Parent focus groups reveal disconnect between real and perceived student performance

Nonprofit advocacy organization Learning Heroes also highlights the limits of ed jargon

The vast majority of parents believe their children are performing at or above grade level in both reading and math. According to nationally representative data from nonprofit parent advocacy organization Learning Heroes, across race, class, income and education levels, 90% of parents think their children are proficient in these two subjects.

Educators know the reality is very different. National data indicates about 33% of students are proficient in math and 34% are proficient in reading.

The 2016 Learning Heroes survey report — soon to be followed up with the 2017 version — provides a useful touchstone for school districts in their parent engagement efforts. Yoni Geffen, manager of family and empowerment and academic partnership at the Denver Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement, said the huge disparity in actual and perceived performance is striking.

For districts like Denver, the data was a call to action.

“We really believe families have the capacity to be partners when they’re being brought into the conversation,” Geffen said. His office has used the Learning Heroes report to justify its work in the public schools, emphasizing the importance of family engagement and the necessity of equipping parents with the information they need to get involved.

Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, said her organization has conducted more than 50 focus groups since launching about two-and-a-half years ago, reaching a cross-section of the U.S. parent population. Since discovering the disconnect among parents about child performance, Learning Heroes has worked to give parents an accurate picture of how their children are doing.

The organization has also worked with districts and state education agencies to help them communicate more accurate information to parents.

“Most parents fall into problem-solving mode when they learn their children aren’t really performing,” Hubbard said. “But right now they don’t know what problems we’re really trying to solve in the broadest of terms.”

In Denver 2,700 families have received one particular resource from Learning Heroes tailored to their local schools. “The Super 5: Power Moves for a Successful School Year” outlines five strategies parents should take to support their children’s education from the beginning of the school year. Electronic versions of the tool connect parents to resources from the PTA, Scholastic and others that dig deeper into each strategy.

Geffen said the resource was well-received because it was so action-oriented. Often people say families should be more engaged, but they stop short of giving concrete examples of what parents can do to make an impact. The Super 5 fill that void.

“They help make what can be an abstract concept become something that’s really actionable,” Geffen said

A note on terminology

Another important finding from Learning Heroes’ conversations with parents is that some of the wording schools use when communicating with parents creates new problems.

Many parents don’t understand the education jargon used in reports and surveys and small changes can go a long way in clearing up the confusion.

Hubbard highlights three key examples of this problem. First, when administrators discuss student or school growth, they are referring to academic performance, but many parents think about class size or enrollment growth. Saying student progress instead of growth gives parents a direct connection to academics.

Two others are most relevant among Spanish-speaking and Latino communities. When educators talk about school culture, Latino families can become defensive because they expect a judgment about their own heritage to follow. And when administrators refer to it as school climate, a lot of parents take it very literally, thinking about air conditioning and other similar qualities.

A solution, Hubbard says, is to use the term learning environment.

Survey creators agonize over wording to be as clear as possible. Educators often try to present information as simply as they can, but Hubbard encourages administrators to go even farther, especially when presenting data and reports about school performance.

“Parents are often the end user, but we, as an education community, haven’t really taken the time or the intentionality to start with parents and see how they are interpreting all of this data that we are tossing at them,” Hubbard said.

When parents are empowered with the information they need, they can play a far bigger role than even teachers in their child’s achievement. So far, Hubbard says parents represent untapped potential in the fight to improve outcomes.

But clearer communication can be a critical first step in engaging parents as partners in this work.

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