The Barriers to High School Family Engagement: A Case Study

“This stuff might work for elementary school, but I need to know how we are going to get these high school parents engaged,” said a workshop participant.

“How am I going to get my high school teachers to buy into this,” said another.

“I don’t think my son is going to graduate and I just don’t know what to do. The school says it’s up to him to succeed,” said a frantic parent of a high school senior.

The focus of engagement at the high school is shaped by parental knowledge of the school, curriculum, expectations, language, and environment. Generally speaking, parents of high school students report that they feel less welcome at their child’s high school than they did in their child’s elementary school. The believe, in many cases, that the teachers prefer that parents “stay out of it” unless contacted or summoned to the school. Several years ago, my good friend and family engagement expert Anne Henderson wrote a report in which she referred to this as the “Come if We Call You” school. You are welcome, but it is on the terms of the school, not the terms of the family.

“When my child was in elementary school, I felt comfortable in helping them with what they were learning in school. Yesterday, my son asked me if I could help him with Stoichiometry. Stoichiometry? What the heck is that?”  (A parent response in a recent study).

Curriculum and instruction are also huge barriers for families of high school students. As their children progress through school, families become less and less comfortable in their knowledge to support their children academically. At that point, they begin to make assumptions: they assume their children are doing ok, otherwise someone would be communicating with them. They assume the teachers will pull their children through if they are having difficulty. Often, family roles are nothing more than homework and project police. At best, they can remind their children to do their homework, but they cannot say for sure if it is done at all, its done correctly. It’s only after the fact they learn whether or not their children were successful.

And then there is the whole notion of adolescence and the need to create independent and responsible learners. This notion of “teaching responsibility” can be a lightning rod for the breakdown of family engagement at the high school level. While it is true that independence and responsibility are important lessons to learn in life, there is often a difference of opinion as to when and how those lessons and their outcomes should be implemented. Many families view this as a barrier that school personnel hide behind and many educators view it as families who wish to “take up” for their children to ensure that there are never negative consequences to actions. Neither of these presumptions and perceptions is particularly healthy.

Teaching Responsibility: A Case Study

Take a look at the case study below, originally from “Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles (Corwin, 2016).

The Case Study

David Smith was a high school senior and was facing a comprehensive test in math. If David failed the test, he would not be allowed to graduate. David had failed the test one time before. David’s parents noticed that he seemed very stressed and withdrawn. Usually talkative, David was now quiet, choosing to sit in his room rather than be with the rest of his family and the family dog, whom David had loved since getting him as a puppy in fifth grade.

            “I’m going to fail again, I just know it,” yelled David when his mother tried to talk with him about his sullen mood.

            “Maybe I can talk with your teacher. She might be able to help me understand what we can do to get you through this test. You know I was pretty good in math in my day,” David’s mother said lovingly.

            “Do what you want, Mom, it won’t make any difference.  I am not going to graduate with my friends because of this stupid test. Let’s just face it.” David stormed away from his mother.

The following day, David’s mother made an appointment to see the teacher. David’s two older siblings had had the same teacher for math, so she felt as though she knew the teacher and had a rapport that might help her better understand how to help her son.

            “Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice,” said Mrs. Smith.

            “No problem at all,” responded the math teacher. “I am happy to answer any questions you might have.”

            “As you probably know, David is frantic over this math test and feels defeated. He is already predicting he will fail and that he will not graduate with his class. This test is the only thing that is standing in his way. I thought perhaps you could give me some materials or guidance as to how my husband and I might help David at home. He still has a week before the test. If I knew what areas he was weak in, we could work with him.”

            “Mrs. Smith,” began the teacher, “I applaud you for wanting to help you son, I really do. But he is seventeen years old. Don’t you think it’s time that he took responsibility for himself? His parents won’t always be there to bail him out of trouble.”

            “We are not looking to bail David out of trouble. We were hoping that there were some problems or worksheets or other materials that you could point us to so that we could work with him at home to prepare for the test. If we knew what areas he was struggling with, we could emphasize that.” Mrs. Smith’s tone remained calm and reasonable.

            “David has been given everything he needs to be successful on that test. I do not have the time to create individual support packets for every student who decides, now, in their senior year, to take their education seriously. He could have come for after school help and he chose not to.”

            “He didn’t mention that to us,” said Mrs. Smith fearfully. “If you had just told me, I would have made sure he was there.”

            “You should be asking David for this information, not me. At some point, we need to teach our young people to take responsibility. I teach responsibility to my students. It is my job. It is not my job to ensure that every student passes the test. I provide the materials to the students. I show them how to solve the problems. The rest is up to them. They have to have some skin in the game.”

The math teacher agreed to give Mrs. Smith the same study packet that she had given to David. She also mentioned that the study packet was to have been completed and turned in for a grade. David did not turn his in and received two zeros, since the assignment was given double weight. He failed the course as a result.

David did not pass the comprehensive test and did not graduate. He chose not to attend summer school and got a job at the local supermarket instead.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Was the request of David’s mother reasonable? Why or why not?
  2. What are your thoughts on the teacher’s handling of this conference?
  3. How did this exchange improve or impede family efficacy?
  4. How could this situation be altered to improve the likelihood of family efficacy and a desirable outcome for all?