Help Parents Be Learning Heroes

By Bibb Hubbard

All parents want their children to be happy, healthy, and successful. Parents dream about a child succeeding in college and beyond. These aspirations motivate them to follow up with a teacher when a bad grade comes home, or to spend nights working through math problems with the child at the kitchen table.

In recent research among parents of K–8 children, 75 percent of parents confirmed these high aspirations, saying that it’s very important for their children to get a two-year or a four-year college degree. The study by Learning Heroes, Parents 2016: Hearts & Minds of Parents in an Uncertain World, showed that this desire is even stronger among parents of color: nine in ten Hispanic parents and more than eight in ten African-American parents say the same.

But despite their dreams for and dedication to their children, most parents don’t have an accurate picture of their child’s actual academic performance or of what it takes to be ready to succeed in college. Although 90 percent of parents told us they think their children are performing at or above grade level, in fact barely a third of American students scored as proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The results for African-American and Hispanic students are much worse.

Despite this apparent disconnect, it seems that parents know at some level that their children are not really prepared: only 60 percent of parents are confident their children will be ready for college.

What can educators do about this?

As parents grapple with how to support learning at home, they must confront the many ways teaching and learning are different from their own experiences when they were in school. Many parents lack the information and tools that can help them understand where their children are on track — and where they are off track. This misperception matters.

We know that families play a critical role in their children’s academic success, and parents know it too. Forty-three percent of all parents affirmed that they are the person most responsible for their children’s success in school, well above the 16 percent who believe the teacher has the primary responsibility.

If we are serious about graduating all students from high school and making sure they are prepared for success in college and in life, then we must give parents an accurate picture of where their children are excelling, where they may be falling short, and where they can find resources that meet their children’s academic and social-emotional-cognitive needs.

To achieve this goal, I founded Learning Heroes in 2014. Since then we have listened to parents talk about their hopes, dreams, and concerns for their children, and we distilled those messages into three key insights. Communicating with parents may sound simple, but we have found that these principles are essential for making a solid connection with parents and bringing them to the table to help their children succeed.

First, make it personal. Parents care about their children first and foremost — and every child is different. Give each parent the ability to access information that’s relevant to their child’s specific age, interests, and area of need.

Next, keep it simple. Parents want information about their children’s education in clear, easy-to-understand terms. Whether it’s a flier sent home in the child’s backpack, materials about what the child is learning, or a text message from a teacher, communications must be free of “education expert” terms and jargon.

Finally, make sure it’s practical. Parents want concrete, actionable things they can do right away to support their child’s learning. Suggest that they ask a child to add up the cost of items at a grocery store. They can bring the child’s most recent state test score report to the parent-teacher conference to find out what the results mean for the year ahead. They can read to the child — a magazine article, a book, a letter.

Keep it personal, practical, and simple — effective parent communications can help the child and it also helps the parents. They will get actionable information to support the child’s academic progress and overall well-being; they will understand whether their child is at grade level and where they need to provide additional support; and they will know if their child is on track for college.

In our nation’s effort to provide a high-quality learning experience for all children, it’s time to prioritize parents as key to ensuring that success.

Bibb Hubbard is the founder of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit dedicated to providing parents with reliable information and resources about their children’s education. This essay is part of a series on parent engagement produced by the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York.