Ready, Willing, and Able? Kansas City Parents Talk About How to Improve Schools and What They Can Do to Help

Schools seeking to boost parental involvement will need to tailor their approaches to match parents' differing views and concerns, according to a new report funded by the Kauffman Foundation.

The report from Public Agenda, "Ready, Willing and Able? Kansas City Parents Talk About How to Improve Schools and What They Can Do to Help," indicates that parental involvement means very different things to different parents, with some drawn to advocacy and school reform while others are more comfortable participating in time-honored tasks like helping with school clubs, sports and bake sales.

While the research explores the views of Kansas City parents, it also echoes findings from a previous Public Agenda national study and raises important questions for education leaders nationwide.

Parents surveyed are divided on what kind of parental involvement will do the most to strengthen public 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. Parents are also split on whether better teachers (27 percent chose this), more money (34 percent) or more parental involvement (34 percent) would do the most to improve their own children's school.

Just over half (51 percent) of the Kansas City region's parents acknowledge that they could be more involved at their child's school if they tried harder, though parents are divided on how they prefer to be involved. Many parents (27 percent) say they could help out more in traditional ways at the schools their children attend and nearly a third (31 percent) seem ready to embrace broader roles in shaping how schools operate and advocating for policy reform. Some parents (19 percent) are primarily looking for more guidance from their schools on how to help their own children succeed. In addition to exploring the similarities and differences among parents, the report includes a set of concrete and practical measures that education leaders can employ to engage parents in more effective ways.

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 report offers specific ideas for engaging different types of parents, whether they are comfortable shaping education policy, prefer more traditional activities or need support to improve their involvement at home.

Overall, parents surveyed are supportive of their principals and teachers. Seventy-seven 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. Sixty-four percent of parents surveyed say their school goes out of its way to encourage parents to get involved.

Many parents surveyed lack knowledge about important school issues. Nearly four in 10 (37 percent) do not feel well-informed about where their child's school ranks academically compared to other area schools. Only 40 percent of parents say they know "a lot" about their children's teachers, and one-quarter is unsure whether or not their child's school made "adequate yearly progress" the year before.

The study identifies three distinct groups of parents:

  • Potential Transformers 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 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 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.

Schools in Kansas City and elsewhere need to consider the needs and priorities of these three groups as they seek to not only increase parental involvement but also engage parents in school improvement.