If your school district is like most school districts, your administrators, teachers, and students have been given an impossible task: increase achievement and close the equity gap—and do it using less time than the highest-performing districts. This seems like an impossible task, because it is. It's like expecting athletes to increase their skill and fitness without increasing the number or length of practices.
As a board, however, it is completely within your power to put your district on equal footing and to make the impossible, possible.
The more challenges your students and families face, the more important it is that you use your power to affect change. The students and families in our district face significant challenges, but by changing how we look at family engagement, we're starting to see remarkable growth.
It all comes down to time. In education, as in many other fields, time is the number one factor that separates the bottom from the middle from the top. By better understanding family engagement and how it impacts the amount of extra time students spend trying to reach their goals, you will make it more likely that your administrators, teachers, and students will accomplish what you're hoping they will accomplish.
Because of what the families in the highest-performing districts know and believe regarding schools and education and how they've communicated it to their children, their children have no intention of stopping at what their teachers ask them to do. Students in those districts spend a considerable amount of their own time pursuing their college and career goals, starting very early and continuing through high school. It is that extra time that puts them—and the schools and districts they attend—at the top and creates a gap between them and everyone else. Some people think achievement in those districts is largely a function of money, parent education, and teacher quality, but it's not.
Any district that wants to increase its academic performance and provide equity for its students has to address the issue of time by building the capacity of their families. The goal is to build family capacity to the point that it has an impact on the amount of time that students work beyond the school day and the school year. Because it's families—not teachers, schools, or districts—that control and influence what students do once they walk out the school door.
Take the College and Career Goals of Your Students and Families Seriously
Taking your students' and families' goals seriously is the starting point for giving your students, teachers, and administrators a chance to produce the same results as other students, teachers, and administrators because this is the starting point families in the highest-performing districts use. These families typically know what it will take for their children to reach their highest college and career goals, and they understand that school alone will likely not be enough.
They have a very specific understanding of the amount, kind, and level of work their children will need to do to reach their goals. And it is this understanding that influences the conversations they have with their children about the value of math, English, history, science, art, foreign language, and extracurricular activities and what they have their children do with their free time. To reach the highest levels in anything, everything counts.
So, the first step in putting your district on an equal footing is to ask every student and family, "What opportunities do you want? What college and career goals do you have?" Then focus on what it will take for students to reach those goals and forget lesser goals like graduation rate, getting students to grade level, or meeting the minimum standards for college admissions, such as California's A-G requirements. Help families understand how they can help their children get to their highest goals, and your students will blow past lesser goals, just like it happens in almost every high-performing district.
Throw Out Everything You Think You Know About Family Engagement
Family engagement is an essential component, but most districts aren't willing to fully invest in family engagement because there's so much bad family engagement out there. Based on the research we've done, 70-90 percent of what districts across the nation are doing for family engagement is ineffective or minimally effective at producing districtwide change. So, throwing out everything you know (or think you know) about family engagement and starting over is important.
This idea offends a lot of people—but it shouldn't. It seems to offend people with the most years of experience in education the most because they think there's a connection between years of experience and understanding effective family engagement—and there isn't. If the people with the most family engagement experience—like Karen Mapp, Anne Henderson, and others—are saying that we've gotten family engagement wrong and have been getting it wrong for decades, perhaps we should follow their lead and reconsider what we're doing.
Building a new understanding of effective family engagement isn't difficult. But it isn't easy. With so much misunderstanding about effective family engagement and with new lines of research just in their infancy, it's easy to fall into old traps and think that if we could just get enough families to show up, our achievement and equity problems would be over. Instead, start with this question: What do the families in the most successful districts know and believe that increases the amount of work their children complete above and beyond what their teachers require?
Focus on getting to the point where you understand what those families are telling their children about education around the dinner table at night or on the way to soccer practice that increases effort. That's where the gold is.
(But be careful about hiring outside family engagement consultants or relying on canned programs. The evidence they provide isn't what it seems. Using the vetting protocol we developed, we've found that the vast majority of family engagement companies and programs rely on ineffective, add-on, meeting-based family engagement—the kind of family engagement experts say we should abandon—instead of relying on more modern, systemic approaches that focus on relationships and developing staff capacity. That's why we decided to take the path we're taking.)
Measure What Matters
Once you help your families understand the amount, kind and level of work their children should be doing to reach their highest goals (beyond what their teachers require, if necessary), then develop a plan to begin measuring the amount of extra work your students are doing.
When it comes to data, there are lots of ways to measure achievement: grad rates, test scores, D/F rate, college admission standards, college-going rate. The amount of extra work, however, influences all of these numbers. It is a leading indicator for all of the other data we consider important. It is the number that has the power to unleash student potential, build expertise, reduce the equity gap, create opportunities, and provide the foundation for extraordinary achievement.
An increase in extra work is not only the true test of effective family engagement, but the true test of whether you're on the correct path to a variety of other things, including increasing academic achievement, improving college and career reading, and closing the equity gap. If your students start doing work beyond what their teachers require, you're doing something right. If they don't, it's back to the drawing board.
Focus on BIG Gains
Most districts spend all of their time chasing marginal gains. They invest virtually everything in improving curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher quality and very little on what has potentially the biggest impact. By not factoring in the huge, often unaccounted for, chunks of extra time the best students spend learning, it's easy to exaggerate the differences among low, middle, and high-achieving districts.
Do curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher quality count? Absolutely! But when it comes to improving achievement, equity and college and career readiness, there's no competing with volume. You could fill your district with the most highly-qualified teachers and cutting-edge approaches to curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and your district would still be at a disadvantage because that's not how academic performance at the highest levels works.
As a student at one of the top high schools in the nation put it in Jeffrey J. Selingo's book College (Un)Bound, "We go to school because we have to, but the learning is happening after class and online." It's an attitude and belief common among students in the highest-performing districts—and they learned it largely from their parents.
It's not either/or. It's not either improving curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher quality or improving family engagement. It should be both/and. But right now, it's not.
Thinking we can fill the huge hole left by ineffective family engagement hasn't worked—and won't work. Only effective family engagement can fill that hole.
Since current family engagement is of such low quality, investing in truly effective family engagement has a potentially huge, generational return on investment, as the research of James Heckman and others has shown. What would the effect on achievement and equity in your district be if a huge chunk of your students suddenly put in the equivalent of an additional 15-20 days of extra work every year? That's the value added of effective family engagement. Build a system to develop the capacity of your staff and families to work together, and whatever extra learning can be accomplished in those extra 15-20 days is the potential impact.
Give Them a Chance
As a board, as soon as you focus only on the work done during the 180-day school year, it's game over for your students, teachers, administrators, and community: You're playing for second. But no one (especially your students and families) is interested in second, and they're relying on you to show them how not to play for second.
But right now, we are playing for second. It doesn't have to be this way. In our district, we've begun taking initial steps in implementing these recommendations, and the results have been encouraging, to say the least. Students involved in our pilot programs are performing at unprecedented levels and having access to opportunities they've never had before. Which is the heart of equity, isn't it?
Help your families understand the amount, kind, and level of work their children should be doing and help them to do it. Help your families communicate to their children the values, attitudes, and beliefs typical of students in top districts, that extra work isn't really an option. Help build a system so that administrators and staff have the right kinds of conversations with families about the right kinds of things. Then your students, teachers, administrators, and district will have a chance.
Randy Olson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Family Engagement Specialist for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. He has been researching the impact of family engagement on equity and student achievement for more than a decade.