Clarifying Parent Engagement in Your Community

If no one bothers to ask, how can you define it?

by Steve Clark

The vast majority of educators agree that parent engagement is hugely important and badly lacking in our schools. However, increasing parent engagement is a complex, widespread and confusing puzzle to solve.  It takes a specific effort focused on specific goals. And, as if the concept isn’t hard enough to get a handle on, it is made even harder to understand by its ambiguous definition.  

Parent Engagement – What Is It?

The word “engagement” has many meanings.  When used in “parent engagement” discussions, does it mean involvement, one-way communication, an exchange of thought, a commitment, or just new behaviors? Who starts parent engagement? Does it happen when a parent initiates contact, like when they call the school?  Or, is it when the school initiates things, like sending home a flyer? Is there a moment when we can say it has actually happened?  Who is responsible for whether it has happened or failed to happen? The school? The parents? If the flyer makes it home, but is never read, then that doesn’t count, does it? If the parent calls the school with a question, and hangs up feeling like an idiot, does that count as parent engagement when it likely means they won’t call again? In order to work on increasing parent engagement, it would be helpful if we knew what the term means.  

In the past ten years the phrase “parent engagement” has become a buzzword; a term that gets tossed around school board meetings, district mandates, and teacher/staff trainings. The education community loves to use buzzwords, jargon, and acronyms to categorize topics and expedite conversations. But, as commonly happens with buzz words, the term has become a catchall – taking on more and more definitions – making it harder to see the specific work and results that are needed.  

We could make up a definition, and just say, “Parent engagement is any time a parent interacts with a district employee, a student or another parent.” Sure, we came up with an all-encompassing answer, but that doesn’t help us define what’s working, what’s not, and what’s specifically needed.  

The answer to “What is parent engagement?” is not one definition, it is many. Ask ten people what they think parent engagement is, and you will receive ten different answers. Ask a hundred people and you will get a hundred different answers. This proves that a catchall phrase isn’t going to help us focus on the specifics of what’s needed.

It’s important to note here that having a hundred different answers isn’t a problem.  It’s a good thing. But, due to the “convergent learning” training and culture of most educators, they may see it as a problem. Most educators like having one right answer instead of many.

Once we have a hundred different answers, we can begin to see the breadth of the issue. It also allows us to create some behavioral areas so we can narrow the variances into reasonable objectives. For example, the following ways parents get involved, despite being only nine groupings, shows us that “parent engagement” is much too general a term to be effective. Parents get involved as:

  • Personal tutors and mentors at home – encouragers, college application coaches, etc.
  • Mediators, problem solvers, and advocates between teacher and student
  • School site volunteers – participants, teacher aides, chaperones, and resource donors
  • School site leaders – serving on governance teams, PTA, PTO, and advisory committees
  • Program advocates for special education, STEM, anti-bullying, Junior Achievement, etc.
  • Supporters of athletics and performing arts through booster clubs and attendance
  • Oversight and accountability voices to school & district administrators
  • Voices of influence or even as candidates for the school board
  • Agents of political change – informed voter, outspoken constituent, or lobbyist

But even this many categories won’t include all options and examples of what parent engagement can be. Looking at this list, I can sympathize with over-worked educators and understand why they prefer the generic buzz word. Buzzwords are easier. They help us shove things in a box and label it. They also ease the pressure to do something by saying to outsiders, “We know what we mean by it and you don’t, so don’t get involved.”  What buzz words don’t do is give us a specific objective to pursue. What we need is clarity.  

Fighting for Clarity

Whether you are a teacher, principal or parent, there is something you can do to get things moving in a good direction. You can ask questions. Remember the hundred answers? It is a good thing because we end up getting a clearer picture of what people think, what to focus on, what to learn more about, what can be measured and what can be done.  

Whether it is you or whomever you let off the hook, to accept ambiguity simply because it is easier than asking someone else to come up with an answer is to fail to fight for what our children need. They need parent engagement. Our children need dedicated allies in the very complex, demanding, scary and life-determining path called school. Students will frequently change classrooms and teachers, but will have, on average, only two parents as constants through the years. Knowledgeable and involved parents are extremely important. If they aren’t knowledgeable, then let’s focus on ways to increase what they know. To do that they must be engaged.  

School leaders, whether they agree or not, also need parent engagement. Parents know what the job market is like, and how the workplace is evolving; knowing what technologies are being used, the importance of college and even grad school, and how career planning is changing, can help classrooms evolve to better prepare students for a career. Discipline, transportation, nutrition and dropout rates are all affected by parent involvement. College and career readiness, citizenship and community support are also impacted by parents.  Most districts’ budgeting and governance processes rely on parents as sources of advocacy and accountability. Title I funding requires measurable parent engagement methods and turnout. But, do your neighborhood schools really know how to increase, maximize, or improve parent engagement? Or could they use some help?

Making a Difference

Improving parent engagement in your schools requires unique solutions.  There is no “one answer” that applies to all communities. Your community must figure out its own ideas, changes, initiatives, and solutions. What each group needs is a clear idea of how to engage parents, how to measure how well they are doing at improving it, and how to use things that are working in other schools. That’s why people like you must fight for clarity.  

You are someone with a choice. You may spend your whole life doing various good and bad things, but how many times will you be able to know for sure you made a lasting difference? It is a simple choice. You can stay at home or attend a meeting. You can attend a meeting and allow ignorance to persist or you can ask a question. You could simply ask people at school meetings what parent engagement means to them. Or, you could ask leaders to define it clearly enough so everyone will know when it has been accomplished or improved.  Do this and something consequential will happen. You will have changed the accepted norm. You will have moved the solution one inch closer to being found, accepted, and implemented. You will encourage others to ask questions, too. It may not seem like much, but doing this will actually impact many students and parents. It will make a difference.

It isn’t up to someone else. It isn’t someone else’s job or responsibility. Yes, it may take some courage to stand up and ask, “How will we know if we have achieved progressive improvements in parent engagement over the next five years?” It is a good question and worth asking even if a few others may not look too happy that you asked it. That’s okay. They’ll come around. The fight isn’t with them. It’s within you. Are you going to sit in silence when buzz words fly, or will you ask the needed question?  

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