Director - Center for Universal Education
Senior Fellow - Global Economy and Development
Last week Representative Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced a resolution on the “The Bill of Rights for Students and Parents,” in public education to respond to the introduction of H.R.5, a bill titled the “Parents Bill of Rights Act,” introduced on March 1 by Republican Representative Julia Letlow of Louisiana.
These dueling proposals have different flavors, with H.R.5 focused on public transparency around education content (e.g., curriculum, library books, and teachers’ materials such as manuals and videos they may use in the classroom) and resources (e.g., school budgets and special programs like gifted and talented). It also focused on parents’ rights to participate—from meeting their students’ teachers (at least two times per year) to having their voices heard at school board meetings and in planned parent engagement activities. Bonamici’s resolution, which she introduced because she says H.R.5 “missed the mark” on what is most important to parents, focuses on the importance of inclusive public education for democracy; the bill cites the importance of providing well-rounded education that includes not just arts and humanities but attention to children’s mental health and well-being through sufficient school counselors. It too focuses on content citing the importance of teaching American history that includes both the difficult and encouraging elements and calls for school to be welcoming and supportive to all families and students including those with disabilities and belonging to the LGBTQI+ communities.
The heated debate in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce is mirrored in state capitols and school boards around the United States, which have also fiercely debated the role of parents in public education. Earlier this month, Governor Reynolds of Iowa spoke at a “Giving Parents a Voice” townhall to drum up support for a range of legislative measures giving parents more control over curriculum and school choice. Unlike the two proposals in the House, which are unlikely to become law given the divided Congress, states and school districts do have considerable power over what happens in their schools.
Relational trust is a two-way street
Using a combative approach to wage political and cultural wars on school grounds is decidedly unhelpful to the type of family-school collaboration that robust evidence shows makes education better and helps our children. This recent call to give parents a voice has largely driven what many in the media call “the new parents’ rights movement.” However, calling this recent wave of parental activism a new movement is inaccurate and misleading. This mischaracterization focuses only on the recent highly visible public showdowns and ignores the vast majority of what the existing parents’ rights movement is about and has done before.
It may come as a great surprise that before the recent book bans, masking debates, and critical race theory wars, there has been a strong movement advancing parental engagement in education for several decades. Attracting considerably less media attention than today’s dueling legislative proposals, this longstanding parents’ movement has advanced quietly over the years through the consistent work of education practitioners, parent and community groups, nonprofits, and researchers.
Parents and families can put down their weapons and show up to the discussion with schools ready to engage constructively. But in turn, educators need to step up to do their part in fostering relational trust.
My team and I at Brookings began to study this movement four years ago to understand how better collaboration between parents and community members on the one hand and teachers and schools on the other could affect students’ learning and development. What we found was a preponderance of evidence around the importance of relational trust.
In school communities where there are trusting relationships among adults—parents or caregivers, teachers, and school leaders—students do better, a lot better. In one rigorous 10-year study across hundreds of schools in the U.S, parent-school relationships that were characterized by respect, personal regard, integrity, and competence were one of the key drivers of improving academic outcomes and student well-being. Schools with low levels of relational trust went nowhere, making virtually no improvements in student learning across the decade it was studied.
Developing relational trust is decidedly a two-way street. Education decisionmakers, school leaders, and teachers need to work closely with parents and community members. But in our research at Brookings, we found that families and schools are talking past each other. We studied online education discussions across millions of social media posts and found that parents, teachers, and students are in different worlds discussing different topics among themselves and rarely engaging with each other. We surveyed thousands of parents and teachers and found that across the 17 U.S. school districts we examined, they rarely felt they were on the same page. Interestingly, parents and teachers were more aligned than they thought they were. For example, when asked about the most important purpose of school, parents and teachers did not always share the same opinion, but they believed they were much further apart than they actually were.
Everyone has a role to play in furthering family-school relationships
There is a need for deep dialogue between schools and families, a key component of building relational trust. But one of today’s biggest threats to improved family-school collaboration is the growing antagonism parents are using to engage with educators and schools. Vitriol, name calling, and personal attacks of teachers, librarians, school principals, and board members are on the rise and is a relational trust crusher. It also undermines the very goal activist parents want—more collaboration.
“I get emails telling me I belong in Guantanamo Bay,” says Mr. Peterson (not his real name), the superintendent of a rural school district in southwestern Pennsylvania, as he recounts the difficulties of navigating decisions in a purple district. It is hard to find a more dedicated educator. He has served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent throughout his career in Western Pennsylvania. Until now, he has been beloved, winning multiple awards for his service. Today, the animosity is taking a toll on him personally and he says has never faced this level of personal attack just for trying to do his job.
Schools have long been sites for where debates over changing social norms play out—from religion versus the teaching of evolution, from segregation to integration, from home economics for girls to macroeconomics for everyone, from celebrating the LGBTQ community to “Don’t Say Gay.” The way to navigate these complex differences in a pluralistic society is by deep dialogue between communities and schools, something relational trust makes possible.
To foster better family-school relationships, actors at all levels have a role to play. Parents and families can put down their weapons and show up to the discussion with schools ready to engage constructively. But in turn, educators need to step up to do their part in fostering relational trust. Teacher training institutions and the education departments that oversee them can prioritize family-school collaboration by requiring training of education professionals in effective partnership approaches (currently 70 percent do not do this).
State and districts can also put in place explicit initiatives to foster relational trust. In Connecticut, Betsy LeBorious and Veronica Marion are working with school district leaders to help make schools feel like family because, they told me, this was the best way to get parents—no matter who they are—engaged constructively with schools. As the leads of the Connecticut Welcoming Schools Initiative, a program co-developed by Connecticut’s Department of Education and the nonprofit Capitol Region Education Council, they are training school districts on an approach that involves conducting a school welcome audit by a team of family members, teachers, students, and community members. The team assesses how welcoming their school’s physical infrastructure, practices and policies, staff, and written materials are to the diversity of families in the community. They then discuss and develop an action plan to make the school more welcoming to families. Multiple studies have shown that it is low-income, immigrant, and Black and Brown families that are especially hurt by schools not feeling like a family.
At the federal level, increased funding for the U.S. Department of Education’s Statewide Family Engagement Centers, the initiative that supports Connecticut’s Welcoming School Initiative, could help expand this type of work beyond the 12 state-level centers they currently support with funding, training, and technical assistance.
State and districts leaders—and the partners they work with from parent and community groups to teacher networks—can draw on the many possible strategies for improving family-school collaboration. If they don’t know where to look, they can find inspiration in our free-to-use Brookings Strategy Finder that curates the most promising family-school engagement strategies from around the U.S. and the globe. They can also pull from promising practices in sister jurisdictions, such as Connecticut but also Colorado, which has developed a holistic framework for assessing and evaluating how districts and schools are doing in fostering family-school partnerships.
Superintendent Peterson recently used one of these strategies titled the Conversation Starter Tool, which maps the parents’, teachers’, and students’ beliefs and perceptions about education, to develop the district’s new three-year vision and plan. “I was nervous,” he confessed. But once the discussion focused on their hopes and dreams for young people, “the tension in the room dissipated” and it became productive and rewarding to chart a vision with families, students, and educators together.