Thursday, April 12, 2012

What is Authentic Parent Involvement?

Last evening, I was pleased to host more than 400 parents and students to our Welcome Night for our incoming Grade 7s.  It is one of my favorite nights of the year.  And while I do spend some time giving information about our school and the opportunities that are available, information dissemination is one of my lowest priorities for the evening.  My main goal is simple: when they leave that evening, I want them to feel good about their student coming to our school.  Whether this is through their feeling a personal connection to something in the presentation, or seeing other parents and students there in the gym, or just coming into the school and sensing the excitement from their child about making the jump to high school, I just want them to leave feeling better than when they came.

Driving home after the Welcome Night, I began to reflect on parent involvement in schools.  Earlier this Spring, I was privileged enough to see Larry Rosenstock (from High Tech High) speak to a group of district and school based administrators in British Columbia.  During his address, he alluded to something that surprised (and then later resonated with) me:  he talked about how he felt that parent involvement promoted inequity in education.  At the time, I was a bit shocked and stunned, and there was a strange and tangible ripple that flowed through the room of more than 400 people.  It seemed to be such a bold statement.  But as Rosenstock explained, if you were to take his context in San Diego as an example, he would predict that the majority of parents that would choose to be significantly involved would be parents from areas such as La Jolla (one of the most expensive zip codes to live in the United States), and less (if any) from the impoverished areas of the city.  And as a result, he felt that the values that would be promoted at PAC meetings or forums for parent involvement would be those from a small and select group of people that was not representative of his school community.  He felt that the parent involvement that was most important was to have parents come to the showcase evenings that take place at his schools so they can see the work of their children.

And tonight, I read a thought-provoking post by Will Richardson called "Getting Bold with Parents" in which he details the efforts by a particular Superintendent to involve parents in conversations about education.   Within this post, Mr. Richardson states:

"Parents are the most important constituency to engage in conversations around the shifts we are experiencing. We have to be willing to provoke and engage in those conversations on an ongoing basis."

From where I sit, in some small way, this flies in the face of what Larry Rosenstock was saying at HTH. Wow.  Two 'educational heavyweights' on different sides of the coin.  What to do?

Just to be sure, I want to clearly articulate a few things about parent involvement in schools.  Firstly, I think that parents (and students) are our clients, and we need to be insatiably curious about their perceptions and feelings about education and the service that we provide in our schools.  This might put me more on the end of the continuum that Will Richardson describes.  Conversely, having been in education for sixteen years in three different school districts, and having read dozens and dozens of blog posts and articles about the subject, I am still struggling to find a model that gets authentic parental involvement from a truly representative group in a school community.  This puts me more on the other end of the continuum where Larry Rosenstock was coming from.

Yet there is another piece to this.  What is the parent involvement that we want?  Have we really qualified this?  I believe that if you asked District staff, school-based administrators, teachers, students and parents what effective parental involvement in schools and school reform looks like, you would likely get a wide range of answers that each have an equal amount of validity.  Do parents need to be involved in administrative things such as budgeting and staffing?  In pedagogical issues such as teaching methodologies and assessment?  In policy discussions that govern our schools and school personnel?  In the macro-issues of educational reform?  In all of these, some of these, none of these?  What is the right amount?  A lot? A little? And perhaps the most important question of all--do parents WANT to be involved in these things?  In schools and education, where the pace of change can be oft-regarded as two paces slower than glacial, do parents want to commit the time and effort to helping us do our jobs when they have jobs of their own?

I ask these questions without presuming to know the answers.  But one thing that I am sure of is this: I want the support of our parents in our school community.  To this end, I need to be insatiably curious about their perceptions of our school and the education that their child is receiving from us.  I want parents to support our teachers, and our teachers to over-communicate with them about their student's progress.  I want them to support our programs, to come to games, performances, assemblies and art exhibits so they are part of our tribe.  And I want parents to support their child so they feel loved and happy each day when they come to school. 

Of course these supports are not as far-reaching as what Will Richardson describes in his post with respect to engaging parents in the quest to make sweeping changes in education.  However, until each of us is able to clarify the purpose and process of authentic parent involvement by answering some of the questions above, I fear that this parent involvement we are striving for will remain hit and miss at best, and at worst, perpetuate some of the inequities described by Larry Rosenstock.


  1. Great post, Cale.

    I too love my grade 7 parent night. I like the fact that I get to play PT Barnum and not only "sell" them on our school but I also like to share with them my understanding of the fact that for 40% of their children's waking hours over the next 5 years, they will be at our school or involved in a school function. I will see them, over these five years, more than I see my own children!

    With all of this comes a huge responsibility - we, form a "second family" and who these kids become will in part be a reflection of their experience in our school.
    Wow! How can you not want parents involved when this is the reality!

    What do we do:
    1. PAC Meetings that feature a guest speaker that will draw out parents: i.e dealing with teen anxiety; parenting in the 'dark years' (if anyone has a teen they'll know of what I write!)
    2. Parent blogs and, now, working on setting up a #JOparentchat

    To what degree should they be involved? The answer really is contextual and based on the needs of your school. But, for the large part, regardless of the context, they need to feel valued, they need to feel welcomed, they need to feel connected and we have to continue to find ways to get them in our building (i.e. just finished calling parents of our 17 grade 8 girls on the soccer team to invite them to the game at our school next week - coffee and cookies provided!).

    One conversation at a time - they'll tell you what they want for an authentic experience (provide it and 'they will come').

  2. Cale, interesting questions. Engaging parents often seems to be a platitude that we espouse, but as you clearly articulate never really define. I like what Gino says about context - I think it is a big factor. For our school I want the same things you do. I want to know parents perceptions, I want them to trust, I want them to over-communicate. I want them to feel comfortable coming in and telling us what they really think about our school.

    Great questions. I hope to see a number of responses to this thread.

  3. Hi Cale,
    Enjoyed and appreciated your post and your questions, as well as Darcy’s and Gino’s comments. I often talk and blog and tweet about all the “parent involvement/engagement” discussions and visions that get shared, as well as make note of all the extensive resources, research, and program ideas to facilitate it. Yet, at the same time, I continue to see the inconsistency in how it is defined, what is sought after, and what is desired by parents themselves. I plan to elaborate more soon in a post I am drafting. But for now, I just wanted to mention that one’s situation and current position in the education system (or “level”) can impact what one sees as valid and/or wanted from parent involvement. As for authenticity, I think that comes from listening to parents on an individual basis to guide where they need or want to be involved. It is very difficult to ask and/or assess “Do parents want x”, as it is hard to conclude what “all” parents want. I have worked with parents in so many ways, and you are right, they need to feel connected and welcomed to the school, as they are entrusting you/your staff with their children (and if we value public education…we have a responsibility, as you said, to care about their impressions). We often think it is not as important or different at the high school level, but I keep finding out that this is not true. I also think that some want to be more involved in having input into the “bigger picture” of education, but struggle with finding the time to do so and be informed to do so, and are unsure if the effort and time spent is worthwhile or really welcomed. And I do believe that an administrator/leader can be effective in accessing and outreaching to a more representational voice of their school community. I fully understand that working with the diversity of parents can be difficult, but it can also be amazing what can start when they are invited and valued. Others have said it better than me, so I will leave you with a post written by Royan Lee, which will link to and is a response to a post by Dean Shareski, where I also left a comment about the question about parents in educational change and decision-making.

    I really appreciate that you shared your thoughts and questions about this often “gray” area that has become a part of education. My own parents would never understand all this, or my current involvement as a parent in education, but the world and our communities are different now, and so….schools too.

  4. Hey buddy... I agree with Sheila on this one too... As with students and teachers, I think it is important we start where they are and this can be different for each school and each family. Some will be involved directly with the school, some will be involved indirectily via the student, and others will struggle to understand how to be involved. The key for me is to listen to families and meet them where they are as much as we can. I have a difficult time with blanket statements and policies that standardize parent engagement... We need to personalize relationships as otherwise, they remain on the surface.

  5. This is a really important conversation and I am really pleased to hear school administrators talking about parent engagement. At the ministry, we have begun to weigh in on this as well. We have been taking an iterative approach to developing a parent engagement strategy. A number of individual, small and large group dialogues have been happening with parents. This is only a start. And who better to begin with than parents. But if we are all to be successful in raising parent engagement to the surface as a key driver of student learning in the 21st century, then everyone will need to weigh in from their vantage point. I can't know what your expectations are as an administrator. And I can't know what a teacher or district administrator's perspectives are. But I can listen and help to build new models that we can try and refine and grow with within the context of each school and the backdrop on BC's education transformation.

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