As an educator and parent, I’m always excited by the back-to-school season. I love meeting new families and helping students grow and develop as they learn new skills.
The start of this school year is even more exciting than usual because it’s the beginning of a new era for our nation’s classrooms. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — the new federal law governing K-12 education — goes into effect this year.
While many teachers, students and parents won’t see immediate change in their schools and classrooms, states are actively working to create new education plans to implement ESSA that we hope will soon make high-quality, well-rounded education a reality for every child.
For the first time, ESSA acknowledges the critical role parents and other stakeholders play in student success and school improvement efforts by requiring that they be involved in the development of new education plans and implementation of the law.
Parents and their children are the consumers of our nation’s public education system, and parents have always been essential partners in education. However, they haven’t always been included at the decision-making table. This has caused confusion, mistrust and backlash when new initiatives — whether at the federal, state or local level — have been considered and implemented. ESSA now provides a unique opportunity for parents and families to give their input and to hold states and districts accountable for their children’s educational experience.
So how should states, districts and schools engage families in implementing ESSA? I have four suggestions.
First, invite families to participate. It seems basic, but many families do not feel welcome or know that the law requires that states and districts involve them in developing new education plans. Education leaders should use a variety of communications channels to reach out to parents and share ways they can get involved. Educators can also rely on a trusted messenger — such as PTAs — to communicate better with families.
Second, make messages to parents easy to digest. Most parents do not come to the table with expertise in education policy, but they are experts on their children. It is important that educational jargon is explained in simple terms — how does this affect my child and what can I do? Families must also be provided greater context about current policy and programs to understand ESSA’s impact on existing practices and future policies.
Next, translate materials to reach all families. It is essential that ESSA-related materials be translated into at least one of a community’s most popular languages other than English. Although it takes time and resources, this demonstrates a commitment to making sure all parents and families have the information they need to support their child’s learning and development.
Finally, demonstrate why family participation matters. If families are included in all stages of ESSA implementation, they will understand the ways it relates not just to their children but to every child in the community, the state and across the country. Mechanisms should be provided to allow parents to give regular feedback, and education decision-makers must listen when they do. When all voices are heard and valued, everyone’s engagement rises and consensus is easier to achieve.
ESSA provides an important opportunity for every part of every community to unite in designing the best education system possible for our nation’s children. But for education to be truly successful, family engagement must go beyond ESSA. Forty years of research proves that family engagement makes a real difference, so states and districts must prioritize it. Systematic and sustained efforts to integrate families into the fabric of our schools is key to our nation’s future.
Laura Bay is president of National Parent Teacher Association (National PTA), a nonprofit association dedicated to promoting children’s health, well-being and educational success through family and community involvement. This essay is part of a series on parent engagement produced by the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York.