Parent Engagement: Exploring Key Roles in the K12 Ecosystem

From my experience, parents want their kids to have a great education, and most are willing to pitch in.

On a good day, it might mean helping them study for a killer algebra test. On a bad day, it’s a more thankless task: helping them reevaluate priorities, prying fingers from the high tech keypads, smartphones and controllers stashed under every pillow.

Education is a complex topic, which deserves and is getting much discussion. But as a parent, I think understanding our stake in the process is an increasingly critical conversation, one that doesn’t always get air time.

I’d like to frame the question like this:

With school districts grappling with troublesome finances and even more troublesome test scores, what roles can and should parents play in the education process?

K12 Education today functions like an ‘ecosystem’. Most of the many interdependent stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, administrators, legislators, policy makers, text book companies) work diligently, but not always in tandem. No one entity has full control of the process. Across the diverse stakeholder groups are multiple, often conflicting objectives. Each depends on the others in the food chain for the system to function, but there is little optimization taking place.

Across the education ecosystem, too often it’s become a challenge of survival.

You may have seen “Waiting for Superman” and learned that across the nation, drop out rates are accelerating. Or maybe you saw “Race to Nowhere” about the pressure schools and parents are together putting on children, and how we must reevaluate how to define success. A more extreme example is the “Parent Trigger” where states allow parent-led coalitions to takeover problem schools.

While education leaders have much to do in sorting this out, parents have an important voice. We often forget that kids acquire language, behavior, and foundational learning skills before they set foot in a public school. Approaches will vary, but parents have the first crack at making learning a priority, and must work ever harder to sustain that. Schools, in turn, must understand what the family is experiencing, to effectively participate in an open collaboration.

Let’s tee up a few discussion topics to help us get at the core challenges of Parent Engagement.

Q1. What is the ideal role of parents in the education process?

Q2. How could we, as parents, help in a meaningful way? Here are some starter ideas, to get you thinking (do these resonate?)

  1. quality time on foundational skills (especially pre-K)
  2. finding creative ways and times to teach (story, play)
  3. fostering respect for knowledge and learning
  4. focus on resilience
  5. focus on mastery (deep learning) over performance (test scores)
  6. focus on critical thinking
  7. making innovation in education a priority

Q3. Who helps parents navigate these challenges, and should schools play a role in supporting them?

Q4. Can parents and teachers find the quality time required?

Education is undergoing some much needed transformation. From multiple sources, we can see innovative schools working diligently on new approaches. But time is short. And that’s an issue on many levels.

I sense that kids today start kindergarten well behind the power curve, leaving parents with few choices and many frustrations, and often no sense of what they could be doing to help.

No silver bullets here. But that’s all the more reason for the conversation.

We’ll tee this up at our weekly #ECOSYS chat on WEDS 1/5 at 9pET. This opens our 2011 Education Topic Agenda, on our wiki, under “T1 Parent Engagement”.

As always, please share your thoughts as comments, I’d love to discuss your perspective.

28 thoughts on “Parent Engagement: Exploring Key Roles in the K12 Ecosystem

  1. Chris, those same attribures & disciplines are important in the corporate world as well. How else can we raise good collaborators & leaders. Each core value you described that requires time, dedication, and capacity are all essential in the new world of value creation.

    We have to do this now so that our sons, daughters are employable etc.

    Beautiful post.

  2. Very kind words Jenn, many thanks.

    You are right, the ecosystem model doesn’t stop with parents. In fact, it starts there. The impact and engagement of businesses, communities, and legislatures is important to track too. What I find fascinating – and valuable – is that so many of these ecosystem stakeholders are parents too. And all were once students.

    So ecosystem thinking might catch-on quickly.

    You’ve heard the phrase “it takes a village” and I’ve posted on that before. We might not reflect on it much day to day, but the fact is – we’re all in this together.

    Thanks again for the insights.


  3. Thanks for a clear framing for the parent focused #ecosys this Wednesday.

    Just a couple of quick thoughts:

    It’s critically important to separately focus on the 85% (not a real number, just a place holder for “overwhelming” majority) of schools in which kids are doing ok (ish) from the 15% of schools from which kids are leaving as illiterates.

    While both sectors are in need of innovation – ( make it better, faster, cheaper ) for the 15% it’s often literally a life and death problem. Often the Urgency of Now is under appreciated.

    Also want to draw attention to your statement with which I strongly agree. “the ecosystem model doesn’t stop with parents. In fact, it starts there.”

    While collaboration of all stakeholders is the name of the game, I think I’ve seen much resistance to the idea that “it starts there.” One way of framing it, also often resisted in education discourse, it is the parents that are the customers.

    In that context, if the insights from Customer Relation Management were applied to the Edu ecosystem we could get from here to there, with alot less human collateral damage.

    • Thanks Chris, for the thoughtful post. A few thoughts in response:

      ..clearly there are complex social ecosystems affecting each student, each family, each teacher, each school. In my M.A. work at the U. of Western Sydney, they place a much greater emphasis on studying Social Ecology than I saw in American universities at the time (2004-06).

      ..there are some American universities whose programs in education or related fields, are taking an increasingly ecological viewpoint. Rutgers University has a doctoral program in school psychology, that emphasizes the Community ecosystem contenxt. I’ve been a guest lecturer in that program for a number of years, to teach the doctoral students about complexity.

      ..there are several texts I have read (to prepare for the Rutgers work) on issues of improving outcomes in schools. Prime among these is Seymour Sarason’s book “revisiting the Culture of the School and the Problem of Change.” Highly recommended to those who are interested in education ecosystem change. Likewise Michael Fullan’s work on education improvement in the UK. On community psychology/ecosystem context, Maurice Elias’s text is very helpful.

      .. with regard to Michael’s comments about schools that are mostly ok, etc., I’d note that success and failure can come anywhere. Efforts to influence improvement can, and I think should, be deployed everywhere.

      .. with regard to parents, I recall hearing about a study last year that found supportive parents to be the #1 determinant of student success in school. More than teachers. I spent several years on a site-based governance team during my son’s high school years. The team included administrators, teachers, parents, and students. All voices, all points of view, all heard and considered equally at the table. I think we are here to support each other. for the common business goals of “better, faster, cheaper,” I always add one more. Happier. How do people in the system, and affected by the system, feel about it at the end of the day? I think we do not always measure the right things. New questions will lead us to new ideas.

      Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this discussion.



      • Michael & Bruce – many excellent insights!

        For good reasons (lack of data, risk of polarizing conversations, etc.) we have not characterized (or more accurately: ‘bifurcated’) the school population to date as stable v. not stable, not failing v. failing, 85/15, etc. but there is some logic to the thought process. Important we are thoughtful and purposeful if we do that. Would rather base it on authoritative sources, if any available, vs. trying to develop our own. That said, nothing is ever once size fits all, and I agree w/ Bruce, change and innovation can come from and be applied anywhere.

        If nothing else, I think we can stand to map our solution insights and ideas to root cause problems better than we have been to date.

        We’ll come back to this.

        Bruce – many excellent sources provided, and valuable insight on Australian v. American trends in #highered view of social ecology aka the ecosystem. Will explore the Rutgers view further. We may use our bright spot and/or thought leader wiki pages to post findings/takeaways.

        More soon – !!

        Again, many thanks –


  4. As always, good and thoughtful post. You raise some good questions that I have always struggled with. What exactly should the role of a parent be in the classroom? I think that answer is different in different situations. As a teacher, my knee jerk reaction would be for parents to simply “support me” at home. Although that is not a very well defined answer. That could be everything from helping with homework to making sure my students get a good night’s rest.

    The first step has to be an actual time beyond the annual parent teacher conferences where parents and teachers can talk about things other than their child. It would be nice to hear their perspective on homework, grades, etc. While I still believe that the teacher is the professional, and therefore the decision maker, it is wise to seek input from all sources. This would include parents as well as students and other professionals.

    This is not any easy topic but one worthy of discussion. I look forward to the chat tomorrow…

    • When focusing on the lowest 15% of schools, my feeling is that it’s time to give some serious thought to whether it’s the “job of parents to support teachers” or “the job of teachers to support parents.”

      To be sure, there are many issues to consider, but from what I see the tide is moving towards teachers supporting parents and it would be good to ride that wave instead of trying to fight it.

      • Michael I think you are on to something really important in recognizing that the difference between the majority of schools that, while having room for improvement are basically working, and the critical minority that really need significant attention to WHY those schools are in such dire shape and HOW we can address the issues and support these schools to be high quality learning environments.

        My 2¢ is that it is not either or… until in schools we view parents and families as resources to be recognized for their strengths and challenges as they are, and as families seek to understand the ways schools work and the potential for our roles in making them successful, we will be continually faced with these challenges.

        My greatest hope is that through the current school reform efforts we can recognize, as you point out earlier, that meeting in the middle and collaborating is the key.

      • I can see what your saying about teachers supporting parents. As a teacher I struggle with how exactly to do this. The old saying… “lead a horse to water” comes to mind. I know that I can not control what happens with a student when they leave my classroom. It is not my job to step on a parent’s toes or force their invovlement.

        With that being said, I agree that teachers need to support parents in terms of providing them ample opportunities to be involved in the school. In addition, we have also held parent workshops at my school with various “parenting” topics. I just struggle to find where the line is in terms of my role as a teacher and their role as a parent. What’s more troublesome is that I feel that line is different with every family.

      • Josh,

        My thought is that if we carefully considered what parents know they need, instead of what we think they should do to help us, it might clarify appropriate interventions.

        From my experience parents want to know is their kid progressing as he/she should. And then they want to know what specifically can they do to help.

        The trick is for that information to be helpful, they need it early enough to make a difference. the challenge is an information delivery problem.

        It points to the fact that we need to have the info they want in a timely way AND we have to get it to them in a timely way, in a form that works for them. Hard but with new technologies should now be possible.

      • Michael,

        I agree with you that one. The focus must be on what parents need to help their child, not to help the teacher. Hopefully though those two things would be one in the same.

        With the amount of resources available to both students, teachers, and parents, there really is no excuse for teachers not reaching out to parents and the other way around.


      • Michael, Josh & Jenna –

        Great thread here. Again the 85/15 or ‘bifurcation’ topic comes up (which I touch on above w/ Bruce & Michael).

        Rather than making sweeping generalizations, which always leads to trouble, perhaps we can identify some core ‘challenge categories’ for discussion purposes.

        Further discussion around quality, direction and nature of parent/teacher collaboration is very much part of our chat WEDS p.m. This is a great start.

        I learned recently (do I remember this from my 3?) that this P/T interaction can be as compressed as 15 minutes. Hard to do much meaningful collaboration that way! Have seen some discussion around email and other modes of feedback, which could help.

        Michael – “Early enough to make a difference” is a key thought. We’ll be discussing pre-K quite a bit WEDS, I am sure, and thereafter.

        Love the dialog, guys. Thanks again for taking the time.

        See you tomorrow night?


      • Michael, this is an excellent point. Theoretically, the parent-teacher relationship should be fully collaborative. The reality, however, is that many parents – across the spectrum and not just in the 15% – lack the ability to participate at the level Chris implies with his seven starter ideas. Critical thinking is an excellent example.

        The parent-teacher relationship is dynamic and shaped by environmental factors that must be considered not just school-by-school, but family-by-family.

      • Agree Bill, it is a school-by-school challenge, but the factors will vary family-by-family.

        Part of it is having time (which often comes down to priorities and perspectives on task ownership)

        Part is in knowing how.

        I think to move the needle on this, all of these factors need to be on the table and addressed. To drive any kind of change, awareness and envisioning the future (or said differently, coming out of denial) are early steps.

        Hoping this thread and the #ECOSYS conversation are helping with the awareness piece, and we’re working on visioning.

        Great insights. As always, your thought leadership is highly valued.

        See you tonight!


      • Bill,

        I agree that “many parents – across the spectrum and not just in the 15% – lack the ability to participate at the level Chris implies with his seven starter ideas.:

        I see something a bit different. What I’m trying to get at is that “parents and kids” can be usefully seen the same way “patient” is seen by a the medical community.

        No doubt the Doctors have the experience and training.

        But it is the patient that has to finally deal with the condition. As in medicine, so in education, patient compliance is a big problem. But as we’ve seen with the latest developments in medicine, the best results come when the patient can make the ultimate decisions.

      • Michael:

        I think you paint an idealistic picture of the way the medical community at large views patients. A systemic focus on outcomes would go a long way toward healing our healthcare system.

        Nonetheless, your analogy is a good one and has helped clarify your position for me. Thanks.

  5. Hi Chris, great topic… I’ll weigh in;o)
    Q1. What is the ideal role of parents in the education process? In the pre-school years, parents need to ensure they are the “secure base” that will enable their kids to enter school as well-adjusted and emotionally stable individuals.
    Once kids have entered school, the primary role of parents is one of trust. Any strong relationship has to be built on trust, and the collaborative partnership between parents and teachers is no different.

    Q2. How could we, as parents, help in a meaningful way? Here are some starter ideas, to get you thinking (do these resonate?)

    1. quality time on foundational skills (especially pre-K)
    Of course, goes without saying…
    2. finding creative ways and times to teach (story, play)
    Yes, let kids be kids, and know about these natural learning tendencies…
    3. fostering respect for knowledge and learning
    At the requisite levels being careful not to rush kids…
    4. focus on resilience
    Work hard on fostering protective factors for your kids using strengths-based perspectives…
    5. focus on mastery (deep learning) over performance (test scores)
    Mastery is a myth… create a context of continuous improvement- deep learning perspective sounds good, an attitude
    6. focus on critical thinking
    Yes, but not to the exclusion of any other form of thinking. We have to remember that Bloom’s is not a hierarchy…
    7. making innovation in education a priority
    As it should alwyas be in the education game…

    Q3. Who helps parents navigate these challenges, and should schools play a role in supporting them?
    They aren’t challenges, they’re opportunities to be celebrated- should be fun, constructivist effort “building good people”

    Q4. Can parents and teachers find the quality time required?
    If we could be less “task oriented” and more “process oriented” we would find that time becomes very available because we’re enjoying the journey as opposed to trying to control it

    Just some idle thoughts from the north country- I’ll blame it on the cold weather;o)

    • Since it’s cold.. I have a question.

      Do you see a way that teachers can help parents who live in at risk environments to do the jobs they want to do.

      We know that “first generation going to college” can change a whole family. Siblings and parents can start writing a hopeful story about their futures.

      My thought is there should be some easy to implement ways of having a similar effect way before the “college” prize. I know that in my life, my mom still has the “poem” I wrote in 2nd grade, some sixty years ago, that got published in the school newspaper.

    • Excellent insights Sean, cold weather or otherwise :)

      We’ll use these bullets to populate post-chat wiki, but please repeat and amplify these items to ensure they are pulled into the discussion, as I’m sure others will be doing.

      Curious about your take that ‘mastery is a myth’ given deep conversation a few weeks back on Goal Orientation & mastery (MGO) vs. performance focus (PGO). If we view mastery as a process or mindset, and not a discrete goal, I wonder if that changes your answer?

      Btw, I still need to mine your resiliency tweets for R1 wiki content; they are safely flagged under my favorites. Stay tuned.

      As always, many thanks. STAY WARM, eh?


  6. Michael, I am curious where you found the statement you quote, I don’t see it and I got something very different from this post. In my read I picked up on the complexity of the ecosystem, the diligence of diverse parties, how hard folks are working, and the simultaneous dependence of stakeholders. I agree though, that the end goal— collaboration between parents and teachers, actually in my view it is bigger than that- families and schools, is what is needed to develop deep understandings of kids, content and learning environments that support mastery of concepts for all kids.

    • Hi Jenna, I pulled the words from Chris’ response to Jenifer. The context is ” You are right, the ecosystem model doesn’t stop with parents. In fact, it starts there. The impact and engagement of businesses, communities, and legislatures is important to track too.”

    • Points well taken.

      I wonder if you’ve considered that “families and schools” might be more usefully framed as a collection of specific parents, kids and teachers.

      To me it helps keeps in Focus the realities in any specific place, with a sensitivity to it’s unique history. It’s also a path to be able to visualize the edu enterprise as a complex adaptive system. The independent decisions made by each of the actors, parents, teachers, and students is at the kernel of the driving forces of the innovation we’re seeing.

      • Ah, I see that now, thanks. Just goes to show how we each read from our own experience and perspective- what I read in Chris’ post above does not jive with that comment and I guess I am not quite as aligned as I previously thought :)

        I think you are right on re: the importance of specifics… no matter how great the ‘intervention’, ‘program’ or ‘reform’ we see time and time again that what ‘works’ in a school grows out of the specific strengths and needs of that school, and to drive innovation we need to seek to support that parent, teacher, student collaboration and actually improve schools.

      • Michael, Jenna –

        I am now more convinced than ever that the most important insights come from the comments, not the blog post itself.

        “Ecosystem doesn’t stop w/ parents, it starts there”.

        Did I say that? *scrolling* hmmm, yes I did :) Thanks for noticing.

        We need to be sure the full ecosystem view, including amplification by social ecology experts in Australia, New Jersey (Rutgers) and elsewhere gets a rigorous discussion. The parent aspect is only the beginning.

        How about we tackle Ecosystem Model in R3 Current Perspective?

        In terms of ecosystem stakeholders, I have lots of energy on the role of business also (which, of course, includes many, many parents!) but that’s a future post.

        See you tomorrow night? WEDS 9pET #ECOSYS.


  7. Yes Michael, I do. Just as teachers need to be ready when a student “chooses them” to be the significant other that supports and sees promise in them (from an asset perspective), we also need to be ready to engage with parents in the same way.

    The difference is parents may not “choose us” like kids do. They aren’t the captive audience we serve every day and may not even realize the possibility to be supported by a teacher. So, what teachers, (school systems) have to do is reach out to them with offers of support. Enter EduKare in my opinion… a holistic multidisciplinary role of schools as process advocates connecting families to services and supports that should be considered elements of the waraparound service model originating at the school.

    • I think we’ll have some great discussion on the P/T collaboration and support dynamic on WEDS, with important input from Annie Fox.

      Many school systems – noting some in CA, NC & FL – have adopted a “parent university” model to help educate parents on the complex emotional and social dynamics that are taking place with their kids as it impacts school work, especially in middle school years.

      Clearly the ‘too much pressure’ dynamic can emerge anywhere, per family or per student. The fun, ‘keep it light’ mode you mention above is great advice.

      More to come – !!


  8. Excellent framing post. While I think the focus on “quality” time is appropriate and important to this discussion, we should recognize the significant resource contributions parents are already making, at least in my experience.

    I live in the largest school district in South Carolina, a state where 15 percent of families live below the poverty line and and over half of all public school students receive free or reduced-price lunch. My son attends a charter public high school which, while relatively new, has so far graduated 100 percent of its students and sent 9 in 10 to college. This is due in part to a rigorous focus on grade-making, but also to parents that make significant – in some cases substantial – commitments of time and money.

    By law, South Carolina charters receive only state and federal money – about $3,400 per pupil, compared with $10,400 per public school pupil. To make up the difference, parents (and teachers) at our school do everything from “naming” strips of sidewalk to painting our leased gym to cleaning the lunchrooms and restrooms. It is a different kind of commitment, but it is a commitment nonetheless, and it is fully collaborative.

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