Measuring Family Engagement, Strengthening the Learning Triangle

Mother and son engaging in school

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.

If you ask an adult, “What is the education system?” they’ll typically respond, “Well, there is the superintendent, the principals, the teachers union, and so on.” But if you ask a student who helps them learn, they’ll say, “Oh that’s easy—my teachers and family.” Yet education in our country does not support students, teachers, and families functioning as a system.

At PowerMyLearning, we see the education system through students’ eyes, visualizing it as a “triangle” of learning relationships between students, families, and teachers. When students are part of a strong triangle, they have better outcomes in mastery and social emotional learning. In fact, we posit that this triangle represents the “kernel” of education: education reform efforts that do not affect this triangle will not impact student outcomes.

Since “what’s measured is what matters,” we think it’s essential to measure the learning relationships around the triangle. Many instruments already measure the teacher-student side of the triangle, such as rubrics that can be used when observing teachers in the classroom or on a recorded video. However, there are far fewer instruments to measure the family engagement portion of the triangle, which connects families to students and their teachers.

Family engagement is currently measured by looking at attendance at school events like parent-teacher conferences, sporting events, and fundraisers. These measures fall short in two ways. First, they do not measure the kind of family engagement that matters most, which research shows is efforts that support student learning at home. Second, they do not track family participation over time to see if any families are falling through the cracks.

PowerMyLearning’s Family Playlists enable educators and researchers to measure family engagement while also lighting up the whole triangle. From a family engagement lens, this is a big deal. Let’s dive into how this innovation works. Family Playlists are engaging homework assignments through which students complete a set of digital activities in school and then teach what they learned to a family partner, usually a parent, at home. Parents then provide feedback to the teacher about the experience, such as how confident the child seemed when explaining the concept. Teachers can then view data and determine how to better meet students’ academic and social and emotional needs. Here’s where the measurement breakthrough occurs: schools can use Family Playlists to track family engagement longitudinally, meaning they can see if any families are not participating at all.

Schools are excited to use Family Playlists not only because they are a great metric of family engagement, but also because they have a strong research base. Family Playlists leverage the protégé effect, which shows that students understand a concept better after explaining it to someone else. They are based on a body of research from Johns Hopkins University called TIPS (Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork). Rigorous random control studies have proven that TIPS improves student achievement and social and emotional learning (SEL) outcomes.

Working with partner schools implementing Family Playlists over the last 18 months, we found that (1) family engagement increased and (2) students teach their families SEL competencies like persistence and growth mindset. It’s hard work for students to teach their parents—some even say they take away their parents’ phones to keep them on task. However, students lean into the struggle because they feel confident teaching their parents something they don’t know.

From interviews with students, we found that trust and attachment are powerful byproducts of Family Playlists. One sixth-grade student named Binta said her mother trusts her more because she’s directly involved in her learning. She said, “Family Playlists make our bond better because we interact more. We have more fun times than we normally do. My mom used to tell me every day to study and go over my notes. Now, she trusts me and knows how well I’m doing. She likes to listen to me explain what I’m learning.”

Because we see tremendous potential in Family Playlists both for student outcomes and as a measure of family engagement, we partnered with Project Evident, a shared-services platform that provides nonprofits with resources for data, learning, and evaluation, to develop a strategic evidence plan. This plan involves a laser focus on collecting and using data to learn and evaluate.  

Moving ahead, we look forward to optimizing this innovation to measure family engagement and to enable the triangle of students, families, and teachers to function as a system.

Elisabeth Stock is CEO and cofounder of PowerMyLearning.