By Steve Clark, Parent Engagement Solutions
As educators do their best to navigate the enormous complexity of “what matters” these days, the recent trend to organize initiatives according to three fundamental classifications – access, compliance, and equity – is helping. The core focus of what matters is undeniably a quality education for all students, and more and more we see data metrics helping to guide decision making toward that very important goal. But as government officials and district administrators diligently search for enduring answers to what matters, the role of parents is frequently overlooked. And with insufficient data to obviate their needs for access and equity, where are frontline educators supposed to look for guidance?
Is Data in Charge?
Traditionally, bureaucracies lean toward a top-down flow of new ideologies. In the business of education, with every child’s learning at stake, the need to get it right is pervasive. As a result, we see a strong reliance on case studies, pilot programs, and a truckload of data before anyone risks a decision. When it comes to parent engagement, there seems to be a dearth of data. Perhaps because of this, districts struggle to know where to turn for solid answers.
In his book, “The Tyranny of Metrics” (Princeton Press, 2018), Jerry Muller aims a glaring light at the false certainty that data gives us. Whether it is organizational performance data, pro-forma accounting, standardized test prep, or political polls, the potential for “gaming the data” to create preferable results is widely practiced. Despite the gamesmanship and intentional skewing, our society places enormous confidence in the data, sometimes making decisions based on hollow reasoning.
This is not to say data isn’t hugely helpful, but what data, from what source, and knowing what it tells us is more important. Is it relevant? Is it improving what we do? If education leaders are reluctant to create new parent engagement programs, PD trainings and compliance tools because they lack reliable data, then why not create programs that will supply both the access and equity being sought, and some data to help make improvements? The point is that leaders should provide solutions, not be slaves to data.
A Couple Examples
We were a committee of district department heads and a facilitator – me – tasked to increase access and equity for parents. It was already March and I asked what information we had on what parents thought and wanted. The answer was, none. I asked if we could do a survey. They liked the idea. The usual way was to take 2-3 months to request board approval for the funding ($100,000-$150,000), followed by 3-5 months researching and getting bids from qualified companies, and then a few months to create the survey. If all went well the survey would be in the field a year later, the analyzed results published by April or May and new programs could be constructed from there. I asked if we could put something up on Survey Monkey and distribute it through parent group email rosters. Four weeks and zero cost. It wouldn’t replace the professional study, but we would at least have something to work from and could begin implementing new programs in September. They looked at me like I was suggesting a mutiny. Perhaps I was.
While working with refugee families who wanted a simple solution – an immediate and clarifying conversation about how their children were doing in school – I saw how waiting on data kept parents from receiving equity and access. The schools involved wanted to first get data on the number of languages spoken, dialects, cost of translators, frequency of need, and where to best hold these conversations. Knowing these people were desperate and that many in their ethnic circles were willing to help each other, especially for the sake of the kids, I asked if it were possible, as a temporary solution, to invite family or community members who spoke some English to volunteer as translators. They could be given some basic instructions and kept on a contact list. At least some people could be helped immediately while setting up the larger studies to get better data. This made no sense to them.
Access and equity doesn’t mean everyone all the time. It means addressing issues that restrict access, and providing equity where it is lacking. Some solution right now is better than waiting for a universal approach. The principles are what guides us best, not the safety of proof. Leadership isn’t about waiting on better data, or more data. It isn’t about waiting to be told from above. Sometimes, the data may not be there until you give people a choice and an experience to respond to. Sometimes we just need to use our good judgment and act for the sake of those in need.
Cultivating Access, Equity, and Compliance
Here are some gateway ideas that would help improve access and equity until better ideas come along. They can also be used to verify compliance. They don’t require data-based decision making. Just some willingness and common sense. The idea behind them is to create new practices and realities that will work toward leveling the playing field for everyone.
- Publish your numbers – By posting their parent engagement numbers on a public website, and creating an awareness around it, schools would be motivated to improve.
- Know your lost sheep – As parent engagement numbers improve, identify who is still not participating and take direct action to engage them.
- Capture your info –Some data is better than no data.
- Non-digital communications – Use digital efficiencies to free up resources so teachers and staff can give more attention to those who lack digital access or literacy.
- PC recycling – Parents and schools can donate older hardware to a PC recycling program where refurbished PCs, monitors, keyboards, mouses, and printers are then provided to families in need.
- Language fences? – find some gates. Online translation apps, volunteers, and free ESL classes will reduce language barrier problems.
- Build community – Ethnic groups and non-profits are sources of community leadership and influence. By partnering with them schools can become a hub of ideas, solutions, and fresh data.
- Volunteer management – an online volunteer management service with unlimited numbers of participants can be hired for less than $20,000 a year. Communications, profiles, training, award recognitions, and history (data) are all reasons to hire a company and grow your volunteer force.
Plant Some Data Seeds
Once any of these ideas is implemented the practices themselves will create more and more access for everyone: access to information and opportunity. They create more equity by providing what was lacking and exposing areas where equity is still lacking. Compliance must be measured against established standards. These practices allow those measurements to be found. Building access, equity and compliance with parents helps everyone, especially the students. We need to stop waiting for data and ideas from above, and at least plant some seeds so the organic process can have a chance to grow.
About the Author
Steve Clark (@parentengagemnt) has more than eighteen years of experience as a highly-engaged parent of students in public schools. He is founder and president of Leading to Your Success, an organizational learning and technology consultancy, and in 2017 launched its subsidiary, Parent Engagement Solutions.
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.