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These days, the battle over public school is more pitched than ever. A veteran journalist told us that, in a 30-year career, he’s never covered an issue that provokes as much disagreement and rancor as education.

Parent engagement
Graduates of Stand University for Parents in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo courtesy Stand for Children)

But although it receives less attention than more hot-button issues like teacher evaluations or charter schools, there’s one strategy everyone in education should agree on: the importance of high-quality family engagement.

Beverly Goliday is a prime example. Goliday is a Memphis parent and is the primary caregiver for her six grandchildren. She was always involved in her grandkid’s schools, but it wasn’t until our Stand University for Parents  class “Understanding Student Data” that she learned how to read their test scores. And the results weren’t promising. Her grandchildren, only in elementary school, were all already a year or more behind in reading and in math. So last summer Ms. Goliday enrolled each of her grandchildren in summer “reading camps” at their elementary school. This year, they’re thriving. “The oldest two are now reading two grade levels ahead,” Goliday says. “And all six are on grade level.”

Christine Rey, a Pre-K and Kindergarten teacher in a low-income public school in Washington, D.C. can also testify to the impact of a strong family engagement program. Two years ago Rey started visiting her students’ parents at home, using the model of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project. Then she replaced traditional parent teacher conferences with Academic Parent Teacher Teams, a teacher-led family involvement strategy developed in Arizona. Rey invites the parents of her students to group meetings where she shares student data and introduces them to strategies for teaching their kids at home.

“I’ve seen such tremendous growth in my students after instituting home visits and parent teacher teams,” Rey says, “More than anything I’ve seen before in my seven years teaching.”

Rey told us the story of a little boy who started the year extremely behind—until the boy’s uncle came to the first parent teacher team. Rey presented simple bar graphs showing how students were scoring on number and letter recognition and what her goals were for the class and individual students.

At the end of the meeting, Rey handed out plastic Easter eggs and letter and number flashcards. She instructed parents to stuff each egg with a flashcard and hide the eggs around the house.  When the children found an egg, they were supposed to yell out the number or letter.

“The uncle and the mother played Easter egg hunt with [the boy],” Rey says, “and he went from knowing zero letters to knowing 46 [uppercase and lower case] and from knowing zero numbers to knowing 19.” Through the combination of home visits and Academic Parent Teacher Teams, Rey has been able to reach almost all of her students’ parents.

There are more than anecdotes to prove the importance of family engagement and the efficacy of family engagement programs. An external study on the Parent Institute for Quality Education, which offers classes for parents on how to get more involved in their children’s education, has shown that the children of parents who take the class are more likely to succeed in high school and enroll in college. And Academic Parent Teacher Teams, a model founded by Maria Paredes, a former Director of Communication Engagement in Creighton, a school district in Phoenix, Ariz., found in an internal study that students in these classrooms score 15 percentage points higher on reading and math tests than students not in an Academic Parent Teacher Team classroom. Broader research indicates that students of involved parents do better in school and that teacher-led outreach to parents around academics increases student learning.

So if everyone likes family engagement, and we can prove it works, why aren’t we seeing high quality family engagement programs everywhere?

The problem is this: too often, more lip service than rigor is applied to family engagement programs. A failure to define the goal of family engagement makes for a mushy collection of offerings. Tree planting? Family engagement. Donuts with Dad? Family engagement. Poorly attended math nights? Family engagement. Many schools assume that their parents need to be entertained with carnivals and snacks instead of selectively called into the school to strategize around improving student learning. But only the latter leads to increased student outcomes.

To increase student learning, family engagement must be treated as rigorously as any other key educational strategy. That first means clearly defining the goals of all family engagement programs, ideally as parents and teachers working together to improve student learning.  And it means every player in the process assumes concrete responsibilities. Schools must adopt programs to promote consistent parent-teacher collaboration around student learning. (And it’s not enough to adopt the program, schools must do extensive outreach to encourage parents to attend, including phone calls to each household.) Community groups must reinforce with parents ways to help children learn and ways to work productively with the school. Teachers must give every parent in their class information and strategies to help kids learn. And parents must work with their children on academics.

We’re sure, in all of that, education wonks will still find plenty to fight over.  But, given family engagement’s proven importance, let’s at least focus on it.

Jonah Edelman (@JonahEdelman) is the Co-Founder and CEO of Stand for Children. Tyler Whitmire is the Director of Research and Communications at Stand for Children.

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