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Breaking New Ground: Data Systems Transform Family Engagement in Education
Harvard Family Research Project
Harvard Family Research Project Commentary
In this issue’s commentary, Heather Weiss and M. Elena Lopez from Harvard Family Research Project and Deborah Stark, Commissioner of First 5, Alameda County revisit the new definition of family engagement—as a shared responsibility, across multiple settings, from cradle to career—as applied to student data use. They discuss how data can effectively bring families, teachers, and administrators to the table and engage everyone around student learning and performance.
In a landmark study about transforming Chicago’s low-performing schools, a sobering lesson emerged: No single reform solution really works. Instead, it takes multiple actions to address the complex problem of low performance. The study, conducted by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, found that reform must be systemic. Principal leadership drives reform, and reform includes four interconnected elements: instructional guidance; professional capacity of teachers; school learning climate; and parent, school, and community ties.1
Of these four elements, the family–school–community connection has been, at best, on the margins of education policy. Even the U.S. Department of Education has pointed out, “Under current law, family engagement is too often focused on a checklist of activities rather than on driving results, funding isn’t always targeted to the most effective practices, and family engagement is treated as a discrete activity rather than as an integrated strategy that should have a place across multiple programs.2
However, today’s policy climate opens a window of opportunity for deeper and more focused family–school connections. A new generation of policymakers and education thought leaders acknowledge that classroom-only reforms are inadequate. Children learn everywhere, at any time. The notion of learning has to shift from school-centered to student-centered learning. Working from this stance, there are many influences in children and youth learning that need to be elevated. One of the most powerful of these is family engagement in children’s learning and development.
Along with the attention being paid now to student-centered learning, investments are being made in student data systems and the potential of using individualized student data to improve teaching and learning. Not only can student data help districts and schools develop strategies to address the areas most in need of improvement, but these data can also serve as a bridge between schools and families, empowering parents to become engaged in their children’s learning at school and at home.
Student data enable parents to see the starting point of a child’s skill development and to follow where growth has been achieved and where improvements need to be made. This data sharing can be found in scattered places that include early childhood programs and elementary, middle, and high schools. What’s missing in many cases, though, is the flow of data across these grade levels. The vision of data sharing with families consists of a data pathway—from cradle to career—that will ensure families can easily access and understand information about their child’s learning in the context of school expectations, academic standards, and continuous improvement. Additionally, information has to be actionable: Families turn to data to support a student’s hard work and dedication to learning,3 and to avail themselves of school and community resources to promote, over the long term, high school completion and college and career preparation. This vision will be realized only with the commitment and collaboration of districts, schools, early childhood programs, parent groups, and community organizations serving children and youth.
DATA SHARING WITH FAMILIES
According to Education Sector, the real value of data systems lies in using information about teaching and learning to improve student outcomes.4 Designing learning-centered data systems enables teachers, families, and students to use information about early reading and math development, attendance, grades, discipline, and credit accumulation to support decision-making about learning and achievement. Currently, few data systems are able to support classroom-level decision-making, but where such systems exist and where they have been designed to share performance data with families, the results are empowering.
Sharing student performance data with families has the potential to turn around the way family engagement is organized. Rather than being a checklist of activities, family engagement becomes purposeful and linked to a system of school improvement. And, rather than just being an “add-on” to what teachers do, data sharing allows teachers to gain a family partner that supports and monitors student performance from home. Family engagement also becomes outcome-oriented—tied to the instructional goals for each student, with specific benchmarks across the school-year—rather than being event- or activity-driven. Finally, data becomes part of the ongoing conversation amongst families, students, teachers, youth workers and others and is a focus of parent, teacher, and student conferences. For tips on data sharing in parent–teacher conferences go to www.hfrp.org/ConferenceTipSheets.
Furthermore, sharing student data with families embodies the principles of family engagement in concrete and practicable ways. Family engagement:
A few pioneering early learning programs and school districts across the nation are capitalizing on their data systems and providing data to families to enhance their role as meaningful partners in the education of their children from cradle to career. These programs are at the forefront of what should prove to be a promising trend to leverage existing information on student achievement. Five different on-the-ground examples of how schools and districts use student data to engage families are highlighted in this issue of the FINE Newsletter. Based on these examples of programs from across the country, three common elements have emerged as necessary to effectively share student data with families: access, understanding, and action.
Access. Families benefit from ready access to timely and relevant data about their child. A large data dump that is all too common in web-based parent portals is not helpful. Instead, it is important for schools to work together with families and teachers to identify the key indicators against a framework of educational goals that best reflect the student’s learning and growth and that can be shared on a regular basis so that families can be fully aware of the progress being made. For example, families should have access to data covering attendance, development of reading and math skills as measured by ongoing formative assessments, and measurement against grade expectations and graduation requirements.
In many schools, these data are already in the system. It is just a matter of recognizing each family as a key stakeholder who deserves and needs the information, and then packaging the data in a way that will be useful for families to access, understand, and use.
Understanding. Providing access to data is not enough. Families need to be able to understand the data and know what to do with it. They need to grasp what the data suggests in terms of their child’s short- and long-term development and academic progress. Is their child on par with other students at the grade level? Do the data reveal areas of excellence in which the child can be further encouraged at home and school? Do the data suggest potential learning challenges that need to be addressed? Demystifying the data can happen through written communication, but for many families, it is most meaningful when teachers and other school staff have in-person conversations with families to review and discuss the findings. Furthermore, understanding takes time, and regular communication is essential.
Action. Families benefit the most when programs and schools provide actionable tools that are linked to data gathered from ongoing assessments. Such tools can give families clear guidance about how to enable their child’s strengths to flourish, how to overcome challenges, and how to engage their child in activities and discussions that will support overall learning and growth. From providing families with recommended activities that they can do at home with everyday materials, to highlighting accessible resources within the community, schools are able to build effective opportunities for learning that respond precisely to the learning profile of the child.
Aggregate school data can also catalyze parents to take action to improve their schools. School data can help parents understand their school’s standing in relation to schools with similar demographic profiles, to raise questions where performance falls short of school goals, and to work with schools as strategic partners in addressing these issues.5
To learn more about these programs, be sure to read the five featured Voices from the Field articles in this issue of the FINE Newsletter. We are also continuing to compile information about sites where data sharing with families is being implemented. Let us know how you are using student data to engage families by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is part of the Fall 2010 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.
1. Bryk, A.S., Sebring, P.B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., and Easton, J. Q. (2009). Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
2. US Department of Education. (June 2010). Supporting Families and Communities: Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Online at: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/faq/supporting-family.pdf
3. Dweck, Carol. (2010). What is Mindset. Mindset. Online at: http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/index.html
4. Tucker, B. (2010). Five design principles for smarter data systems to support student learning. Education Sector. Online at:
5. Lopez, Elena M. (2002). When Parents Access Schools. The Evaluation Exchange: A Periodical on Emerging Strategies in Evaluation, 8(1). Online at: http://www.hfrp.org/evaluation/the-evaluation-exchange/issue-archive/family-support/when-parents-assess-schools