Schools seeking to boost parental involvement will need to tailor their approaches to match parents' differing views and concerns, according to a new report from Public Agenda. The report, "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, underwritten by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 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.
“Our research suggests that most parents are still an untapped resource for improving and reimagining public schools. School leaders are missing the mark in their efforts to engage parents if they don’t focus on parents’ distinct priorities, concerns and unique strengths," says Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research at Public Agenda. "We believe school leaders can improve their success in this area by tailoring their approaches more effectively.” Public Agenda recommends that school leaders heed and apply these important over-arching principles to engage more parents:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
“The Kauffman Foundation commissioned Public Agenda’s research to help us understand Kansas City parents’ attitudes and knowledge about ways to be involved with their children’s schools,” says Aaron North, director of Education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. “We learned many parents say they are comfortable advocating for local schools and for education policies that encourage student achievement. This report will help Kansas City educators, policymakers and education advocates be better informed of parental preferences for engaging in efforts to improve schools.”
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.
"Each group of parents has the potential to contribute to the conversation on school improvement in distinct and important ways. This report shows it is possible to make the most of Potential Transformers' energies, spur School Helpers to contribute in new ways, and bring the voices of Help Seekers into the conversation," says Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda. "Learning to productively engage, communicate with and work with these different groups of parents can help create sustainable improvements to Kansas City schools, which could, in turn, become a national model."
Find Out More
Learn more about the survey findings, view charts and read recommendations on how to engage the potential transformers, school helpers, and help seekers at http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/ready-willing-and-able.
“Ready, Willing, Able?” is based on 1566 telephone surveys with a representative sample of parents whose children attended public schools in one of five Kansas City counties: Jackson, Cass, Clay, and Platte counties in Missouri, and Wyandotte County in Kansas. These five counties were chosen to represent the geographic and socioeconomic diversity of the Kansas City metropolitan area. Interviews were conducted from May 31 to July 3, 2012, by Clark Research, Inc., using both landline and cellular telephones, and respondents had the choice of completing the interviews in English or Spanish. The margin of error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. In addition to the survey, Public Agenda conducted eight focus groups with parents in the region. Read detailed information on the study’s methodology and data analysis.