Parental Engagement: A Promise, Not a Program

Teacher engaging with family over student's work

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.

“Parental engagement” is one of those self-evidently appealing ideas for improving education. Who doesn’t want to engage parents? What child isn’t well served by more of it? Yet doing it well is hard, because it means shooting straight with parents about how their daughters and sons are performing, and committing to making hard changes and expending real resources to help those children do better. It’s not a program. It’s a promise: to be honest and do right by all kids.

Schools that take parental engagement seriously first look at how they are communicating to parents about their children. What most requires clear communication is student performance, for which there are two time-honored means of sharing news—good or bad—with moms and dads: report cards and parent-teacher conferences. Every school, then, should ask itself: are we maximizing the impact of these communications vehicles? The honest answer in many communities? Probably not.

Start with report cards. A new study by American University professor Seth Gershenson for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank I lead, examined the relationship between scores on a high school end-of-course algebra exam and student grades. While test scores and grades are certainly meant to measure different aspects of a student’s academic performance, we might be concerned if students regularly receive glowing report cards while not demonstrating proficiency on external assessments of their content knowledge.

And sure enough, that’s exactly the pattern Gershenson found. Just 3 percent of students earning a B and 21 percent of students earning an A in their algebra class reach the highest level of achievement on the exam. For students receiving Bs, the larger picture is even more concerning. More than one-third (36 percent) of students who received Bs failed to score “proficient” on the exam. Even fewer B students are meeting the “solid” level on the exam, which indicates college and career readiness. Considering that a B is generally considered to be a good grade, these findings do indeed suggest inflated grades.

Inflated grades is surely one reason why the nonprofit parent information and resource provider Learning Heroes has found that upwards of 90 percent of parents think their own kids are on track—even when data from myriad sources show that just a third of young Americans graduate from high school ready for what’s next.

Schools should look hard at the report cards they send home. Are they truthful? Candid? When kids are not on track for college or career success, do they say so? And do they provide ideas to parents on what to do—and what the school will do—to help a student get back on track?

None of that is easy, which is why genuine parental engagement is hard. It means being honest when kids are off track—and doing something to fix the problem.

Parent-teacher conferences are another opportunity. Schools should first ask whether their teachers are well prepared to run effective conferences, knowledgeable about how to discuss student performance with parents, and full of workable ideas for how families can help their kids improve. Another approach is to scrap one-on-one conferences and instead launch Academic Parent-Teacher Teams. This innovative model gets all teachers and parents in a given school working together to improve student performance. They look at school-wide performance data, dig into what the results mean, and discuss strategies to help students improve.

Like most things in education, changes like these will have greatest impact for the youngest students. Sadly, there are no really good options for high school students who are reading and doing math at a fifth-grade level. But we can do our utmost to ensure that nobody leaves fifth grade without being well prepared for what’s next. Elementary schools, then, have the greatest responsibility to give accurate information to parents, and to help kids who are behind make rapid progress every year. Thankfully, this is also the stage of life when parents feel most comfortable being involved, children are most eager to please, and most families find it easiest to work together toward common ends.

That almost every parent has high hopes for his or her kids is one of the most valuable resources we’ve got. We owe it to them to tell them, right away, when their children are not on track to achieve their dreams, and to help them—as well as their schools—nudge those young people back to where they need to be.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and an executive editor of Education Next

This essay was first published in The 74, a publication that receives philanthropic support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.