Repeated efforts to improve public school education across Canada — curricular enhancements, increased accountability, intensified literacy and numeracy initiatives — are failing to improve student achievement.
In the province of Saskatchewan, student achievement results have flatlined and only 43.2 per cent of Indigenous students are graduating on time.
Saskatchewan’s results are not atypical. In her analysis of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, Man-Wai Chu, assistant professor of education at the University of Calgary, said Canadian students have shown no improvements in science, mathematics or reading over the past decade.
So what can we do differently? We can engage parents — in ways that enable students to do better, like school more and stay in school longer.
Five decades of research evidence attest to the benefit of parent engagement. The educational and moral imperative is clear: to shift the existing student achievement trajectory, educators must intentionally and systematically use parents’ untapped knowledge to enhance student learning.
As educator and family-engagement expert, Dr. Steven Constantino said in his book Engage every Family, “If we as educators could successfully teach all children by ourselves, then it seems to me we would have already done so.”
Walking alongside children
During more than 20 years of research into parent engagement, I have come to understand it as a philosophy and a pedagogy of “walking alongside.”
This is both a belief system about parents and their meaningful and authentic voice in their children’s schooling and education and a way of enacting those beliefs in practice.
When parents are seen to be holders of knowledge, as capable and as possessing gifts and strengths, then this can be leveraged alongside teacher knowledge to enrich programming.
Engaging parents entails assuming a new worldview in schools — in which parents are seen to be central to the work of the school, not separate or apart from it.
Elementary math bins
A former graduate student of mine, Kirsten Kobylak, is now a Grade 1 teacher at Willowgrove School in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. As part of my research on the impact of graduate teacher education, she shared with me how she wanted to engage parents in their math theme, “Math is Everywhere.”
In an email home to parents, she explained how important language and culture are to children’s learning. She posed the question, “Where does math live in your culture?” and asked parents to share such things as game ideas, artifacts with patterns, number lines in different languages and more.
As items came in, the children created math bins — patterning, fact families, number lines, problem-solving.
Parents came in and taught games and shared materials, comparing versions of items from one country to another, simultaneously sharing culture, language, history and family stories.
Through this parent engagement, children learned and strengthened math skills such as skip counting, memory, estimation, addition, greater than, less than.
They also deepened their relationships with one another, their knowledge of diversity and sense of social cohesion.
‘We are all Treaty people’
Jesse Reis, another former graduate student, is now a high school teacher in Warman, Sask. He shared with me the example of a daily email he sent to the parents of students in each of his classes.
In the email he included a concept the students and he had discussed that day, something interesting that arose, and something parents could chat with their son or daughter about that evening at home.
For example, in one email, Jesse shared with parents of students in his Social Studies class a statement they had explored that day: “We are all Treaty people.” He noted that while some students saw themselves as “Treaty people,” others did not. He invited parents to discuss with their teen what stance they took and why.
The daily email took Jesse less than five minutes to send per class, but gave him potential contact with every parent every day. Parents were able to engage in meaningful conversations with their children about curricular concepts in the normal course of their day — and to add their voice and knowledge to their son or daughter’s teaching and learning.
Parents were always invited to respond to Jesse’s email as well, sharing with him their conversations with their child and thus bringing home learning back into the classroom. Parents asked questions and offered to participate in the unfolding curriculum in other ways (sharing knowledge, stories, artifacts or suggesting potential resources and experiences).
What we see in these examples is that parent engagement can happen on the school landscape or off of it, and with all ages of students.
Critical to parent engagement is that it draws on parent knowledge, is connected to teaching and learning, honours a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child, enables a parent to remain in the role of parent, is authentic and meaningful, promotes shared decision-making, is strength-based and ensures everyone benefits from the engagement — children, parents, and teacher.
The possibilities of parent engagement in education are endless when these critical attributes are embraced by teachers and lived out in ways that are contextual and culturally responsive — honouring students, parents, families and communities.
A gentle revolution
To shift from the current worldview in education, one which reflects schools as a domain exclusive to educators and students, to a new worldview where schools are using parent knowledge in teaching and learning will take a gentle revolution.
Notice the word “love” embedded in revolution? By working together, with mutual respect, care and concern for one another, educators at all levels of the system and parents can work together — to revolutionize schooling.
We need to establish “parent engagement offices” in ministries of education, develop core teacher education courses on parent engagement, require parent engagement coursework for teacher certification, establish school district positions for parent engagement consultants, structure parent universities and establish parent mentor programs.
The results of such a gentle revolution — creating an integral place and voice for parents in their children’s teaching and learning — will positively impact the trajectory of student achievement and other educational outcomes.