Family-First Technology for Equitable School Communication
| by Beth Dewhurst, Ed.D.
Moreland Faculty Member’s Research on Parent Perceptions of School Engagement Using Communication Apps
During a typical day of teaching, how many different educational technology apps do educators use to plan and deliver instruction? To connect with colleagues, learners, and families? To access those apps, how many platforms—Microsoft Teams, Canvas, Google Classroom, or other—are required by schools or local education agencies?
Educational technology has shaped my thinking as an educator. As a D.C. Public Schools middle school reading intervention educator, I relied on a blended learning approach. In Washington, D.C. schools and nonprofit organizations, I have used educational technology to support the academic goals for learners and families of historically minoritized groups. I have wanted to better understand how to leverage these tools in education as technology has become mobile, personalized, and ubiquitous through the years. After winning a teaching award in 2017 that came with a scholarship, I specialized in educational technology while completing a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D) degree. Today, I draw on these experiences as an instructor and mentor at Moreland University.
Educators are navigating an acceleration of the evolution of technology, part of the global $300 billion investment in educational technology projected by the end of this year. This explosion of technology may help educators to facilitate more equitable learning experiences for students and their families. Educators in the classroom are most familiar with the gaps that can be filled by educational technology to improve our profession, one of which is authentic parent-school engagement. How can the boom of educational technology be utilized to facilitate interpersonal connections and communication between families and educators in equitable ways?
Does this scene sound familiar to you?
It is 9:00 AM on parent-teacher conference day, one of four such days each school year. Teachers have lined the hallways on either side of their classroom doors with chairs, ready to receive the parents, grandparents, and other caregivers in our D.C. middle school. On the third floor, families of 8th grade students anxiously scan the room numbers, searching for the teachers they want to see. While some students are present, typically only a parent or guardian attends these conferences eager to discuss student grades and ways to improve before the end of the term. As I examine attendance lists year over year, I notice a pattern: The majority of parents and guardians present have learners who are the top performers.
Over time, a narrative emerged among educators: Parents of struggling learners do not care or prioritize the academic success of their learners. This narrative did not align with what I observed in student performance as a reading intervention teacher. While most parent-teacher conference days were poorly attended in my reading-intervention room, our reading learners earned some of the top literacy gains in the city year after year. Most were transitioned out of our reading intervention program faster than the city average. In this way, something did not add up. How could my students achieve at such high levels if their parents or guardians “did not care or prioritize academic success?”
Education research has long indicated the positive relationship between parental involvement and academic achievement. Family engagement at the secondary level is most effective when it accounts for learners’ developmental needs, including the need for autonomy, and when it focuses on their role in cultivating academic growth. (Check out this meta-analysis of engagement strategies that promote achievement in early adolescents.) Although engagement tends to dissipate during middle and high school, I believed those learners’ gains were tied to authentic family engagement. Our reading team of educators led grant-funded family literacy nights with dinner, books, and home strategies; we also kept caregivers informed, especially to celebrate learners’ progress. However, these strategies and efforts were not enough.
To create authentic connections with the parents and guardians of my students, I followed their lead by communicating via cellphone. I saw quickly that, once they recognized my number and added me as a contact, my text messages received speedy and consistent responses. As many educators know, and as we teach in the online TEACH-NOW Teacher Preparation Certificate Program, starting with a positive note home is key to establishing a tone of partnership and demonstrating an authentic desire to get to know students and their families (instead of reaching out only when there is a concern). My text messages home were always authentically positive. There are many small victories to celebrate on the path toward achieving the challenging goals of closing literacy gaps ranging from two years below grade level to struggling as “emergent readers.”
Logistics of Text-Message Communication
I used simple strategies to maintain consistent communication and set boundaries. If I had the same reminder about an upcoming assessment for multiple parents, I copied and pasted a text message while changing the name at the top. When I needed to step away to maintain my own wellness, I could turn off notifications. I never had a parent or guardian overstep nor misuse text messaging. Many wanted to respond as soon as they could, even if that meant that they communicated while working overnight shifts. Although some educators at our school had strong results using Remind and other platforms to communicate with families, sending text messages or emails via cell phones fostered trusting relationships and a powerfully efficient network of academic support.
This specific approach may not be appropriate or feasible for all educators. However, mobile-phone communication led me to question commonly held beliefs among colleagues about family engagement. It also pushed me to reconsider the power of using a simple and ubiquitous tool to communicate with families. Valid though these questions may be, my anecdotal experience would not persuade my school or district to shift policies or practices. I decided to explore these questions in a qualitative doctoral study:
- What experiences do parents report in using communication apps as a tool for increasing their connection to the school, other parents, and school engagement efforts to support struggling readers?
- What changes in student academic progress do parents describe when connecting to the school with communication applications?
To learn more about my qualitative study and research process which leveraged interview-based data to analyze parents’ lived experiences, read my full doctoral study entitled, Parent Perceptions of School Engagement Using Communication Apps to Support Struggling Readers. In what follows, I share my findings and recommendations that inform practice for educators and school leaders as they support struggling learners’ academic achievement.
The findings from my first research question indicated parents’ clear and unanimous preference for using cell phones to engage with school and to support their students through SMS text messaging and email. Data clearly indicated that parents were eager to partner with teachers. Interestingly, parents also described using cell phones to support other parents as a highly effective family support network that the school had never recognized as a tool for school engagement. Like the parents of my reading learners, most of the parents in my study had layers of personal responsibility and challenges that made coming to the school for parent-teacher conference days impossible. These barriers included having multiple learners at different schools, relying on public transportation, lacking childcare access for younger siblings, and having conflicting work schedules. However, all parents and caregivers prioritized their learners’ academic growth and wanted increased opportunities for timely and reliable two-way communication with the school. One participant in my study shared, “Gmail keeps me updated and it helps me to remember things that maybe I might have forgotten or overlooked. And it’s like, ‘Okay, I need to take a look into this.’ Or, ‘Okay . . . the grades are posted. Let me take a look at that right now.’” Another parent said, “I have four children . . . [cellphone communication] puts the information at my fingertips. I feel this is paramount because if you slip by one semester [or] one quarter, it may be something that you can’t get back.”
For my second research question, the data was unanimous: All parents reported a high level of frustration when trying to engage in a timely manner with the school to support their learners. The consensus among participants in my study was that schools should simplify the communications to one cell phone application and increase accountability and reliability of two-way cell phone communication. Additionally, my study contributed new knowledge to academic literature in three ways:
- Parents and caregivers want to use cell phone apps to engage with greater frequency.
- Rather than a barrier due to cost or other issues, cell phones served as valuable and reliable two-way communication between parents and families.
- Beyond prior studies that focused on teachers’ use of cell phones for instruction or engagement with parents of younger learners, cell phone applications were an important tool for school engagement with middle school parents of struggling readers.
Those who have toggled between virtual and hybrid learning environments in K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic recognize that educational technology has grown in importance and opened new possibilities. Finding strategies and tools to connect with families using technology is critically important as we lean into the evolving landscape of teaching and learning. As educators, we can lead positive changes in our content area or grade level teams, our schools, and even our local communities by gathering the perspectives of all voices at the decision table.
As we seek to increase family engagement, there is an opportunity for educators to collaborate amongst themselves and explore perspectives of diverse voices to inform equitable school decisions and advocate for positive change. What are the gaps hindering timely, reliable two-way communication in your learning community? What solutions are waiting for you to uncover in your learning community?