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Parents Are Partners (Even if They Miss Back-to-School Night)

Many thanks to Todd Rogers, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Susanna Loeb, Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford University, for this guest post.

It's that time of the fall. Parents are being invited to back-to-school nights to learn about educators' goals for their children and share their own hopes for the school year. Parents and teachers will create personal connections at these events that can help their children make the most of what their school has to offer. Yet, despite educators' best efforts and the benefits of attending, many parents will not show up. Our research shows that it would be a costly mistake to interpret parent absences as signals of their unwillingness or inability to be essential partners this school year.

No-shows can be disheartening. Enthusiastic educators who prepared for the night may become discouraged. Without intention, this discouragement can cascade to a belief that parents don't care about their children's education. A simple absence from an evening event may be interpreted as an indication of deeper deficits. This view can lead some to think that if parents do not show up at school they must have low expectations for their children, a lack of interest in the school, or an inability to create a strong home learning environment so that their children can complete homework and develop in other positive ways. Educators can come to think of families as obstacles to student success rather than as assets to be invested in as education partners.

Interpreting not showing up to school events as signaling that parents don't care about their children's education is a mistake. It is a mistake for two reasons.

First, parents have legitimate reasons for not attending these events. Some of these reasons are structural. Some parents have nontraditional work schedules, others have difficult childcare situations, and others have transportation challenges. Some of these reasons are behavioral. Parents can feel uncomfortable in the school setting or have difficulty deviating from their normal routines to attend this type of event. Structural and behavioral barriers are both common reasons that adults don't do things that an outside observer might think that they should. They are not a reflection of adult goals or beliefs.

Second, it's a mistake to take a deficit view of families because it can lead educators to under-invest in the best partners they have for helping students succeed. Our research, and that of our colleagues, shows that empowering parents with timely, actionable information is among the most cost-effective and scalable ways to improve student success. Investing in parents works, and when considering the many possible strategies for improving student success, it is a relatively easy one.

Families overwhelmingly share educators' goals of nurturing and supporting their children to succeed in school and beyond. Successful educators harness parents' hopes and dreams for their children and honor the reality that parents are the experts on their children. An asset perspective of families leads to investing in parents so they can be more effective educational resources during children's outside-of-school hours (which, by the way, are the vast majority of students' waking hours).

Schools that approach families as assets solicit and act on parent feedback; communicate in parent-preferred languages; try to understand and adapt to the challenges families face from homelessness to joblessness to chronic illness. This approach sometimes means scheduling events in the late morning to accommodate 2nd and 3rd shift workers or being mindful that information needs to be actionable, timely, concise, and regular, not a morass of difficult-to-implement directions.

We are researchers who develop and study tools to empower parents and support student learning. In addition to generating scalable innovations, our research underscores a more important point. The automated interventions that we work on are relatively weak when compared to educators and families directly communicating back and forth, yet despite this, our interventions illustrate how potent parents can be when treated as education partners.

The READY4K! program created by Loeb (one of us) and Ben York sends text messages to parents three times per week with small, easy-to-achieve steps to support their young children's development. A study of the program found that the program increased parental engagement in at-home literacy activities with their students and that this increased parental activity was reflected in student gains in early literacy. Furthermore, parents in the program were more likely to ask their students' teachers about their students' progress and for additional ways to support learning at home.

The Parent Engagement Project (PEP) conducted by Rogers (one of us), Raj Chande, and Simon Burgess sends parents of secondary school students simple, timely, student-specific information, including notifications about upcoming exams and whether students submitted homework assignments. Parents also receive reminders to encourage their children to study or catch up on incomplete work, and they receive conversation starters related to what the student learned in class that day. By packaging pre-existing administrative data to be useful for parents, this intervention increased students' attendance and math performance, and the vast majority of parents wanted the communications to continue.

These interventions are examples of a growing body of work showing that when you provide parents with timely and actionable information, parents act on it. They improve student achievement, and they want more of it. Parents are hungry for ways they can help their children succeed - regardless of whether parents show up to back-to-school night.

Todd Rogers is associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and leads the Student Social Support R&D Lab. Susanna Loeb is the Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford University.

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