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Rethinking Parent Engagement

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Greg Mullenholz is an Assistant Principal in Rockville, MD, a 2013 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow and a 2011 US Department of Education Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

It's that time of the school year, where droves of parents descend upon their children's schools for parent-teacher conferences. Unfortunately, for many, this will be the first and last time parents and teachers see each other this year. We might see them at the book fair or the field trip to the museum, but the challenge for schools is to engage parents in more meaningful ways. We need parent volunteers for class parties, book sales, graduation ceremonies, and field trips. While these are important, they have changed very little since the parents of my students were in school and don't do much to help our students academically. Even parent-teacher conferences have become a bit perfunctory, fifteen minute, in and out affairs. Schools need to engage the parent community in much more meaningful ways than fundraising and chaperoning. Study after study has shown that the more parents engage and are engaged, the greater the academic success of their children is. Today, we have a new opportunity, a golden opportunity to form a strong and lasting relationship between parents and schools around a monumental change taking place in education: The Common Core State Standards.

What transpires beyond the walls of the school is just as important as what happens during the six hours children are in class. And, overwhelmingly, parents want to help at home, but are unsure how to do so. With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, this situation has gotten a bit more confusing. Think about it. A parent in previous years, helping their fifth grade student with dividing fractions could go back to their days in elementary school, and teach their child to flip the second fraction and multiply, just as they were taught. That's how my parents helped me, and that's what got me to pass the test. I, like many, could compute with numbers great and small, but methods like the "flip and multiply" or the "butterfly method" never actually helped me to understand the mathematics. Today's fifth graders in the District of Columbia and the other 45 states who have adopted the CCSS are being asked to do that very thing that eluded many in prior generations: explain what you are doing and justify your mathematics. And, this paradigm shift has stymied parents, who have not had the training and development that the Nation's teachers have had under their district's implementation of the Common Core.

So, how do parents help at home? The first step is the easiest: be aware of what your child should know and be able to do. There are a myriad of resources available including NBC Education Nation's Parent Toolkit, which lays out benchmarks for Reading and Mathematics by grade-level.. Look to your state's department of education for resources. New York's appropriately named EngageNY provides a bank of resources for parents aimed at helping them to help their children. The state of Maryland has some great, informative resources meant to educate parents on the shift to CCSS. My favorite is the "Top 10 Things Parents Need to Know About The Common Core State Standards." Looking for more specific ways to help at home? Parents can check out websites like Learnzillion, where you can view videos and other resources aligned with the Common Core that help students to dig deeper with their thinking. And, finally, talk with your child's teacher. Ask them to explain what is expected of your child throughout the year, what your child is doing well with, and where you can supplement at home. Ask them, as the educational expert, what resources there are to help you with this new and more rigorous curriculum.

But, we as educators need to remember that engagement is a two way street. We need to engage parents. This might mean workshops or development sessions around the standards and how they can align with activities at home. A kitchen is full of fractions, and the best bakers are good at math. We as a school community need to educate our parents about the power of the standards and the fact that they have been adopted as a way for schools to prepare their child for success in college and career. We need to be clear about what the standards are and what they are not. If we don't do these types of things, we leave the job of informing the public about the standards to the media, some of whom are categorizing the standards as a federal infiltration of education, a lowering of the bar, a corporate takeover, or an eroding of public education. Debunking these myths is a hard job because educators lack the megaphone that the press has. But we can do this through clear and meaningful communication with parents, and the fact that teachers overwhelmingly support the standards should be an indication to parents that they are the right thing.

Common Core presents a historic opportunity to rethink the way that schools and parents engage each other. The standards provide us with a common cause, to see that our collective student body is better prepared for success in college and career. Together we can do great things, and it could all start with a simple question at an upcoming parent-teacher conference.

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