When Engaging Parents in School Reform, One Size Does Not Fit All

Those of us who operate in the K-12 education arena talk a lot about how important parents are to a child's education and to making schools better. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked last year: "Promoting a community culture, where educational improvement is everyone's responsibility, is our great national mission." And parents can play a key role in promoting and sustaining that culture. But what will it take to tap into parents' full potential as partners in education improvement?

From our past research it seems clear enough that parents want schools to serve their children well and don’t believe those schools can do it alone. Our new survey of parents in Kansas City, summarized in the report “Ready, Willing, and Able,” adds a wrinkle: parents differ (often dramatically) in how they seek to be involved, and school leaders who are serious about making parents partners should be prepared to meet them where they are.

In this new research, we identified three groups of parents, each unique in preference and readiness to get involved:

Potential transformers stand out as the group most likely to brave the bureaucracy of school policymaking.

These parents tell us they are perfectly comfortable to act as advocates for broader school reform. They are ready to contact district officials and the media to discuss local school problems and to represent parents on committees that shape school policies. In our current study, 3 in 10 parents fell in this group.

Still, very few have actually been involved in these ways. Providing real opportunities for them to get more involved—and supporting their efforts to organize themselves—is an important step towards unearthing parents’ power in school improvement.

We think they’d get the support of other parents, too: even though the majority of parents don't feel comfortable getting involved as transformers, two-thirds in our survey believed that parent advocates have the ability to make a difference.

Reaching parents can’t stop there, though.

School helpers are a second group of parents with more to give.

When you need support in more traditional parent roles in a school—help for teachers in the classroom, volunteers for an event, or more support for a PTA—these are the parents to find. Though school helpers leave advocacy and school policy matters to others, all of these parents feel they could be doing more for their school– an obvious call, we think, for leaders to track these parents down.

Even reaching the school helpers doesn’t exhaust a principals’ and teachers’ options.

Help seekers deserve some special attention.

These parents are concerned about their own child’s learning and seem particularly hungry for more support from schools in helping their child do well. They aren’t likely to respond to calls for collective action, and probably won’t have the time or inclination to volunteer more at their school. Yet every single one of these parents told us there was still “work to be done” teaching their child to do their best in school, and teachers and school leaders are likely to make progress with them by supporting those efforts at home.

Utilizing parents as a powerful resource

In total, these three groups (a full 78 percent of parents surveyed) are a valuable yet untapped resource for diverse, powerful and effective parent engagement. To draw on these parents more effectively, leaders must understand that different parents will respond to a different set of appeals. Our report provides some specific strategies for each of the groups the research identified.

Yet, some principles for parent engagement are universal. For example, education leaders should begin engaging parents by listening to them and understanding their needs. Clearly communicating what exactly a school, a district or a particular teacher needs from parents to succeed is also important. As one Kansas City father told us:

"Parents don’t understand that their presence makes a difference. Schools aren’t getting that message out. Even when my school was going through its worst times, they didn’t get the message out that they needed help from the community."

There’s hope, though: parents are by no means hostile to their schools. In fact, parents across the country have told us—for this and other studies in the past—that they don’t think of their child’s school as just a service provider; they value its place in their community, trust their teachers and respect principals who return phone calls. In the Kansas City region, 77 percent of parents felt that their principals and teachers were well-connected to their communities, and just over half said they wouldn’t leave their school “even if money was not an issue”).

In spite of their concerns and complaints, parents want their schools to succeed and are aware that they need to be part of that success. For school leaders, developing relationships at this level is always possible, and it’s an ideal first step towards creating Secretary Duncan’s “community culture.”

But we think that transformers, school helpers, and help seekers can be found in any school, and we hope that the pressures of constant change haven’t made education leaders forget about simply making parents feel welcome. As one mother reminded us:

“I love it when teachers thank me for coming. I love it when the principal says, ‘Glad to see you. Hope to see you again.'”

Leaders should only remember that with parents, just as with students, one size doesn't fit all.

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Ready, Willing and Able?

Parental involvement means different things to different parents. If schools hope to boost involvement in a meaningful way, their approaches must be tailored to match the diverse needs, priorities and capacities of parents.

This report offers school and district education leaders specific ideas for engaging parents across the spectrum - whether they are comfortable shaping education policy, prefer more traditional activities or need support to improve their involvement at home. While the research, underwritten by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, explores the views of Kansas City parents, it also echoes findings from a previous Public Agenda study national in scope and raises important questions for education leaders nationwide.

We found that parents bring different needs and interests to the table when thinking about involvement in their child’s education specifically and improving education generally. They are:

  • Divided on what kind of involvement will best improve schools. 52 percent say it is improving the quality of parental involvement at home, versus 42 percent who say that it is getting parents more directly involved in running schools.
  • Split on how they prefer to be involved. 31 percent seem ready to embrace broader roles in shaping how schools operate and advocating for policy reform. 27 percent say they could help out more in traditional ways at their children’s school, and feel comfortable to do so. Another 19 percent are primarily looking for more guidance from their schools on how to help their children succeed.
  • Often not as involved as they would like to be. Just over half (51 percent) of the region's parents admit that they could be more involved at their child's school if they tried hard. Even those parents who said they would feel comfortable advocating for school improvements by contacting public officials and the media have often not been involved in these activities.
  • Supportive of their own teachers and principals. 77 percent say the principals and teachers at their child's school are connected to the community and have a good feel for what's going on there.

Three Different Groups of Parents

While parents surveyed differ in many ways, we also found that parents can be grouped based on similar goals, concerns and ideas about education and involvement in schools that they share. We hope that understanding the characteristic thinking of these three distinct groups can help school and district leaders, educators, funders and reformers reach out to them more effectively and plan programs in the ways that best fit their needs. These distinct groups are:

Potential Transformers: parents who are poised for deeper action on education policy, though still on the sidelines. These parents say they would feel "very comfortable" serving on committees to decide school policies and advocating for school improvements by contacting public officials and the media. However, very few have been involved in these ways. Thirty-one percent of parents surveyed fall into this group.

School Helpers: parents who are willing to get more involved in traditional ways. These parents are less comfortable with advocacy roles but say they could be more involved helping out directly at their children's schools. School helpers say they feel "very comfortable" participating in traditional involvement activities, including volunteering during school trips, bakes sales or sporting events or attending PTA meetings. Twenty-seven percent of parents surveyed fall into this group.

Help Seekers: parents who are concerned about their children’s learning and are primarily looking for more guidance from their schools. These parents are unlikely advocates and they feel they are already doing as much as they possibly can at their children’s school, yet all help seekers feel they have not yet succeeded in helping their children to do their best in school. At the same time, this group is more critical of their teachers and schools than other parents and more skeptical about most initiatives to improve parental involvement. Nineteen percent of parents surveyed fall in this group.

Recommendations for Engaging Parents by Meeting Them Where They Are

This report offers recommendations that honor the diversity of experiences and attitudes among parents in Kansas City while providing advice to educators, funders and reformers on how to engage and communicate in ways that will move the needle on change.

In presenting these promising strategies, we do not aim to minimize the work needed to meet the challenge of engaging parents as partners in reform. Instead, we emphasize that effective engagement of parents is indeed possible when done purposefully.

Public Agenda recommends that school leaders heed and apply these important over-arching principles to engage more parents:

  1. Assure communication goes two ways. Clear communication from educators on academic expectations, school policies and resources is important, but parents must also have the opportunity to bring their perspectives to the table.
  2. Begin by listening and addressing key concerns. School leaders should identify the pressing concerns of parents and gain understanding of how they think and talk about them. When parents know their chief concerns are being addressed, they are most open to constructive involvement.
  3. Approach parents with a clear request. Nearly one-quarter of parents surveyed say they haven’t been asked to volunteer or help out at their children's schools in the past year. School leaders should ask parents for help.
  4. Provide many and varied opportunities to engage. When school leaders provide diverse opportunities for parental involvement, they have a greater chance of attracting parents of differing views and readiness.

The project also offers concrete and practical measures that education leaders can take to engage Potential Transformers, School Helpers and Help Seekers in more effective ways. You can download these recommendations here or from the menu on the left.