, now is the time to turn these valuable insights into actionable strategies.