Can Visiting Students at Home Make Teachers Less Biased?
When teachers visit students and parents at home, it can change their assumptions and biases and create stronger school-home relationships.
That has been one of the findings so far in a recent multi-city study commissioned by Parent Teacher Home Visits, a national network that works with school districts, teachers' unions, and community groups to adopt a home-visit model. The study was conducted by research firm RTI International and Johns Hopkins University in three parts—the first part was released last month.
The Parent Teacher Home Visit model asks teachers to visit their students' families two times a year, once in the summer or fall and once in the winter or spring. The visits must be voluntary for both the teacher and the family, and they are arranged in advance. During the first visit, teachers focus on building relationships with the family members and getting to know them. The second visit is centered around supporting the child academically, with the teachers offering specific strategies parents can use to help their child learn. In between, teachers and parents are encouraged to share resources and communicate regularly.
Another key component of the model: Teachers are trained and compensated for these visits. That, along with the fact that the visits are optional for teachers, has helped balance concerns that these visits add to teachers' already-full plates.
"Ultimately what this is about is building stronger relationships with educators and parents and having them see themselves as co-educators—each are bringing valuable skills and expertise to help educate that child," said Gina Martinez-Keddy, the executive director of Parent Teacher Home Visits.
In this study, researchers found that across four major urban school districts, families who participated in the program reported being more comfortable around teachers and school staff members. And educators reported that their assumptions and prior perceptions had changed after visiting their students' families at home.
The names of the districts in the study are kept private, but each one has at least 45,000 students enrolled, with about one-half to three-quarters of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. In each district, students of color make up the majority of the student populations, from 55 percent to about 80 percent.
Educators said that they thought families didn't care because students didn't always finish their homework, and some parents didn't come to activities like open-house nights or parent-teacher conferences. Past research has shown that many educators who work in low-income neighborhoods hold these beliefs, especially about families of color.
For example, teachers said that because parents weren't responding to their emails, they assumed the parents were disengaged. But during home visits, parents said they were reading and appreciated the emails. Those interactions reminded the educators that different parents might have different communication styles.
"What I thought in my infinite wisdom was that I was going to go in, and I was going to see my impoverished families with no books and no focused learning time and no outside positive influences," one administrator told researchers. "Once I got into our homes, 95 percent of them are incredible. I'm seeing culture, and I'm seeing a love of education. I'm seeing a love of family, and all those preconceived ideas are going by the wayside."
Educators also reported learning more about the family's communication preferences—for example, some parents said they prefer written notes to phone calls, or directed teachers to call a grandparent during the day instead. This increased the amount of communication between school and home, researchers noted.
And teachers said they became more understanding of their students' behavior in class when they learned of their students' home circumstances. "They have a whole other life outside of the school going on," one educator said.
Also, visiting a student's home can give teachers an up-close-and-personal look at the student's interests—which can help teachers come up with engaging topics for writing assignments or other connections to schoolwork. For example, one teacher said that when she found out a student's dad worked in construction, she began to relate math concepts to measuring floors and pouring concrete.
The researchers concluded that the Parent Teacher Home Visit model aligns with research-backed strategies for changing implicit biases. For example, when people see the unique characteristics of others—which would happen when a teacher visits someone's home—that can shift biased mindsets. And when people see positive incidents that contradict prevailing stereotypes, that can also reduce both implicit and explicit bias.
"Implicit bias on the part of teachers plays a role in the achievement gap," Martinez-Keddy said. "I think this study tells us that our model of home visits then is consistent with methods to disrupt those implicit biases, which means that our model of home visits can play a role in helping to close the achievement gap."
The second part of this study, which will be released in the spring, looks at how the model is implemented across the four districts—including both best practices and what doesn't work. The third part of the study, out by December of this year, will look at how student outcomes—including test scores and attendance—are affected by teacher home visits, said Martinez-Keddy.
Past studies have found that students tend to perform better academically when their teachers make home visits. A study last year by the St. Louis program Home Works! found that students who received teacher home visits did better on state tests and had better attendance records than students whose homes had not been visited by teachers.
Still, it's worth noting that home-visit programs generally don't reach all students, so educators and experts say it's still important for districts and schools to have comprehensive family-engagement efforts.
In the 2016-17 school year, Parent Teacher Home Visit trained about 9,000 educators at over 700 school sites.
"Really, what it's about is building the relationships between educators and parents so that students can really thrive in school," Martinez-Keddy said.