Breaking Down Barriers Between Educators and Families Through Technology

Mother helps daughter with homework

This essay is part of a series of responses from education leaders to a Carnegie Corporation-commissioned challenge paper on the importance of family engagement in student success.

One in four children in the United States is born to an immigrant family, according to the Casey Foundation, and there will be 40 million children born to immigrant or underserved families by 2030. These children are becoming one of the fastest growing student demographics, with states in the South and Southeast seeing the number of English Language Learner students double year after year. Yet school systems, educators, and communities are not adequately prepared or resourced for this pace of change. Only about two-thirds of English Language Learner students graduate high school, a rate nearly 20 percent lower than their English-speaking immigrant peers.

We at TalkingPoints believe this problem is solvable. It’s proven that parental engagement has a stronger positive impact on student success than even factors like socioeconomic status. Having been an English Language Learner myself, I would not be writing this piece (in English!) had it not been for my own mother, who was able to engage in my education and become a parent leader in the Korean immigrant community I grew up in. Two decades later, with accessible technology in the classroom, and mobile phones in the hands of nearly every student’s parent, we can create a communication bridge that connects communities, shifts mind-sets, and builds knowledge and skills for multilingual families. We do this through a multilingual family engagement platform powered by artificial intelligence and human two-way translation and supported through coaching for educators and parents. We’re seeing demand for support increase across the country, especially in states with fast-growing immigrant populations such as Georgia, the Carolinas, Texas, Colorado, and Tennessee, in addition to traditionally underserved, diverse school districts like those in New York City and California.

If we want to increase student success, the school community must be able to meet parents where they are to build trusting, caring, and empowering relationships that transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. The first step to human connection is accessible communication, which in turn gives teachers and schools the opportunity to partner with parents in building shared goals around students’ success. As Nelson Mandela said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

At TalkingPoints, we have facilitated over 5 million conversations for a quarter of a million families across the country through a web and mobile application and text messages in parents’ home languages. One of the most common reactions from parents is one of gratitude. Families appreciate and act on equitable access to information—when asked what kind of information they’d like more of, the most popular response was “please tell me everything, or anything.”  When communications are in their native language, family members are more informed, and they feel welcomed and included in their community—more than 90 percent of families who use TalkingPoints become more engaged with their school (and more broadly, civic) communities. This impact ranges from increased attendance at events and volunteering to having more conversations about school at home, leading to improved student outcomes.

Increased partnerships between parents and teachers have led to fourfold increases in homework assignment completion, with even more significant gains for at-risk students. It also has resulted in more engaged students in classrooms and a dramatic gain in reading participation for parents at home—which has increased up to six times, extending students’ learning time. Above and beyond improved learning outcomes, students feel safer and more stable when they do not have to play “adult” in relaying information or serving as the bridge between their two worlds—school and home.

TalkingPoints has played a particularly important role with refugee students. Trusting relationships mean that educators are able to tap into the wealth of information and knowledge from families that aid their teaching—for example, we had a Yemeni refugee student’s father share with her English as Second Language teacher that despite being 10, this student had never had a formal education while living in a refugee camp. Without the information shared through TalkingPoints, the Yemeni student most likely would have been placed in remedial classes, significantly diminishing her chances of catching up to her peers.

Being able to engage with the school communities in their own time, in their own languages, empowers and stabilizes families above and beyond student-learning outcomes. For example, a Hispanic parent in Oakland told us that her relationship with her Spanish-speaking, less-educated husband changed after he started receiving information about what was happening at school in Spanish through TalkingPoints. He was able to help out, become more involved, share the responsibility of attending school events and parent meetings, and help make sure their children were doing well in school. Since the school is now sending information in both English and Spanish, the couple is able to work as a team.

Of course, removing language barriers is just the first step to meaningfully engaging underserved, diverse parents. Mutual misconceptions, limited education backgrounds and knowledge, as well as skewed mind-sets, remain critical barriers. Parents and teachers often have misconceptions about each other, especially if they’re coming from different backgrounds. Parents in low-income communities often are not highly educated or do not understand how the school system works if they haven’t gone through it themselves. A common request to educators from parents is to suggest tangible and actionable ways on how they can help their child. They might not have had good experiences in schools themselves, which skews their perceptions and attitudes about the education system. These critical barriers, however, represent big opportunities for technology to shift mind-sets and build knowledge and skills for both educators and students’ families.

So where are we taking this? Teachers and parents both need additional support to overcome barriers to meaningful engagement. Teachers tell us they'd like more support in engaging with families of diverse backgrounds, especially in the absence of professional development targeted towards family engagement. Parents tell us they’d like more information on how to work with their child at home, and for those who didn't attend school in the U.S., how the American education system works, and how they can help.

There is a huge role that accessible technology can play in bridging these gaps, as well as in personalizing education and coaching for teachers and parents to guide them in a timely, relevant, yet actionable way. Technology has opened up access to better data collection and easier ways to provide targeted information, thanks to machine learning and natural language processing. By leveraging those tools, we can help school communities build trusted relationships with parents so that they can work towards the shared goal of helping their students feel supported to learn, grow, and succeed, whether in the U.S. or around the world.

At TalkingPoints, we’re unlocking the untapped potential of human connections between educators and families in making a difference for students’ learning outcomes and in empowering families, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in our communities.

A former English Language Learner, Heejae Lim is the CEO and founder of TalkingPoints, a technology-driven nonprofit with a mission to unlock the potential of families and human connections for student learning. 

This essay is an adaption of a version published by The 74, a publication that receives philanthropic support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.