Teachers are the number one school-level influence on children’s educational outcomes, and accordingly many education reform efforts focus on improving the teaching force. A much less often cited fact, however, is that the number one influence overall on children’s educational outcomes is their family. In other words, if we just look at what happens in school, it’s teachers that matter most. But overall, children’s resources, support, encouragement, and expectations from home are what matter most in determining their educational and life outcomes.

Given how much the outcomes that matter to schools and teachers depend on children’s families, it seems only natural that schools and teachers should prioritize efforts to develop tight partnerships with their students’ families. Research shows that parent involvement makes a significant difference in how well children do in school.

One of the core findings from our research on innovation is that to improve the performance of a system, you need to integrate across the performance-defining components of that system. Unfortunately, creating tighter integration between some of the key performance-defining components in education—such as teachers and parents—has long been a challenge under the traditional model of schooling.

As I experienced first-hand during my time as a teacher, many of the traditional parent engagement strategies often fall short at fostering strong home and school connections. Schools hold back-to-school nights and open houses, but a substantial number of families don’t show up, often because of scheduling complications with work or other activities. Schools send home progress reports and grades every six to eight weeks to inform parents in broad brushstrokes how their children are doing in school, but these reports are typically only a triage of forgone learning opportunities and offer little to help parents identify what actions they can take to help their children master specific learning objectives. Teachers sometimes call parents or schedule parent conferences, but these time-intensive activities are hard to keep up on a regular basis and therefore are typically used only when a student is hitting major behavior or learning roadblocks.

From a parent’s’ perspective—as I’ve realized from sending my own son to kindergarten this year—school often seems like a black box. You can ask your child what he did in school that day, but his answers tend to focus on who he played with at recess or a funny story from class, not on which learning objectives he worked on that day. You can email or call the teacher to ask what portion of the curriculum she is covering and how your child is performing, but frequent emails like that are difficult for teachers to keep up with. Instead, the norm is for parents to drop off their children at school with a completed homework folder and then trust that the teacher will take care of the rest and only be in touch if major issues come up before the next report card or parent-teacher conference.

We can imagine an ideal scenario where teachers have strong relationships with each of their students’ families and communicate with parents on a daily basis. With this hypothetical ideal, parents and teachers would discuss the learning objectives a student is working on, share insights on the student’s needs both in class and at home, and then coordinate their efforts to support the student. But the reality is that teachers and parents have a lot to juggle, and it’s practically impossible to maintain that type of communication as frequently as would be ideal.

Fortunately, new innovations are starting to break the logistical barriers that have historically prevented close coordination between teachers and parents.

For one, apps like Kinvolved and ParentLink simplify the logistics of communication between parents and schools. Teachers may not have time to call or conference with every parent, but tools such as these streamline teachers’ abilities to communicate quickly and directly with parents. A recent study found that an intervention as simple as bi-monthly text messages to parents about students’ grades and attendance helped to boost student achievement, as well as increase parents’ likelihood of initiating contact with the school.

Additionally, as schools increasingly adopt online learning, many online-learning management systems allow parents to log in to see a dashboard of their students’ learning progress. With this kind of information, parents can see exactly where their students are excelling or struggling and seek ways to support them with whatever current needs they face, rather than sitting in the dark until the next report card.

Finally, the opportunity I find most promising is not a technology, but the blended-learning models that technology enables. At the Christensen Institute, we’ve written often about how blended-learning models can free up teachers’ time for the typical tasks of whole group lesson planning and delivery so that they can have more personal, one-on-one interactions with their students. The same can also be true for teachers’ interaction with parents. In a Flex, A La Carte, or Enriched Virtual blended-learning model where the teachers’ day isn’t booked with class period blocks, there can be more opportunities for teachers to allocate time for parent communication.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.