As of the first weeks of the school year, parents and teachers at 35,000 schools nationwide have been communicating via text messages translated into 108 languages. The platform they use, created by the education technology nonprofit TalkingPoints, has seen a fifteen-fold increase in activity over last year, a spike driven by the COVID-19 pandemic as families and faculty wrestle with keeping students on track in a time of social distancing, remote teaching, and other stresses.
For TalkingPoints founder HeeJae Lim, the circumstances that led to the platform’s newfound popularity are devastating, but the dramatic increase is cause for optimism about the future of education in the U.S. “It tells me that people are getting on board with the idea that families who know what’s going on in their schools and have meaningful relationships with teachers are in a better position to support their kids’ learning,” says Lim.
The news we’re hearing from TalkingPoints and other Carnegie Corporation of New York education grantees gives us reason for hope, too. It speaks to an emerging focus on the home-to-school connection, something we’ve long believed is key to strengthening K-12 education. Teachers, families, and other stakeholders are realizing that in the age of COVID, education cannot happen unless parents are true collaborators in their kids’ education. This new attitude may have been born of necessity, but it has the potential to create lasting changes.
This shift in thinking will improve chances for success for all students: Research commissioned by the Corporation shows that family engagement is one of the biggest factors in educational outcomes across the board, but especially for students of color, low-income students, students who are undocumented or live with family who are undocumented, and students whose families speak languages other than English in the home.
Family engagement is therefore a matter of equity as much as education — an increasingly urgent concern, due to the pandemic. According to a study released in April by the Northwest Evaluation Association, students were expected to return to school in the fall with significant learning loss — up to 30 percent in reading skills and over 50 percent in math, especially among Black and Latino students. Getting them back on track will involve parents and caregivers as much as teachers.
What does meaningful family engagement look like? Two of the most important issues schools must address are these: First, parents and caregivers need a much clearer idea of how their kids are doing. Second, families need access to technology and avenues of communication that allow for meaningful conversations with teachers.
We work with scores of educational nonprofits that are redirecting their efforts to develop solutions to the problems caused by the pandemic. Two examples include Student Achievement Partners, an organization that advises educators on how to best align their teaching to academic standards in math and literacy, and Seek Common Ground, a group that empowers families and advocacy organizations to have a greater voice in educational policy and practice in their communities. Knowing that families were overwhelmed last spring by the sheer amount of information schools were sending them, these two organizations teamed up to create grade-specific family guides that provide a clear outline of what students are expected to learn this school year, online resources that match the most important content, and everyday activities that reinforce learning. With this information, parents also have a tool to help them advocate for their children.
Due to the new emphasis on digital learning platforms, some families are being left behind — especially those who do not regularly work with computers, who speak languages other than English at home, or who rely on elderly caregivers to supervise their kids’ learning. Common Sense Media, which assists educators in teaching students how to become responsible consumers and creators of digital information, is working within communities to make broadband available to lower-income students. Meanwhile, the boots-on-the-ground advocacy group Innovate Public Schools is helping parents, who may have spent little time on computers, set up a Zoom call or join a virtual classroom.
Another reason for optimism at this moment is that families are uniquely receptive to developing stronger relationships with their schools and teachers in order to weather the current crisis. A recent study by Learning Heroes found that parents and caregivers are determined to get more involved with their children’s education, to work closely with their schools, and to communicate effectively with teachers. In May, 67 percent said they felt more connected with their child’s day-to-day education than ever before, and 70 percent wanted to know more about lessons their children had missed and how their schools planned to recover that lost ground.
We see all this as evidence of the increasing importance of family engagement. The time is now, says Lim, who expects TalkingPoints’ user numbers to continue to climb. “It may have happened because of the shock to the system that the coronavirus represents,” says Lim, “but it’s resulting in changes in behaviors and mindsets that I believe are here to stay.
The problems are daunting, but the will to solve them creatively and collaboratively shows promise for long-term gains. Let’s not miss this opportunity.
Ambika Kapur is the program officer responsible for Carnegie Corporation of New York’s portfolio of family engagement grants. LaVerne Evans Srinivasan is the vice president of the Corporation’s National Program and the director of the Education Program.
This article was first published on 74millon.org, a news site focused on education that receives philanthropic support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.