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Of long-standing interest to us has been the intersection of technology’s influence on communication and how technological innovation has impacted both the direction and effectiveness of contact between home and schools. Effective communication is of the utmost importance. Certainly, the pandemic has shown how critical clear communication between schools and parents is.

Parent communication has been the focus of our 25 years of combined responsibility targeting efficient and effective collaboration with parents and guardians. Our experience gives us reason to reflect on the new directions and priorities we can expect from future communication applications designed by digital innovators who have little if any direct connection with schools.

We believe communication practices between school and home warrant some “first thought,” including recalibration of the way oversight is exercised through district policy. To lay out our position, we first offer some established background information. Then we extend insights that emerged from an Arizona study that examined the parent perspectives concerning communication practices and the barriers they encountered while interacting with their schools. Finally, we offer multiple thoughts for moving forward.

We already know

In times when divisiveness appears to be on the rise, public support has never been more crucial. That support starts at home, as it has long been established that strong parental investment in local schools directly contributes both to student and organizational success. That said, in a world that is increasingly electronically connected, it also has been documented that not all families have consistent or reliable internet access. 

Further, it has been suggested that these gaps to access often only stand to widen as a result of the inequitable distribution of resources in many of our communities. These facts suggest that collaboration between home and school may be widely desired, but not always practical, and therefore not always accomplished.

Inasmuch as schools continue to rely on digital communication, it creates an inherent expectation that all parents and guardians have access to fully functional digital connectivity. Further, this digital access increasingly always needs to be available, as educators frequently contact parents when they are at work or on the go.

Finally, school leaders have come to learn how costly and challenging it is to maintain their technological infrastructure. Realistically, we need to be equally mindful that parents face similar struggles and likely even more significant challenges to keep current as many households lack the technological expertise and resources available to most schools.

In a world where getting the message out and “being heard” first is dominating communication strategy and shaping resulting practices, some might be inclined to think we have satisfactorily discharged our communication duties by merely sending barrages of information out to our primary stakeholders.

If, however, we compare our communication responsibilities to the classroom teaching practices we expect, we have far more work to do than rely on mass-marketed messaging systems. Today’s educators are keenly aware that “effective learning” for all students is our shared objective. If it is unacceptable merely to present the lesson in the classroom and leave the rest to the student, don’t we have a parallel obligation to ensure that the parents and guardians we are counting on for support and as co-educators consistently receive and successfully understand the information we are directing toward them?

Finally, federal requirements clearly establish that this is a topic of undeniable importance, as the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 directly states that schools have the responsibility to design, deliver, and ensure effective two-way communication and collaboration with the parents and guardians of our students. This is the legal requirement for the thousands of schools that receive any level of Title 1 funding.

This responsibility affirms that schools must do more than “trust” the latest communication technology works and “hope” for a response. Challenges and barriers most certainly exist. Without question, it is our unmistakable responsibility to do more than rely on “robocalls” to start the conversation and wait for someone else to bring the communication back around, full circle.

Parent insights

Our experience told us that there was a need to better assess conditions and perceptions in the home setting, and to learn better what family members were experiencing to do a better job of weighing in on this topic.

These efforts resulted in the following insights:

  • Cellphones often serve as the primary form of digital connectivity between the home and school. While smartphones introduce more features every year, and digital designers who create tools for schools may utilize said features, many families do not have access to the latest style or generation of phones needed to navigate school district offerings.
  • Many parents and guardians dependent on older phones for online access lacked the ability to interact fully with even the most basic features of grading portals and other digital information conduits designed and updated in the marketplace and utilized by schools.
  • The cellphones are often shared between multiple family members. In addition, even when parents had a functioning phone, many experienced limited online access where they lived or worked. It cannot be assumed that all parents and guardians are as “connected” as we might want to believe they are.
  • Language barriers are real in Arizona, as in other parts of the nation. Instead of complaining about their struggles, many parents facing these barriers sought out people who could translate for them instead. While nothing about this potential practice is likely surprising, the reported preference to work things out quietly suggests we have little way of knowing about language struggles unless we ask. Therein we may be underestimating how significant language challenges really are for many parents and guardians.
  • Information concerning upcoming classroom or schoolwide activities was perfectly acceptable to parents when delivered through any number of one-way communication attempts like announcements, emails, or Twitter tweets. However, it was consistently confirmed that disciplinary matters and issues involving student grades demanded more immediate, direct, and in-depth communication. This poses a challenge for contacting families with limited digital access.
  • Parents and guardians do not always feel as though they know how to respond personally to important situations, even when the opportunity exists. 

Aside from pursuing direct face-to-face contact whenever possible, effective two-way communication was identified to be best achieved by the use of the phone for voice communication as much as that was possible.

Parents and guardians indicated they were hesitant to complain. Further limiting our understanding of the challenges they face, they also expressed that there were no strategies or opportunities made known to them where they could provide feedback about vital topics like communication with schools.

Moving forward

The parental insights just shared are more applicable in some places than others. That said, they join with established information to illuminate the types of issues schools may unintentionally overlook. Ensuring that we have established effective communication with parents and guardians is a critical part of our mission. It may well be at odds with the efficiency emphasized by continuing innovation.

We believe there are multiple practical as well as policy implications worth contemplating. We offer the following thoughts for your consideration.

  • Current communication tools and even practices are driven by technology developers and distributors, not educators. Therein, we believe schools should formally assess whether existing strategies and established priorities genuinely reflect our commitment to improving personal relationships and providing equitable, meaningful, and practical access to all consumers and stakeholders.
  • Identify and catalog any practices or initiatives already in place within the organization, nearby, or available through affiliated educational associations that place a direct and effective emphasis on improving two-way communication.
  • Determine whether there are organized and ongoing opportunities for parents to provide input concerning communication objectives and practices. Perhaps it is possible parents have reason to feel their only option is to complain when things get bad enough.
  • Do you periodically redefine and actively promote a menu of two-way communication options to parents through announcements, newsletters, or other avenues?
  • Could this topic be a beneficial point of discussion at a board meeting, or through some other goal-setting activity that allows for public attention and input?
  • Ask yourselves to what extent you would employ the same communication approach that is in place with parents today, if you were instead seeking their support to pass a budget override or facilities referendum. 

We believe there are multiple reasons that potential gaps in communication between home and school should be concerning to school leaders. Local leaders are uniquely positioned to call for an assessment of local practices and outcomes. Further, those of you who are board members have the insight, the means, and truthfully the responsibility to address this topic through policy when and where needed.

We encourage you to ask two questions. First, how well do your communication practices ensure equitable and effective two-way communication in general, but especially concerning parents and guardians? Second, how do you really know the answer to the first question? Hopefully, it is not the result of relying on parent complaints, but rather is being addressed through practice and policy that has you evaluating and ensuring the effectiveness of your communication practices as a whole.

Thomas Hughes (thomas.hughes@nau.edu) is an associate professor at Northern Arizona University and a former superintendent in Wisconsin. Stacey Berklan (sberklan@fusdaz.org) completed her doctoral degree at Northern Arizona University, and is an assistant high school principal at Florence Unified School District #1 in Arizona.

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