For Our Families and Our Future: Three Ideas About Equity

This week, as I prepare to provide the keynote for the opening General Session at the ASCD Conference on Excellence in Teaching and speak to the theme of Pathways to Equity, I am thinking about the three big ideas in family engagement that I believe will resonate with teachers and leaders. Or at least I hope they will!

When considering the changes necessary to state codes and educational policies, the idea of achieving more equitable outcomes seems daunting. Much of the conversation lies in the arena of funding formulas, facilities and the degree to which schools in need can garner the financial support necessary to attract and retain quality staff. I recently saw some data which shows that in my own state of Virginia, teachers at lower performing schools were paid, on average, ten thousand dollars less than teachers in higher performing schools. This is one of a dozen examples of the complexities facing those who wish to bring about the needed changes to systems and deliver equitable outcomes.

At the local school level, however, perhaps achieving equity does not have to be quite as daunting. While I freely admit there is no one magic lever that can be pulled to achieve equity, I would say that there is one that is often overlooked, that being, engaging families in the educational lives of their children. If we start with a simple definition of equity and then determine how families can be part of the solution, equity seems much more attainable and practical for teachers to undertake.

The simplest definition of equity that I have seen is this one: ensuring that every student has the support and resources they need, when they need them, to be successful in their educational experience. It seems to me that ensuring support and resources at the correct time is essential. Families can do just that.

We know from research those impactful correlations between socio-economically disadvantaged students, their performance in school and the effects that the levels of engagement of their families can have on outcomes. If, for example, we are trying to positively impact the reading ability of a third-grade student, it makes sense that their family, with the right tools and supports, become one of the resources the student needs, when they need it, to be successful. Investing in family engagement is usually budget neutral and relies on a repurposing of priorities and time as well as a review and revision of standard practice and policy. Family engagement is not about doing more, it’s about doing things a bit differently. What then can we do systemically in a school or school district that would ensure we can leverage families in our quest for equity for all children?

It seems to me that most state and district leaders understand that supporting teachers, a focus on learning, making content relevant to students and considering how budgets are expended, are all logical steps in the journey toward equity. But I think there are three more important ideas, attached directly to families, that not only will assist to achieve desired outcomes but place an equitable focus on the emotional well-being of children as well as their academic prowess.

First, we as educators must believe that families, all families, are and should be an integral part of student success. Regardless of their station in life, we must consider that every family desires their child to do well and to exceed them in their quality of life. We can make that happen. We need to be careful to avoid implicit bias in our policies and practices when it comes to engaging with families. How do we engage them now? What parameters do we place on their engagement? Do we truly believe that every family wishes to and can be engaged? These are important questions for reflection that every educator should undertake.

Second, we can move further down the equity pathway more quickly if we not only create welcoming environments, but that we go a step further and do all we can to make all families comfortable in our surroundings. This goes beyond a welcome sign or a nicely decorated main office. This idea speaks directly to the design of those systems that include families. How do we design parent-teacher conferences? What are our rules about classroom observations by families? What procedures are in place to welcome socio-economically disadvantaged families? How do we proactively interact with families who speak limited or no English? Families of special needs students? Within each of these categories exist a number of procedures and practices that when examined and ultimately revamped can have a powerful effect on the degree to which families engage and feel comfortable doing so repeatedly. In short, how do we share school information before it happens?

Last, and maybe most important, is the need to develop, support and nurture the efficacy of families. We have studied and discussed teacher efficacy and student efficacy. We must add family efficacy to the discussion. Leveraging families, who are the first and most influential teachers of their children, our students, goes a long way toward reinforcing learning and garnering the necessary home understanding and support for the efforts of classroom teachers. The biggest question is this: How do we avoid families asking their children, “what did you do in school today?”  Think of efficacy as changing that question to one that allows students to engage with their families and provides families with instant efficacy because they can immediately ask a better questions.

What is also integral to this idea is that we understand not only the process of doing this work, but the nature of the impact of the work when it is done in tandem, or in a manner that mimics that ideas found in collective impact research. Isolating our efforts can be limiting in ultimate effect. When we believe that working with every family is important and we take steps to build the necessary relationships to promote their efficacy, more students learn. Many of those students are the very ones for which national conversations are taking place on the need for equity in education. Family engagement is a proven pathway toward this goal.

Let’s all think about it as we head to Texas this week, for our families and our future.