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What the Parents’ Rights Movement Forced Schools to Do

Parents are their children’s first teachers.

It’s a common saying, but what does it actually mean for schools?

Traditionally, parents’ undeniable and critical role in the education of their children has been the reason for schools to organize parent events, for teachers to send tips home on how parents can help their children master reading and math skills, and for PTAs to raise money for the school and recruit parent volunteers.

But the past few years have been dominated by calls for parents to have more influence over how school systems run and what teachers teach, sometimes at crowded school board meetings that have grown contentious and chaotic.

That advocacy has at times become divisive—and it’s received outsized attention from politicians and national media. But it’s also forced schools to reckon with how they can build trust with their communities, and whether they previously fell short. It’s also shown educators that parents and the general public are paying closer attention than ever to schools. And it’s focused more attention on the role parents and caregivers do play in their kids’ education.

Much of the related fervor related to parents’ rights was a symptom of schools not having focused on parent engagement to the extent they should have, said Karen Mapp, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who has extensively studied parent involvement.

“A lot of these raucous meetings are based on distrust. People don’t trust the opinion or the data,” she said. “But when you’ve built relationships with people, and you’ve had a chance to share stories and build this mutual respect, then you don’t have that.”

When schools build true partnerships with parents, students have stronger grades and test scores, more self-confidence, and better social-emotional health, Mapp said. They’re also less likely to behave disruptively, get suspended, or drop out, and are more likely to go on to college or find employment after high school.

Findings on the benefits of parent involvement have been affirmed by years of research and hundreds of studies.

A 2019 American Psychological Association review of 448 studies on the topic examined a variety of forms of parent involvement. Some are more powerful than others, the review found—family discussions about school at home as well as parent attendance at in-school events were shown to have a greater impact than routine homework help, for example. And some parent involvement was more helpful at some ages than others. But the overarching finding was that when parents are active participants in their children’s education, they create networks that keep them informed about their children’s academic progress and position them to help. That network also creates trust between parents and schools.

The source of a disconnect

Encouraging such parent involvement should be interwoven throughout all aspects of school, according to Mapp and other experts. But at many schools, it’s not.

In an EdWeek Research Center survey last summer, 50 percent of educators said they expected insufficient parent engagement to pose a major challenge in the 2023-24 school year.

That lack of engagement results in a fundamental disconnect between parents and the reality their kids are living at school. Last year, Gallup and Learning Heroes, a nonprofit that works on expanding family partnerships with schools, found that parents largely misunderstand their children’s academic performance.

In the survey, 88 percent of parents said their children were at or above grade level in reading, and 89 percent believed the same for math.

On the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, however, only a quarter of 4th grade students and 38 percent of 8th grade students met basic benchmarks in math. In reading, 37 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders did.

“This perception gap has lots of unintended negative consequences,” said Bibb Hubbard, Learning Heroes’ founder and president, citing increases in chronic absenteeism and low participation in tutoring and summer school where students could make up ground lost during pandemic closures.

Parents and caregivers deserve to be more informed about how their children are performing, and that information comes from schools effectively communicating and connecting with parents, Hubbard said.

When parents are aware of how their students really are performing, they’re likely to visit school more, ask more robust and specific questions during parent-teacher conferences, and want to work with their children on academic skills at home. In the Learning Heroes survey, 97 percent of parents who said they were aware their children weren’t at grade level in math said they were worried about their kids’ math skills. Only 22 percent of parents who said their child was at or above grade level said the same.

And 74 percent of parents who knew their children weren’t meeting grade-level benchmarks in math said they have had conversations with teachers to discuss their concerns, while 50 percent of all parents said the same.

Schools don’t need an influx of money or a dedicated family engagement position to close that perception gap, but it requires a mindset shift among school staff to prioritize building partnerships with families and making parents and caregivers a central part of the conversation about academic performance and student well-being. As students’ literacy and math performance has slipped to historic lows and their mental health worsens, many schools are looking to do just that.

What is trust?

The COVID-19 pandemic opened the digital doors to classrooms. For many parents, it was their first time seeing daily lessons.

Some were appalled by content about race, gender identity, and sexuality, igniting a fervor that led to the conservative parents’ rights movement and its calls for giving parents more control over curriculum and books, and organized political efforts from groups such as Moms for Liberty to win school board majorities.

Many districts saw increased attendance at school board meetings as districts made choices about COVID-19 precautions. Some meetings grew chaotic and made national headlines. Typically under-the-radar school board races became heated.

The push for parents’ rights reached the national political stage after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, won his election in 2021 on a parents’ rights platform.

Last year, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal parents’ bill of rights that reflected the agenda of conservative activists at the local and state levels. The Democratic Senate hasn’t taken up that bill, but eight states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, and North Carolina, have enacted similar laws over the past two years.

Parents’ rights were a central part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and their prominence pushed other politicians to respond. President Joe Biden’s administration last October announced a round of grants to support parent education and family engagement in schools. Former President Donald Trump’s education campaign platform calls for giving “power back to parents.”

While the movement has run into pushback and its influence may be on the wane, it has put pressure on educators. In the EdWeek Research Center survey from last summer, 14 percent of educators expected that “parent pushback against our curriculum and/or pedagogical approach” would be a major challenge this 2023-24 school year.

That nationally representative survey of 1,301 district leaders, principals and assistant principals, and teachers was administered from June 20 to July 14, 2023.

While much of the rhetoric surrounding the parents’ rights movement has been problematic and divisive, the attention to parent voices has shined a light on the importance of family engagement, said Vito Borrello, executive director of the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement.

“It’s important that the general public understand what is best practice family engagement and what isn’t,” Borrello said. “I think both sides of the aisle have made major missteps. When you start off by saying, ‘parents don’t have a say,’ you’ve lost me.”

The future of parent engagement

In many ways, the past four years have been some of the most active in terms of educators committing to effective parent and family engagement, Borrello said.

Major national organizations have turned their attention to parent involvement and are pushing for effective practices.

The National Parent Teacher Association, the umbrella group for PTA chapters throughout the country, has shifted its focus from school fundraisers to giving schools the tools to develop effective and sustainable engagement practices with parents, said Yvonne Johnson, the group’s president.

The national organization developed its own set of standards for high-quality family engagement that many schools, districts, and state agencies use as a guide. Broadly, they say that schools should welcome all families, communicate effectively, support student academic success, aim to remove barriers to learning and equitably serve all students, share decisionmaking with families, and collaborate with the community.

In 2018, the national organization launched a Center for Family Engagement, which provides resources to PTA members so they can advance family engagement initiatives in their districts.

The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions have also ramped up their support for effective family engagement.

The American Federation of Teachers has become a vocal advocate for community schools—a model that aims to improve low-performing schools by transforming them into hubs for a range of services to families and stepping up their engagement with families.

And the National Education Association has partnered with the National Association for Family School and Community Engagement to develop a framework for improving family engagement instruction in teacher-preparation programs.

“There are all of these ongoing barriers that bubble up and get in the way, but the really good news is they’re actually really solvable,” said Hubbard, of Learning Heroes. “There’s so much that’s intractable in our country and our world. This one actually is not. We can actually address it.”

And there’s evidence that educators want parents to be more involved. In the EdWeek Research Center survey, 45 percent of educators said “parents spending more time helping their children with schoolwork at home” would have a major impact on their district or school’s ability to improve student learning. Even more respondents—53 percent—said the same about parents spending more time teaching students how to behave at school.

“Parents are important to build community,” said Michelle Zeles-Hahn, a parent from Westminster, Colo., outside of Denver and a member of Colorado’s State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education. “We can be involved and help sometimes lessen the burden of actually running the school, of trying to get it all to happen.

“When administration engages with you and gives you some of that control to plan with the community, to build partnerships, to connect with other families, you can build a stronger community than if you just have the administration try to do all of it.”

What parent engagement means for schools

Many schools have greatly expanded parent and family engagement initiatives over the past decade, and especially in the past four years.

At Stevenson Elementary School in Southfield, Mich., educators have built trusting relationships with families through a community schools approach that makes the K-5 school a hub for services parents need. The school has also carved out physical space for parents at the school and instituted an open-door policy so families can come to the school whenever they please.

In three years, the school has gone from the lowest performing in the district to posting the district’s largest gains in math and reading last year.

“You have to meet people where they are,” Stevenson Principal Tonya Hickman said. “You have to be shoulder to shoulder at dismissal time. That’s what matters to people, and that’s what’s missing in education. Just because you send out a great newsletter with some cute pictures on it, that does not reach parents.”

In Colorado, the Denver school district has a home visiting program through which teachers meet with parents outside of school to talk about their children, become acquainted, and build trust.

Other schools have used technology to expand their outreach to families, while the emphasis on parent and family engagement gradually grows in teacher-prep programs.

“You cannot be an effective teacher or school leader unless you incorporate family engagement strategies into your practice,” Mapp said. “You’re not a proficient teacher if you do not know how to engage families. Family engagement is a part of your pedagogical work. It’s not an add-on. It’s not an extra.”

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