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.
Years ago, I knew a woman who led her parent teacher organization and volunteered at her daughter’s school on an almost daily basis. I’ll call her Toni. By every definition, she was a highly engaged parent.
When Toni’s daughter was in fourth grade, a new principal started going through academic data with each family. Toni couldn’t believe what she saw—her daughter was only reading on a second-grade level. Toni came to me that afternoon with tears in her eyes and said, “This cannot be true. I’ve been at this school every day since my daughter was in kindergarten, and they told me she was doing great.”
For months afterward, I couldn’t get that story out of my head. This was a school that was facing closure due to a lack of academic progress, and for years, Toni had been right there—ready to help at the slightest sign her daughter was struggling. But no one had bothered to tell her the truth.
Toni sprang into action. A few months later, she told me that she had set up a little desk in her kitchen. Every night, as Toni was making dinner, her daughter read to her, and over time, she made her way up to grade level.
Sharing data, inspiring action
Education transformation efforts will only be successful when families and community members are deeply involved in naming the challenges children face and creating solutions that work for their own unique communities. But families can’t play that critical role unless they know whether their children are on track to achieve their goals.
Far too many districts are lying to parents and students about whether children are meeting critical benchmarks for success. In TNTP’s new report, The Opportunity Myth, we learned that while the vast majority of students (71 percent) succeeded on their assignments, they met grade-level standards on only 17 percent of those assignments. That was Toni’s experience. Her daughter received good grades, so Toni assumed everything was going well.
To change the game, it’s critical that schools share accurate information about how children are doing and alert families early on when students aren’t meeting their goals. But most of the time, teacher preparation programs don’t make these skills a priority.
A few years ago, TNTP got a chance to help change the paradigm. We worked with the state of Nevada to become the first non–higher-education operator to provide family engagement training to aspiring teachers. Our approach focused on three district priorities.
First, our participants engaged in a deep reflection of their own values and biases. Participants considered how their identity and lived experiences affect their interactions, reflected on the origin of biases, and techniques for creating more welcoming, inclusive classrooms. This is a particularly important step at a time when 80 percent of teachers are white, and nearly 50 percent of students are people of color. Even as we work to diversify the teacher workforce, we also must work with educators to help them understand the role of implicit bias.
Next, our participants learned about the unique context and history of the community they served. Communities are not monolithic. To engage families and community partners, it’s critical to have a clear understanding of a community’s overall history, particularly the history of race relations, economic and political disenfranchisement, and unfulfilled promises. In our training, we brought families and community members into the room to educate us about the history and strengths of their unique community—and we took teachers out into the community to walk neighborhoods and see where students and families spend their time.
Finally, the participants learned practical skills for engaging families and community members. We provided tools and templates to help new teachers take action on what they’ve learned. These included parent surveys, guides for creating community asset maps, and action plans to make the most of parent-teacher conferences. We also spent a lot of time practicing proactive, positive, and culturally proficient communications with families. Teachers role-played conversations and practiced overcoming communication challenges and potential language barriers with parents while receiving real-time feedback.
Intentional support for students, teachers, and families
Throughout the training, we followed best practices for adult learning: sharing new skills, helping participants practice those skills and receive feedback, and then providing ongoing support throughout the year. We set up an online community where teachers could share tips and resources, and then at critical times of the year (e.g., the week before parent-teacher conferences or midyear progress reports), we provided extra resources and supports.
Prior to our training program, only 75 percent of aspiring teachers believed families wanted to be involved in their children’s education. After one year, 95 percent of teachers believed every family wanted to be involved, and 95 percent of participants reported that they had shared academic and behavioral data with their students.
To engage families and communities in an authentic manner, we must work differently than we have in the past. We need to support students, families, and teachers with the same degree of intentionality by building strong relationships, helping them set goals, monitoring progress, and sharing data regularly. We need to coordinate closely with community partners to share data trends and brainstorm about how to leverage the community’s unique strengths to close equity gaps. Only when we are all working toward the same vision of success will we truly move the needle for children.
In the words of one of my education heroine, Nedgine Paul Deroly, our entire communities are the unit of change, and they must also be the source for solutions.
Kenya Bradshaw is TNTP’s vice president of policy and community engagement. She oversees TNTP’s strategy to support schools in dramatically transforming their approach to family and community engagement.