Parent Engagement Isn’t A One-Way Street

from tacit requiem’s flickr      


Why is parent engagement always looked at from the lens of wanting parents to come to school so we educators can tell them how to be better parents? The only other option that seems to be common is parents coming in to serve the school by volunteering in different ways. (And just as a slightly-irrelevant aside, why is it parent engagement? Given that we know many children are living with other family members as well as or instead of their parents, why don’t we talk about family engagement?)

An article, Goodbye parent-teacher conferences, hello poetry workshops: How New York City is redefining engagement, is what set off my current rant. It’s about Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT):

the approach focuses on teaching groups of parents to engage their children academically, and encourages them to talk about how their students are performing as a group — not just individually.

The idea isn’t terrible, but it has some serious flaws. Each of the sessions is designed to teach parents something about what and how their children are learning and how they can help. I have some issues there. But, in addition, during each session parents have time to talk to each other.

Hannah Yeats, a teacher at West Prep who co-facilitated the APTT session, shuttled around the room, occasionally encouraging some of the more timid parents to speak up or exchange phone numbers.

In the past, “parents had each other’s numbers — and that’s kind of faded,” Yeats said. “We need to create community. There aren’t structures in place to encourage that support system to be built.”

I will admit to having very few phone numbers (or email addresses) for any of my daughters’ friends’ families. I do wish our communities were tighter. (Not that I’m doing a dang thing to change that.) Families getting to know each other, if they don’t already, is helpful for their children, I believe. Communities and connections are healthy for us humans.

from Aaron & Jennie’s flickr

But, I think there are issues:

Parents were invited to three separate 75-minute sessions evenly spaced throughout the school year, typically led by one or more of their student’s teachers. They are given a chance to get to know each other, learn specific methods for talking with their children about schoolwork, and review their children’s progress on math and reading tests together.

Between sessions, parents are expected to bring the strategies developed at the APTT meetings home: Something as simple as asking probing questions about what a child is reading, or playing a game that requires using math concepts like factors and products.

So, teachers teach the parents what to do with their children and they review test scores together. Ugh. This is not a partnership in any way. This is the school wanting the parents to ‘partner’ with them in order to increase student achievement. But the view of partnering is that parents should do exactly what the school asks of them exactly as they ask them to do it.

There is no sense in this structure that parents have anything to offer the school or the teachers beyond following their directions. This is absurd. Parents know their children better than anyone else possibly could. We educators could do so much more for children if we viewed their families as true partners. As partners who have something to offer us, to teach us. If we viewed family engagement as a two-way street all groups (teachers, parents, and students) would benefit.

Also, don’t even get me started on this piece from the principal:

“In a school with low-performing students, and students who come in from low-income situations, we don’t get a lot of parent participation,” Washington said, pointing out that many students have parents who work multiple jobs or have been incarcerated.

Apparently this sort of program rather than parent-teacher conferences (although, those are still happening at this school alongside this program) is needed because this school has many low-income students. Blergh.

Parents, overwhelmingly are engaged with their children, whether they are low-income parents or wealthy ones. In general, the great majority of parents are working hard to do the right thing for their children. If we really want to engage families and schools together, one option would be to include the children. Don’t take away the most critical part of the equation. Bring families in together. Allow children to teach their families about what they’re doing in school. And good gracious, keep the test scores out of it!

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