It’s the middle of Wednesday night. The room is full of parents who have come out to support their child and their school. I have no doubt that the vast majority of these parents have young children at home and yet secondary schools are represented as well. These parents have left their children and families at home to come out and talk about the quality and support for public education. Their interests are enormously varied and it only takes a moment to recognize that they are advocating for:
- Safe and modern playgrounds for their children;
- Adequate and sustainable funding for all students;
- Modern technology to support learning;
- More schools, updated schools;
- The protection of language programs and programs of choice;
- Effective and full inclusion of students with special needs; and
- Meaningful parent engagement.
The list could go on. At its heart, parents want to make a difference and they want to be included. As a district and in my role, we want to engage parents and we want that engagement to be meaningful and inclusive. Parental voice is central to our system, they need to be included in our work and we need to demonstrate their input is making a difference. In a diverse multicultural urban landscape such as Surrey, what are the best ways we can engage parents?
I have also been wondering for a long time, as we continue to involve parents in multiple ways and in multiple languages, what are some key issues around parental engagement that we have not explored in depth? I have thought a lot about the strategies we use to communicate with parents who are in poverty or parents who are at lower socio-economic levels. I turned to research for some insights and it was enlightening and somewhat discouraging to see the research results.
My overwhelming observation over the years has been that the parents who show up at events and are engaged are those parents whose children are, for the most part, already doing fairly well. While I don’t know this to be true for certain, it is my gut sense. In my brief review of the literature, they said that this observation was indeed true but it suggests strongly that the structures that schools and districts establish do not always welcome and invite parents in poverty or those parents whose children struggle. So then it is my obligation to ensure that we develop and implement structures that are open and welcoming to all parents. I believe we try to do this, but are we actually succeeding? The research was clear on structures and challenges.
One research article suggests that our policies and structures on parental engagement are not closing the achievement gap, they are actually having the opposite effect:
Instead of raising academic performance for low-income students, too often parental involvement policies only serve to widen the achievement gap (de Carvalho, 2001) and create barriers between schools and families (Delgado-Gaitan).
The most widely accepted definition of parental involvement focuses on behaviors that can more easily be accomplished by middle- and upper-income parents (Mapp, 2003). The current parental involvement policies, built on the accepted definition, disregard the needs of low-income children and their families which further burdens children who are already falling behind academically (de Carvalho, 2001; Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Mapp). http://www.adi.org/journal/ss06/SmithSpring2006.pdf
Another article went on to support the claims of the first and to underscore the need for people in my position to help to develop strategies that actually engage parents and that are meaningful.
Although parental involvement has reached a higher level of acceptance today as a key factor in improving schools, “acceptance does not always translate into implementation, commitment, or creativity” (Drake, 2000, p. 34). Central to this challenge is educators’ and administrators’ uncertainty about initiating and maintaining involvement that is meaningful and mutually beneficial for the school, the family, and the student. http://www.curriculum.org/secretariat/files/Mar8ParentalInvolvement.pdf
Another article underscored the challenges faced by parents living in poverty.
Parents of students living above the poverty line were more likely to be involved than parents of student living at or below the poverty line on all measures of involvement. http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=parental-involvement-in-schools#sthash.77blp3Ub.dpuf
And finally an article about the value of quality parenting at home.
The most important finding from the point of view of this review is that parental involvement in the form of ‘at-home good parenting’ has a significant positive effect on children’s achievement and adjustment even after all other factors shaping attainment have been taken out of the equation. In the primary age range the impact caused by different levels of parental involvement is much bigger than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools. The scale of the impact is evident across all social classes and all ethnic groups. http://bgfl.org/bgfl/custom/files_uploaded/uploaded_resources/18617/Desforges.pdf
There were many good articles and I’m only sharing a few. Overwhelmingly the results were consistent they take me back to the start. Parental involvement matters. Parents want to be engaged and they want to be included. If schools and school districts really want meaningful parental involvement, then we need to look at our own internal structures and strategies to determine if we are getting the results we want. If we are feeling that our engagement isn’t where it is, maybe a good starting point would be to talk to parents about what meaningful engagement looks like.
We do many things that target parents directly. I know all the districts around us do as well and I know parental involvement is valued, encouraged, and it is a priority. The reason for this blog is just a reminder that perhaps we don’t talk often enough about what we mean by parental involvement, who is included, and to what extent are our own practices getting in our way?
For me, the ongoing journey will begin with a simple question: “Are we getting the results we want from the parental engagement strategies we are choosing?” I think the first group I’ll ask will be our parents because after all, the children that they entrust us with every day mean more to them than anything in the world. I am sure they’ll be very clear on what works and what does not.