Skip to content

Engaging beyond the parent-teacher conference

A parent, student, and teacher in conversation on the front steps of a school building
Rethink the parent-teacher conference

Many educators and administrators cite the lack of parent engagement as a major contributor to underperforming schools and districts, but what causes this perceived lack of engagement is actually the disconnection between institutions of education and the families they serve.

This is the time of year when parents across the country are summoned to their children’s school to take part in a long-standing tradition known as parent-teacher conferences. Unbeknownst to parents, this is virtually the process by which they will be deemed engaged or disengaged. This is interesting given the fact that the American Psychological Association defines parent engagement in schools as “parents and school staff working together to support and improve the learning, development and health of children and adolescents.”

Family engagement

Parents and families are an essential stakeholder in improving education outcomes for students. This isn’t breaking news, in fact, it is something the world of education has known for some time.

A 2002 report from Southwest Educational Development Laboratory titled “A New Wave of Evidence” concluded, “when schools, families and communities work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school.” Yet, today many educators and administrators cite a lack of parent engagement as a major contributor to underperforming schools and districts.

I would argue that the major contributor to this perceived lack of engagement is the disconnection between these institutions of education and the families they serve.

Countless educators gauge parent and family engagement through the lens of participation in parent-teacher conference-like meetings. An engaged parent being one that shows up to the school on demand to discuss a previously arranged topic and quickly departing before the next “engaged parent” arrives to do the same. This is an awfully antiquated notion of parent engagement that seems more school- and teacher-centric, than focused on student success. It relies heavily on the assumption of a dual-parent household, with at least one adult being in a professional situation that allows them freedom and flexibility of schedule. This is somewhat understandable given the conservative lens on the traditional family structure, of which our current education system views parents.

The problem is that by this definition, many of today’s concerned adults would not meet the minimum threshold to be deemed an engaged parent or family member. Once a group is labeled non-engaged, it is easy to fault them for not having a seat at the table. They are flawed, rather than the system having flaws.

Improving understanding

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest comprehensive education legislation, and a reauthorizing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), actually places significant focus on parent and family engagement. The law places a set-aside in Title 1 funding for schools to carry out parent and family engagement, targeting high-needs schools to receive extra dollars for this priority. However, it is important to recognize that despite federal incentives, school leadership must actively be involved in prioritizing these efforts and questioning the status quo of engagement. Dr. Kimberly McLeod, professor at Texas Southern University and president-elect of Texas Alliance of Black School Educators, wrote in a blog post that “culturally conscious teachers know that to understand their students, they must first know their students.” The same should be said for education institutions and agencies about the communities and families in which they serve. I contend that if one is sincere in their desire to understand and engage parents and families of the children they are educating, then they first must get to know them.

Once educators get to know their families, they will recognize the need to broaden the definition of engagement. Schools and education agencies must rethink the opportunities they provide to engage with families in the education process of their children. The cultivation between school and family relationships is reciprocal, allowing families, teachers and, most importantly, students achieve better outcomes. I am in no way advocating for a different, one-size-fits-all approach to parent and family engagement. In fact, I oppose that as I oppose the current approach. What I am advising is that schools learn from what has worked previously, and design with parents and families an approach that best fits their school and that respective community.

This article was based on a blog post by Murray Woodard written in 2016.