Which school do you want to support?
Teachers matter a lot, but when it comes to education it all starts with parents and caregivers.
This lesson focuses on roles that parents can play in making education work, both for their own kids and for the broader community.
Learning begins well before formal education does. A child fortunate enough to be born healthy and to grow up safe and secure will generally do better at school and in life than a child raised in adversity or neglect.
Reading, even more than talking, builds early literacy skills. It makes sense: The language in books is usually more enriching than everyday speech. Reading out loud and playing with your children improves their behavior and attentiveness, skills imperative for success in school.
Before kindergarten, parents are kind of on their own to figure out what to do with their kids. Some non-profit organizations try to support parents as teachers. For example, the non-profit organization Reach Out and Read promotes the importance of reading to children. Meanwhile, The national PTA partners with Reading Rockets to provide family learning tools.
There is a strong connection between poverty and student learning, as we examined in Ed100 Lesson 2.2. A big part of that connection involves parents: poverty is time-consuming and distracting. Education researcher David Berliner argues that poverty severely disrupts parents’ capacity to support their children’s education. He calls poverty “the unexamined 600 pound gorilla in the classroom.”
Poverty makes it extremely hard for parents to participate in schools.
The poverty gorilla shows up in all kinds of ways. By age 3, for example, children from high-income families are exposed to more words than children from families on welfare. This disparity has an enormous impact on children’s intellectual development.
In a similar vein, research shows that parents’ income influences their ability to read and engage with their children. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child corroborates this work, examining the biological impact of stress and neglect on kids and offering a set of eight key insights about child development.
Beyond that crucial choice, parents are involved in countless ways. From preparing your child for the first day of school to creating a space for learning at home, parent engagement makes a difference in the success of a child - and also the success of a school. Much of the research in this area is influenced by the work of Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins, who identified six areas of engagement:
Six areas of parent engagement
Learning at home
Collaborating with Community
It is relatively easy to engage English-speaking and highly-educated parents in school. It's what they expect and often demand. The real work lies in creating a school environment that welcomes all parents, including those with limited time, those who don’t speak English, and those who may not have experienced success in school themselves. School-based parent organizations are critical to that work.
Once or twice a year, many schools try to arrange for parents to visit school and meet their child's teacher or teachers. In most schools, parent-teacher conferences are scheduled toward the beginning and toward the end of the school year. In well-to-do communities, parents almost always show up, and meetings might last as long as an hour, but they vary massively. At their best, parent-teacher conferences are personal and action-oriented — they enable the adults involved in a child's education to align their efforts. If a child is struggling, the parent-teacher conference is an opportunity to identify specific shared actions to do something about it.
Practically speaking, however, parent-teacher conference attendance tends to be spotty, and the conversations tend to be brief. Worse, parent-teacher conferences can serve up more wishful thinking than brutal honesty. It's human nature.
There's very little research about parent-teacher conferences, and there's no particular reason why they should work as they do (or don't.) For example, in some schools parent conferences include the student. Some are conducted in small groups.
As kids grow up, their needs become increasingly complex. Stuff happens, and responding to the challenges of parenting can be emotionally taxing. Parenting gradually becomes more like counseling or coaching, which (news flash) turns out to be rather hard.
Some schools, PTAs, and sports programs invest in training events or programs to help parents develop basic skills as parents and leaders. Some key ideas are glaringly obvious — but only after you've heard them. (The peanut-butter mindset, for example.)
Greatschools.org, a non-profit organization, has a huge collection of free, well-researched, well-edited resources about parenting skills for all sorts of situations. Rather than waiting for these situations to come up, register for their free newsletter. By entering your child's grade level you'll get a steady drip of parenting insights to help you stay a little ahead of parenting challenges that might arise.
Volunteer. Many schools have a PTA or other parent group. Getting involved as a volunteer is a great way to understand your school's advantages and challenges. It's also a good way to meet the school principal and teacher leaders.
Attend site council meetings. Principals make many important school-level decisions in conversation with a site council, a small group that consists of parents, students and faculty, often including the local union representative. Meetings are public.
Connect with district leaders. Many crucial decisions are beyond the control of a principal or site council. In California, a great deal of authority lies with the school district, which is managed by the local superintendent of schools. If you want something changed that's beyond the power of your school principal, contacting the district office is the next step. If you can't find the right contact at the district office, ask your representative on the school board for advice.
Use the LCAP process. If your idea or concern will require significant change, it needs to become part of the district's formal plan. Each school district in California operates on a three-year Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) that must be adopted annually by the school board with review by the County Office of Education. You can learn much more about the process in Ed100 Lesson 7.10.
Don't bother the mayor. If you are trying to make change in schools, it's usually a waste of time to appeal to the mayor or city council. As Ed100 Lesson 7.3 explains, they have little or no influence over schools, which are a separate arm of government.
Parents can bring so much value to a school system that we committed a full Ed100 lesson to the subject in our chapter about funding and resources — see Lesson 8.11. In 2014 EdSource released conclusions from a survey about ways to support parent involvement in schools. Among the top findings? Give parents advance notice about meetings, offer translation services, and hold the meetings when parents are available. Through the LCAP, parents and communities have a say in how school districts set priorities and spend money. But how can you make informed decisions? Try these resources to get started:
Joining your school’s PTA or parent group is an important first step in learning more about your school and how you can help make it even better.
The California State PTA has also created parent academies called School Smarts to help parents navigate their local school systems and become effective child advocates. School districts that have used the program reported that it helped parents feel comfortable and informed to participate in school decision-making.
A wealth of evidence shows that parent and family engagement in schools can strengthen them and improve the quality of education. Check out the National PTA Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit for ideas. The toolkit includes survey questions you can use to measure improvement. (Also available in Spanish.)
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