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This guest post is written by Marc Walls, a high school science teacher in Clarksville, Tennessee, and founder of unpackedu.com, a portal for elevating teacher voice. A 2015–17 Hope Street Group Tennessee State Teacher Fellow, Marc currently serves on the organization’s first Teacher Advisory Council.
As a teacher, part of my job is to take data and translate it into usable information for parents. Data, to parents, is often just numbers. Information, however, is the messages those figures convey. I involve parents when I share data with them. But as my goal is parental engagement, they have to be able to make sense of what they see. At that point, I have established a two-way line of communication with parents to identify what supports they can provide and what our next steps are to grow the student.
John Hattie is famous for his research on factors affecting student achievement. The majority of variables that impact learning the most—direct instruction, response to intervention, and feedback—are no surprise. Parental involvement, however, shows a lower than average impact, meaning Hattie’s research indicates parental involvement is less of a factor on student achievement than peer influences. That puzzles me, because in the classroom, I can feel the impact a parent can have on a student. Through the partnerships I form with parents, my students perform better, and they tend to care more.
That information led me to wonder how Hattie quantifies “parental involvement” for the purpose of his research. I believe the formula for student success moves beyond involvement to parental engagement. Involvement is normally a proactive action on the parents’ end. Not much is required from a teacher, though, to say he or she involves parents. A teacher can “involve” parents by merely posting grades and being accessible through e-mail. Engagement, on the other hand, is a collaborative process that requires both sets of stakeholders. Parental involvement may have a minimal impact, but parental engagement is critical for developing partnerships and collective efficacy for everyone involved in the education of the student.
One challenge every teacher has is avoiding the pitfall of becoming “data rich and information poor.” The most success I have with engaging parents occurs when I share data collected by or otherwise accessible to me, but I have to be careful. What makes sense to me as an educator can be confusing and even overwhelming to someone who does not speak our data language. Teachers have to remember that often for parents, the data threshold is much lower. Teachers are also assessing a student’s data within the scope of all other scores in a classroom or at a grade level, whereas, more often than not, parents are homing in on the performance of just one student: theirs. It is necessary that teachers provide the context of those numbers during conversations about student data to best inform and work with parents.
Communicating student information with parents is a skill that is essential to developing relationships and engaging parents. RELAY Graduate School of Education has designed an entire stack of micro-credentials related to data literacy. One, titled “Communicating with Families Using Data,” is a great place to start for teachers looking to move from involvement to engagement. When teachers feel empowered to discuss student data with parents, a culture is created where parents feel equally empowered to take action. Statements like “I don’t know what else to do” are replaced with “What can I do next?”
Like with any skill, practice makes perfect—the data-driven conversations between teachers and parents will deepen as they occur more frequently, and so I implore both educators and parents to be patient but persistent. I did not begin this journey by unpacking standards with parents. However, with a commitment to engagement over involvement, I am now able to create learning plans for students and to mobilize parents in data collection and follow-up action. Equipped with accurate and understood student information, teacher and parent teams can move beyond the numbers and truly impact student performance in positive ways.
Written by Marc Walls