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Making Voices HEARD to Build Stronger School Communities

The Power of Parents

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Parents are a child’s first and life-long teachers, and their involvement in their child’s education at school is one of the most accurate predictors of student achievement (Natl. PTA, 2000). Regardless of family income or background, students whose parents are involved in their schooling are more likely to attend school regularly, do better in school, and enjoy school more (Mapp, 2002).

But despite the impact parents have on student success, family engagement is one of the most neglected supports for children’s learning at school (Weiss, 2009). In fact, a monitoring report issued in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education found that family engagement was the weakest area of compliance by states. 

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Most parents believe they can make a difference in their child’s learning and yearn to be more involved at school, but schools often fail to inform parents on what their children are learning, how they are performing, and how parents can help them do better (Public Agenda, 2011).

> Only 4 out of 10 families report receiving a phone call from school about their child over the preceding year (Noel, 2016).

> 60% of secondary parents feel their child’s teacher did not adequately inform them about classroom happenings and requirements (NSPRA, 2011).

> Only 22% of parents could name a basic milestone that their child should have learned in the past year (Public Agenda, 2011).

When it comes to parents’ satisfaction with their child’s school, family engagement is the biggest driver of overall satisfaction. Yet only one-third of parents feel very satisfied with family engagement at school (Mattal, 2017).  

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Engaging Black and Hispanic families is even more critical, as a student’s race and immigrant status have been shown to be factors in whether or not teachers contact their parents. Math teachers are more likely to contact parents of Black and Latino youth about disruptive behavior than parents of White youth; math and English teachers are less likely to contact immigrant Asian parents about academic and behavioral concerns, even when students are struggling; and teachers are less likely to contact minority parents with news of accomplishments (Anderson, 2016).

Yet, 75% of Black and 67% of Hispanic parents say a parent can never be too involved in a child’s education (even after controlling for differences in educational attainment). About half of White parents (47%) agree (Pew, 2015).

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Relationships Matter

Parents are not alone. K-12 teachers cite a lack of parent involvement in the classroom as a top three source of frustration and nearly all want parents to get involved in their classroom by “communicating regularly” with them (Univ. of Phoenix, 2014). The teacher-parent partnership is key to family engagement, which positively impacts student achievement. A University of Chicago study following 400 schools found significant academic gains by students in schools that prioritized relationship building between families and teachers, compared with schools that didn’t.

Barriers to Engagement

Project Appleseed highlights ineffective school communication, insufficient teacher training, and a lack of trust between teachers and parents as barriers.

Dr. Karen Mapp has also written: “[family engagement] mandates are often predicated on a fundamental assumption: that the educators and families charged with developing effective partnerships between home and school already possess the requisite skills, knowledge, confidence, and belief systems to successfully implement and sustain these important home–school relationships.” She explains how this is flawed:

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Instead of promoting equal partnerships at a systemic level, these many family engagement initiatives default to simply one-way communication (SEDL, 2013).

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Can Technology Play a Role in Family Engagement?

It takes both teacher and administrator time to keep parents informed. Similarly, parents juggle work, family organization, and communication commitments to their children’s schools. Technology is increasingly being used to facilitate the regular communication that teachers want with families.

Recent studies show it can also make a difference in relationship building and student learning outcomes. Text messaging centered on educational goals between parents and teachers was shown to boost student academic outcomes – i.e., GPA and tests scores (Wood, 2017). One study showed students get more homework done when parents and teachers emailed each other (Kraft, 2014). These studies are limited to email or text communication. As technology plays a more pervasive role in family-teacher communication, the need to determine the most effective way for teachers to engage families using technology-mediated communication will be critical.

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Theory of Change

HEARD is designed around a theory of change that 1) enabling and encouraging two-way communication between teachers and families and among families and 2) facilitating family engagement in student learning will build trust, collaboration and self-efficacy that improves parent-teacher partnerships around student learning, which increases student success in school communities.

How HEARD Works

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Schools use a variety of different channels to communicate with and organize families. Taken together, these channels create an unmanageable volume of communication for teachers and families, making it hard to filter what’s important and engage effectively.

HEARD is a private social network that consolidates many of these channels into one multi-purpose hub. Accessible on any device and in any language, HEARD enables a school community to connect, communication, collaborate, and make home-school connections. 

Getting started on HEARD takes minutes.  A user signs up or joins via an invite, completes a profile, and can begin posting. HEARD’s interface works like a familiar social networking site with a main content feed users can scroll through and filter by the kind of post.

Members can post, comment, reply privately, and share photos, files, and links. Above the feed is a search bar to quickly access any content. The menu left of the main feed, lets users send private messages as well as access a calendar, photo albums, and their groups.

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HEARD organizes communication and activity by groups. Each school typically has a school-wide group, grade and class groups, and groups for committees, clubs, and sports teams. Members can view activity for only the groups to which they are invited. Schools can fundraise, and users can access links to other online resources, making HEARD a place to access everything.

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At the top right, users can access their profile. Profiles make up the school’s online directory, enabling members to reach each other and keep contact details private (A). Here, users can also change how often they want to receive email notifications (B), opt-in to receive a Daily or Weekly Digest, select their preferred language (C), provide feedback, or access the online Help Center (D). Next to the profile is the Create button (E) where users can create a post, photo album, calendar event, urgent announcement, or create a group. An Announcement is also where users can create a special post – e.g., newsletter, volunteer or conference sign up, or poll.

HEARD helps create efficiencies for teachers by:

  1. Ensuring all families are being reached via translation and a read receipt dashboard.

  2. Facilitating real-time updates of class learning, requiring less time than newsletters. 

  3. Reducing repeat communication by enabling parents to communicate with each other. Teachers have an entire class of parents to help answer questions they typically get -- whether it’s a lost homework assignment or confirming an event time. 

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Feedback and Focus Groups

A December 2017 feedback survey of teachers on HEARD showed that 100 percent of teachers surveyed said they would recommend HEARD to a fellow educator and 83% said HEARD met their needs “very well” or “extremely well.” Teachers agreed HEARD enables parent engagement (89%), is an effective tool in communicating with parents (83%), and supports home-school connections (78%).

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A focus group with Spanish-speaking families showed that families like seeing what’s happening in class via HEARD and want more communication about learning concepts and how to support children at home. An English-speaking family focus group revealed that getting updates from the class and shared articles from other parents was the most useful aspect of HEARD and the level of detail teachers used when posting about class learning was the most liked aspect of HEARD.  


Engaging More Families

For schools wanting to engage families, this can take various forms -- from creating better communication with families, creating a more welcoming school culture, hosting community events, inviting parents into policy decisions.

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Some family engagement strategies often involve providing lists of items and activities for teachers to use to reach out to families and for families to do with their children. While this information dissemination strategy gives staff and families skills and tools, teachers and parents also need the opportunity to practice what they learn and receive feedback and coaching from each other, peers, and facilitators.

Some schools and teachers get the help of family engagement organizations -- like Families in Schools. These organizations provide teacher training, support teachers in facilitating in-person home visits, and in-person parent education. They also help to further the research and belief that a student’s learning should be a partnership between schools and families.

The U.S. Department of Education and Dr. Karen Mapp’s dual-capacity building framework for family-school partnerships has become one of central tools for conceptualizing the work of the family engagement movement.

Other Recommended Resources:

 Click to watch video  "Many people think that adolescence is a time for parents to back away, that kids are pressing to be more autonomous. But it's actually the opposite.  It’s the role of teachers and parents to help youth make connections between what they’re learning in school, what’s happening in the real world, and what that means in terms for their own interests and talents and goals." -- Nancy Hill, Harvard School for Education

Click to watch video

"Many people think that adolescence is a time for parents to back away, that kids are pressing to be more autonomous. But it's actually the opposite.  It’s the role of teachers and parents to help youth make connections between what they’re learning in school, what’s happening in the real world, and what that means in terms for their own interests and talents and goals."
-- Nancy Hill, Harvard School for Education

 From Steve Constantino's "Five Simple Principals" to engage families

From Steve Constantino's "Five Simple Principals" to engage families